With the upcoming summer tours of the northern hemisphere international sides in the southern hemisphere, I feel that it is an appropriate time to identify and discuss some of the areas which may have played a part in the dominance since the turn of professionalism that has been seen by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Since the conversion of rugby union to professionalism in 1995, the three southern hemisphere sides of: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have shared an unprecedented level of dominance over the nations in the northern hemisphere. Inside World Cups, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have a 91%, 86% and 68% win rate against the Six Nation teams respectively. They have regularly won test matches against these sides as well as an unprecedented level of success with each of these sides having won two World Cups, whilst England are the only northern hemisphere side to win a World Cup.
One theory suggests that the northern hemisphere federations have focused more on the financial rewards that could be accumulated rather than the performance based aspects, particularly at the international level. This can be seen as England’s governing body had a turnover of almost £150 million, three times that of New Zealand’s £54 million, and therefore it confirms our status as the wealthiest rugby nation. Despite this greater turnover England have struggled for victories not only against New Zealand but both Australia and South Africa as well. The finances of the northern hemisphere teams is not reflected by their success, in addition to this their higher number of participation does not reflect in producing the best players in the world.
A second explanation could be the strength of national competitions such as The ITM cup in New Zealand, The Currie Cup in South Africa, The LV= Cup in England and Wales. The structure of the competitions in the New Zealand relies on the star a players being registered to both and ITM (provincial) team and a super rugby franchise, e.g. Dan Carter is registered to Canterbury and the Crusaders. In New Zealand for example Zac Guildford played first for Hawke’s Bay, then the Hurricanes and the Crusaders before appearing for the All Blacks on multiple occasions. This shows the significance the ITM cup plays in New Zealand as it provides the Super Rugby franchises with an opportunity to scout and sign players for their forthcoming season, as well as providing players with a definitive number of steps in order to achieve their ambitions of professional or international rugby union. In comparison the LV= Cup provides the professional premiership sides to field a majority of their a league players, squad players and younger academy players. The LV= Cup holds very little regard within England and Wales and is merely an opportunity to provide younger players with an opportunity to experience senior rugby.
Numerous other reasons explaining how these teams have entered into such a dominant period have been put forward, such as: playing style, physicality, mental toughness and skill level. All of these reasons represent areas where these teams might excel at in comparison to their northern hemisphere rivals. An example of this would be the final rugby championship match between South Africa and New Zealand 5th October 2013.
The physicality and intensity of the match was heightened due to the scenario and the importance of bonus points in the way the championship fell. The magnitudes of the tackles and intensity of the whole 80 minutes showed a level that was above any level that a northern hemisphere team could produce in such an environment. In addition to this some of the skills such as passing and offloads that showed extraordinary pieces of skill that you would not expect a northern hemisphere player to perform especially number 8’s as Kieran Read showed in the match highlights.
There is also clear change of increasing ruck frequency suggesting this change in game pattern the game appears to have changed from a maul dominated playing pattern to a more ruck- dominated pattern in the post professional era. The increase in rucks frequency indicates a faster, possibly more expansive game, involving significantly more back play. The aforementioned playing style would be expected to increase the number of tries scored, upon reviewing a weekend of autumn internationals in 2013, the three weekend games produced 11 tries for the three southern hemisphere teams, furthermore a review of five matches sees the southern hemisphere sides leading the tries tally 15-3. This media review shows that there was a vast difference in the playing styles and the ability to score tries between the two hemispheres and could provide a basis for the understanding how this dominance has been formed.
In Conclusion, the southern hemisphere teams possess skills and ingenuity that are unparalleled bar few in the northern hemisphere. These can be linked to methods of coaching or the upbringing and desire of players to succeed. James Haskell summed it up after his spell in New Zealand with the Highlanders stating that the Northern Hemisphere focus on brawn where as the Southern Hemisphere focus on skill.