Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.
As all the players who have contributed to a bruising stretch of 6 nations rugby return to their clubs to either celebrate, or lick their wounds, we, sat exhausted on our sofas, have the luxury of being able to draw breath. What an enthralling tournament we’ve witnessed, bubbling with curious sub-plots that the southern hemisphere will undoubtedly have had one eye on. The Scottish resurgence, the Irish rear-guard, the Italians’ dissimilar tactics and the impressive English team who proved that old habits still die hard. Many talking points to sit in the pub and reflect upon, but as we zoom out from 6 Nations drama, where does this leave northern hemisphere rugby?
Currently, four of the top six sides in the world are from the north, with England leading the charge. Sitting on top of the pile, quite predictably and deservedly, are World Champions the All Blacks. If Northern Hemisphere rugby is sailing along nicely, by comparison its equivalent south of the equator has hit rocky waters. Due to the imposition of a race-based quota system, South African rugby is on the verge of free-fall, and threatening to join the also-rans. Australia are equally as unimpressive, playing with little consistency, leaving New Zealand to prop up the SANZAAR.
Australia gave everything against a rampant England side and came up second best every time, losing a series in their backyard, 3-0. The Springboks were on the wrong end of results against Wales and England, not to mention a quite unforgivable loss to the Italians. Take all of this into consideration, and you’d say the home-union teams are in great shape, even if they have sometimes been made to look less than that by opponents in, err, equally great shape.
Having dismantled all opposition in the 2016 Rugby Championship, apparently New Zealand are playing ok, too. Really, this highlights the gulf in quality between the All Blacks and the rest of the southern hemisphere, but could they become a victim of their own success? Ireland proved that quality, propelled by organisation and sheer grit, could and can, topple a complacent All Blacks team.
Down in New Zealand, it’s unclear whom they see as their main threat. All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen speaks highly of England’s achievements, while Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald, says it is Ireland, rather than “stilted” and “overrated” England, who stand as the closest challenger.
“England – with one victory in the last 15 Tests against New Zealand – are light years away from living up to the hype,” he continued.
Unfortunately for them both, their next sizable opponents will be a combination of all the home nations. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and have raised the bar, dragging each other to standards unthinkable in years gone by and kicking any doubts that they can compete at the top level, into touch.
Rugby in Europe may not be as rosy as many make out, but alongside the annual Six Nations excitement there are also record crowds and growing enthusiasm at domestic level. This was reflected in bumper attendances for regular Premiership fixtures throughout the season, and similar interest on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Add to that wall-to-wall broadcast and press coverage, as well as strong commercial and sponsorship support for professional as well as community rugby, and there are plenty more positives than negatives.
So, to revert back to my earlier question, how have we progressed? Well, we don’t really know yet, but the hecklers from down under are certainly laying down the gauntlet, and when you’ve got something to prove, there’s nothing greater than a challenge. That challenge comes in the shape of a Lions tour of New Zealand. Simply put, it doesn’t come any bigger than that.
By Alex Mills