Southern heavyweights still rule the roost
One win out of a dozen matches underlines the customary gap
Ireland have never come closer to beating the All Blacks and, indeed, probably couldn’t have come any closer without winning. We don’t need to remind ourselves of the details again.
Suffice to say, it would have been the result of this November window and, arguably, any other November window, given the All Blacks are the reigning World champions, back-to-back Rugby Championship winners and were completing a 14th win from 14 games this year to leave them with one loss in 35 Tests.
Yet it was another dismal autumnal window for the Six Nations, worse than any in recent memory, against the Southern Hemisphere big three, namely New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
In a dozen Tests between the Six Nations and the Tri Nations, as it were, the Europeans managed one win. England’s somewhat fortuitous 20-13 victory over Australia at Twickenham on the first Saturday of the month hinged on three erroneous decisions going in the home side’s favour.
This is the worst November record since the 2003 World Cup, overshadowing even the modest haul of one win and 10 defeats in 2008.
Every year we ask: is the gap getting any closer? And every year we are provided with the same answer: no. Indeed, all the bare evidence suggests the gap is, if anything, growing wider, and this after the Lions’ first series win in 16 years.
Since the 2003 World Cup, the combined might of France, Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and Italy have hosted the Southern Hemisphere triumvirate 89 times in the November- December window. The tally now reads 19 wins, two draws and a faintly ridiculous 68 defeats.
No matter how you view it, the statistics make grim reading for the Europeans. In 2004 they managed three wins out of 11 Tests, ie won 3, lost 8. Thereafter the win-draw-loss record reads: 2005: 4-0-6; 2006: 3-1-7
2008: 1-0-10; 2009: 3-1-7
2010: 2-0-10 ; 2011: 0-0-1
2012: 2-0-9; 2013: 1-0-11
Of the Six Nations, France boast the best record in that time, with five wins and eight defeats in 13 matches. Ireland have four wins, one draw and eight defeats. England have six wins and 14 losses, Wales two wins, one draw and 17 defeats, Scotland two wins and 12 defeats with Italy losing all nine.
The excuses we make for the Northern Hemisphere teams when on tour in the Southern Hemisphere in June – end of a long, hard season against fresher opponents etc, etc – become a strength for the Tri Nations heavyweights in November. The Wallabies completed a five-match tour of London, Turin, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff last Saturday, in what was their 15th Test since June.
They have had five months together almost without a break. Yet, when they were rocked on their heels by a cruel bounce and the concession of a try inside the opening minute and a half and soon 13-3 down, far from being cowed the Wallabies came back with their newfound confidence and stunning brand of inventive, Quade Cooper-inspired gain-line rugby to open up Wales, making 13 clean line breaks to seven.
For Wales, this was a ninth defeat in a row to Australia despite being the bulk suppliers to the Lions Test series win, with six of the last seven by no more than a score and the last four by four points or less.
Indeed the margins, as Ireland discovered a week before, are often tiny, and it’s not as if the Southern Hemisphere big three tend to base their wins on set-piece dominance or even bullying their opponents at the breakdown or in the collisions.
However, in one key respect, the gulf between the hemispheres remains enormous: scoring tries. In the dozen head-to-heads of the past five weeks, the Tri Nations have scored 35 tries to the Six Nations’ 13.
Generating lightning-quick ball is a factor, but the skill sets at a high tempo when in the opposition 22, the alertness of where the space is off turnover ball and the willingness to apply width, is, by and large, inestimably better.
Saturday’s cracking game in Cardiff illustrated the point.
Wales possessed in George North a gamebreaker akin to the phenomenally athletic Israel Folau which, along with their unwavering self-belief, hauled them back into the match. But they had no X-factor, or Cooper factor, and arguably none of the Six Nations possess it, although then again the restored outhalf is possibly the most creative player in the world.
From the nadir of their third Test defeat to the Lions and the harsh learning curve that was the Rugby Championship against the rampant All Blacks and South Africa, under Ewen McKenzie the Wallabies still have their flaws, but they are the coming team. Accordingly, that trio finish the year as the world’s top three ranked sides.
At the half-way point between World Cups, the North v South collisions have particular relevance. Of course, in one-off games, as the Ireland-New Zealand game perhaps best illustrated and as Ireland showed against Australia in the last World Cup, the Europeans are always capable or rising to the occasion in a World Cup pool match or a knock-out tie.
Two years out from RWC 2015 in England though, little about the events of the past five weeks would disabuse you of the notion that the Southern Hemisphere big three are as strongly positioned as ever to claim their seventh William Webb Ellis trophy out of eight and their fourth out of four in Europe.