Historically, it is the southern hemisphere who have dominated the Rugby World Cup. Only England, in 2003, out of the northern sides have ever won the Webb Ellis Cup, whereas both Australia and South Africa have won it twice, and New Zealand a record three times.
In 2015 the gulf was as wide as ever. The Rugby Championship nations contested the semi-finals and final, and capitulations from England against Australia and Ireland against Argentina left deep scars on those sides.
Nevertheless, the current World Rankings tell a remarkable recovery story. Although New Zealand remain on top, they are followed by Wales, Ireland and England, with South Africa and Australia lying fifth and sixth respectively. Although rankings always indicate only a fraction of the truth, this shift reflects the changing dynamic in international rugby in the last four years.
Wales, for instance, have not lost to South Africa since their quarter final defeat in 2015. They are currently on a 14-game winning streak in which they have defeated Argentina twice, South Africa and Australia. They have not lost a game since Ireland on 24th February 2018, when the Irish were on their own remarkable run of results. Ireland won a series in Australia in 2018, and as part of their extraordinary string of victories, also beat South Africa and the All Blacks in Dublin. In 2017 both South Africa and Argentina were beaten, whilst New Zealand were able to avenge the 2016 defeat in Chicago only after an incredibly intense encounter. However, This year’s Six Nations saw a shocking collapse from Ireland, precipitated by England’s bruising dominance in Dublin on the first weekend.
The case of Eddie Jones England is confusing. It was suspected that they had peaked with their world record equalling run of 18 victories, including a three nil series win in Australia, before slipping to six consecutive defeats last year. As impressive as the victory in Dublin was, it was regarded by many as a shock result. However, the signs of an English revival emerge in retrospect when considering their November internationals. Beating South Africa and Australia, they ought also to have taken the All Black scalp having surrendered a 15-point lead to lose 15-16. Ireland, like England, should not be written off, and one would be unwise to bet against them both recovering peak form ahead of the World Cup.
For Scotland, they seem perennially close to maturing into a high-class test side, but perhaps lack the physicality to match the best in the world. In Finn Russel and Stuart Hogg, they have two of the worlds best, and most unpredictable, players in broken field, but erratic decision making, and lack of a stable platform, can stymie their influence.
Ultimately, it is very possible that all this success between the World Cup’s could be rendered insignificant by a failure to peak at the correct moment. South Africa have developed into a quality side once more, their results against New Zealand bear testament to this, and they are capable of beating anyone in a knockout game. For New Zealand, they remain the best side in the world, and whilst their unbeatable aura may have faded, following the Lions tour and rivalry with Irish, few can match them when they hit top gear. Australia are a disgrace off the pitch, but have quality players nonetheless, and could trouble anyone, although overall victory looks beyond them. Likewise, a spot in tenth in the World Rankings belies Argentina’s quality. The Jaguares travel more than any club team on the planet, and simple fatigue this could explain the failure to transfer their results to the national sides. Without doubt, Argentina will be dangerous come October.
The Southern Hemisphere has lost ground then., and England, Ireland and Wales all have a realistic shot at reaching the semi-finals, but quality performances between World Cup cycles are no guarantee of eventual success, as New Zealand demonstrated between 1987 and 2011.
Written by Joe Ronan