The 2015 Rugby World Cup final will be contested by New Zealand and Australia on Halloween. This is probably a scary thought for those with commercial interests who would clearly have benefited from a northern presence, but it was also the most predictable scenario for those filling in the wall-charts and predicting the passage of teams to this point.
Despite the hype around host nation England before the tournament began, history suggested that the champions were always more likely to come from the southern hemisphere. Australia (1991 and 1999) and South Africa (2007) have ruled the roost in the three world cups that have taken place on the northern side of the equator. As it turned out, England did not even progress past the group stages.
New Zealand remains favourite to become the first team to retain a world cup, and could represent a fitting international finale for the durable captain Richie McCaw. This year is the first time that no northern hemisphere nation was represented in the semi-finals. This has inevitably led to fingers being pointed and questions being asked as to why the southern hemisphere is so much better.
Level playing field?
I suggested before the tournament began that there would be some “cricket scores” and that a number of teams would easily surpass the first-innings score of Australia in the fourth test of the 2015 Ashes series.
The continued development of the tier-two rugby nations such as Japan, Georgia and Fiji meant that Australia’s 60-run total was only equalled or passed on five occasions.
The gap in playing standards is definitely narrowing. This is a positive development, but we must also acknowledge that there is still much work to be done to ensure that a more level playing field is in place in future. In a World Cup branded as “England 2015”, both Fiji and Uruguay had to face Wales in Cardiff. It was a pity that after their heroics against South Africa, Japan had to take on Scotland just four days later.
Japan’s defeat of South Africa will long be remembered as one of the most exciting matches ever, but the status quo was soon restored and the usual suspects made up the quarter-finalists.
Argentina impressed many with an open and exciting style of play in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, but this was really no surprise. We have tracked their emergence from the periphery of international rugby to challenge the established core, a process which saw them become the first country outside of the eight foundation nations to make it to the semi-finals of a World Cup in 2007.
Of the northern hemisphere core powers, Scotland and Wales were knocked at about the stage most would have predicted, but did so with heads held high. The French were comprehensively dismantled by New Zealand and Ireland lost to Argentina. And we all know what happened to England.
This has inevitably led to a review of what went wrong and is remarkable only for the fact that on a five-man committee appointed to investigate this, they have managed to find four men called Ian. The fact that the other member of the group is named Ben points to either a shortage of ink in the Twickenham printer cartridges or a very quick game of scrabble.
Great southern lands
What we can see as we approach the final weekend of a most enjoyable and entertaining tournament is that the continued hegemony of the southern hemisphere shows little sign of abating.
The only north-versus-south victory in the whole tournament was Japan’s win over South Africa. With Japan hosting the 2019 tournament we may finally be moving slowly towards a further internationalisation of the sport.
Australia could complete a clean sweep of world cups hosted in the UK to regain some bragging rights in the international sporting arena. That they will meet their old foes New Zealand in a world cup final for the first time makes this a much anticipated occasion, although a 4pm GMT kick-off time is not that popular with either side. Whatever the result, one of these teams will make history this weekend as the first ever to win three world cups.
How to solve the conundrum of why the southern hemisphere nations keep winning the world cup is something that the Ian quartet (and Ben) will surely discuss. Whatever the outcome of this review and assessments across the other northern hemisphere nations, the smart money will be on more of the same in 2019.