With New Zealand gaining a clean sweep of world rugby in 2013 and Wales failing to topple any of the Southern Hemisphere big three so far this year and last, it looks like the Northern hemisphere is again struggling to keep up with the southern hemisphere dashing off into the distance of excellence.
Once more the north failed in its bid to turnover the southern hemisphere giants in their own backyard, at times England came valiantly close but were blown away in the second and third test by a level of skill and accuracy that they could not live with. Wales tragically fell short to South Africa too being outmuscled and outclassed. Yet one wonders if the All Blacks went in leading England at half time or if South Africa had had that 17-0 gap against Wales would they have squandered such a golden opportunity?
However all could be changing, Ireland came seconds away from shattering kiwi hopes, and of course only a year ago the Lions not only toppled the Aussies but blew them away in the final Test. The future looks bright for the northern hemisphere. England U20 retained the junior world championship, while the year before they had overcome Wales in an all Northern Hemisphere final. There are hopes that this junior success can translate to national success, following on from the incredible production line that the Baby Blacks had developed with the likes of Aaron Cruden and Julian Savea former Junior World Championship players.
It seems a generation of players may well be arising in the Northern hemisphere that could be the envy of the South here’s just a few that could light up the north, south and the whole rugby world…
At only 18 he cut open Leicester’s defence in the Heineken Cup and just over a year later he broke English hearts with a last gasp try at the Stade de France. Fickou is exceptionally talented with excellent footwork, pace and an enchanting dummy that is too tempting not to fall for. All at the tender age of 20 suggests that Fickou, who has already played for his country, could become a star in the centre for years to come and alongside the majestic Wesley Fofana could scythe open even the most water tight defences of the Southern Hemisphere.
The 20 year old full back has been hyped up in recent months following his rapid rise from talented London Irish prospect to England squad member following his move to Bath, and this hype has been for good reason. Electric speed combined with scintillating footwork leave defenders in awe, as his try against the Crusaders proved. His coach at Bath Neal Hatley summed it up best in saying he ‘has world-class ability’, says it all really…
To say Jordan Williams has magical footwork as a twinkle-toed wing or full-back could be one of the greatest understatements about a rugby player’s potential. He can change direction in a flash, weaving and darting around defenders. His break against the Baby Blacks in the Junior World cup beating the whole pack before darting half the field just proves the point. The little Welsh Wizard draws instant comparisons with Shane Williams, with a solid kicking game and skill set he made an impression with a double in the Probables vs Possibles game in May.
The 19 year-old lock is touted as Steve Borthwick’s successor at Saracens, having already led the England U20s to their Junior World Championship success this year, the young abrasive lock appears to have a glittering career ahead of him. He managed a run out for Saracens in the final round of the Aviva Premiership in which he scored a try, no mean feat considering the opposition was Leicester! More first team experience could see Maro push on for a place in the Saxons and no doubt the full England set up sooner rather than later. In a couple of years its likely he will be breathing down the neck of Launchbury and Lawes in the English engine room.
Italy have often struggled for flair and skill in the backline, unable to unlock defences so Campagnaro may be the centre to finally make the most of their infamous pack. He scored two excellent tries on debut against Wales. Every time he collected the ball there was a sense that something could happen, which is something rarely said of an Italian player. Hopefully he will provide Italy with a spark that can help the Italians challenge the rest of the world even more.
Alongside these rising stars the northern hemisphere can already boast some proven young talent that seem to have been in the international arena for a lifetime, and who still have years of potential to grow into true world beaters….
It is hard to believe North is only 22 with 42 Wales caps and 18 tries alongside 3 Test caps for the Lions and 2 more tries including that try that blew the Wallabies away in the first Test. North is already regarded as a world-class performer and although he had a quite average Summer tour by his standards it is understandable after essentially playing two seasons without pause, including a successful Six Nations campaign, a Lions tour and two finals for Northampton. Still only 22 North has his whole career ahead of him and it is quite incredible to think how much this speedy powerhouse could achieve.
At 23 with 24 caps and an appearance for the Lions as a substitute, as a man plagued by injury of recent that is no mean feat. Many saw Tuilagi as key to why Leicester failed to reach their tenth successive premiership final. Without his pace, power and wrecking-ball ability any attack is significantly blunted and while Niki Goneva filled in admirably; I certainly know I’d rather face a team with just one of them in! While many have questioned his distribution skills Tuilagi has shown freak-of-nature strength on numerous occasions as well as a scary turn of pace for such a large man. While he is slowly adding deft offloads to his game, as he demonstrated in setting up the break for Ashton’s try in the Second Test against the All Blacks this summer. If he can stay injury free and be playing for club and country on a regular basis whether at 12 or 13 you feel he will become the envy of all Southern hemisphere centre partnerships.
Seen as the shining light of Scottish rugby, while he fell out of favour with club at the end of the season he surged back into form for the Scots under new coach Vern Cotter scoring 2 tries, invaluable for a team often lambasted for their inability to cross the whitewash. Hogg’s versatility, having played at fly half, centre, wing and full back, also reflect his glittering skill set. I remember his debut at 19 as a substitute against Wales where he left Jamie Roberts stationary as he ghosted round him with his footwork, while everyone can recall his length of the field interception against Italy. The fact he regularly provides the spark in an often lacklustre team shows how devastating a talent Hogg is and at only 22 still has years of international rugby ahead of him.
It seems clear that the Northern hemisphere is beginning to produce a cohort of players that could go on to really challenge southern hemisphere nations. However, while these individuals could all be superstars a lot depends on their team. I often wonder if Tuilagi had played for the All Blacks whether he would have a more rounded game like that of Ma’a Nonu and would be even more deadly, being used not only as a battering ram but a distributor and dummy runner. Likewise if Hogg found himself in the backline of any of the Southern Hemisphere team with other magicians around him you can only dream of the devastation he could cause. While the Southern Hemisphere continues to churn out stars at an equal rate, Handre Pollard was named IRB Junior Player of the Year at this year’s Junior World Championship, before the 20-year-old fly half went on to make his debut for South Africa against Scotland the week after. Likewise Tevita Li, only 19, tore defences apart and is already playing in the Super 15 for the Aukland Blues.
So although the Northern Hemisphere is beginning to produce players that can really match the best of the Southern Hemisphere, Northern Hemisphere teams also need to begin to match them for skill, fitness and organisation before these players can really prove themselves against the best. England’s current success in the past Junior World Championships suggests concerted improvements by Northern hemisphere teams but this improvement must continue as these youngsters develop if it is to translate onto the international stage. Since still in New Zealand this Summer the great divergence in class between England and the All Blacks, the Northern and Southern hemisphere was most worryingly revealed in Hamilton.
So can you see the Northern hemisphere mounting a concerted challenge on the Southern Hemisphere teams in the next few years and who might be the stars mounting this challenge?