Northern Hemisphere Rugby Closing The Gap
With the British & Irish Lions having touched down following an enthralling drawn series in New Zealand, the analysis of the series for both the home and away sides, will continue long into the summer. One thing that is apparent, is the bridging of ‘a gap’ for Northern Hemisphere Rugby.
Were the Lions lucky? Have the All Blacks been overhyped? Regardless of the answer to either of these questions, one thing is abundantly clear – Northern Hemisphere rugby has closed the gap on their Southern counterparts.
The joy on players faces (see main picture), fans reaction and the lauding of the result across the Rugby World, brings smiles to the faces of fans of the game up North.
World Rugby Rankings – The Stats Do Not Lie
As recently as 2014, the top three of the IRB [World Rugby] rankings usually contained two Southern Hemisphere sides, with Ireland or England a fair distance behind in the third spot.
Yet it feels like there has been a massive swing in the last 12 months; the Irish finally defeated the All Blacks in Chicago; the Scots finally ended their hoodoo against the Wallabies in Sydney last month, and even an underperforming Wales put the Springboks to the sword in the Autumn.
England were unbeaten in 18 matches – a feat usually only seen from the New Zealand indomitable side. Eddie Jones has boosted their status and enterprising brand of game, that saw England Internationals shine on the British and Irish Lions tour.
Nice to see Ireland up to 3rd place in the World Rugby Rankings.
This was due to Australia losing to Scotland twice. Congratz to Scotland. pic.twitter.com/mjjLxJIXWO
— Austin O Keeffe (@AOKCafe) June 20, 2017
Now, the top three is made up of the All Blacks, who are very closely followed by both England and Ireland.
Complacency Of All Blacks – Largely Untested?
Before the series, it was all set. The All Blacks were widely predicted to whitewash a Lions side who some believed would be under prepared, and unable to handle the free-scoring Kiwi back line. Except it didn’t quite work out like that.
In fact, the typically strong Northern Hemisphere rugby scrum was not as all-conquering as expected. Oddly enough, the Lions strength was when working the ball wide to their skilful and efficient back three. That was shown perfectly in the exquisite Sean O’Brien score in the first test.
Why is this? The truth is that although the All Blacks had a 30-point winning average in the last 12 months prior to the Lions’ arrival, they had only been seriously tested twice in the same time frame.
Then, against the Irish in Chicago, they were defeated in a ‘near-perfect performance’ from the men in green. Then again, the Lions in the last month. The fact that they haven’t faced the next most in-form side in the world – Eddie Jones’ England (and won’t until 2018) – the All Blacks went most of 2014 and 2015 playing against sides horribly out of form.
Rugby Championship Nations Stagnant Since 2015
Argentina are still struggling to improve on their impressive 2015 World Cup showing. They have not converted that entirely into Rugby Championship form. And the South Africans are on the wane.
In fact, in 2016 the Springboks lost eight of their twelve fixtures in a calendar year for first time in their history. In that time, they conceded an embarrassing 57 points at home to the All Blacks in October. Losing to Argentina and Wales, it was their equivalent annus horribilus.
On top of this, Australia are a shadow of the side that stylishly made their way to the 2015 RWC final. Comfortably whitewashed by England last summer (both home and away). Worst of all recently, the Wallabies lost in Sydney to an injury and Lions-depleted Scotland side in June.
2017 Lions Tour Rewarded – Home Nations in Positive Positions
The debate over the drawn Lions series will continue, but from the result shows one thing is clear – the All Blacks will have some challengers from the Northern Hemisphere rugby, to make it three World Cups in a row at Japan 2019.
The likelihood is that the game in the British Isles is in a growth period. The four home nations have developed a confidence, which the Lions result has now boosted. Warren Gatland (see picture below) has been redeemed as a coach, and he will challenge all visitors in November, to steal his seat.
Joe Schmidt too re-signed with Ireland, and his men’s confidence is high. By the time of the November fixtures; against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, the Northern Hemisphere rugby balloon may be lifted even higher.
Gregor Townsend takes over Scotland, and he will use the confidence from Sydney to again face the Wallabies in November.
And then Eddie Jones….does he need anymore confidence? His group suffered a single loss in 2017, so he will not want to add to that number. A powerful motivator, there is no doubt that the Lions performance encouraged his men too. Owen Farrell is now a true contender for ‘Player of the Year’. As is Maro Itoje [Breakthrough Player of the Year 2016].
The rewards for Northern Hemisphere rugby were immense after the June Internationals. The Lions built-in a more solid foundation, which every single nation can be proud of. Reflected in world rugby rankings currently. Each still have a way to go, in catching the All Blacks but the ambitions of United Kingdom sides is much more positive today.
“Main photo credit”