Disclaimer: I am a ‘Southern-Hemispherian’, but have been an avid supporter of Leinster since 2009 and now that my local Cheetahs are in the Pro14 I probably enjoy it more than Super Rugby. I watch an equal amount of southern and Northern Hemisphere rugby so I hope it qualifies my opinion.
My take away from the Rugby Championship, and more specifically the mighty duel between New Zealand and South Africa, is that the game down here is now more hype and less hit.
Usually Test rugby is considered to be of a higher pace with smaller margins. The defence is up a split-second quicker which reduces the reaction time of each player. Tests are only for the best of the best because (apparently) there is so much more pressure applied. Many would argue that a Test match featuring New Zealand and South Africa is as hot an environment as you are likely to find in rugby.
Yet, in the Rugby Championship, we witnessed botched kicks, overthrown passes, silly (in a bad way) offloads and poor one-on-one defence. Penalty kicks were hardly ever taken, as you would expect in what is supposed to be a pressure-cooker environment. Come line-out time, they fling the ball to the back, presumably because it looks so awesome on TV the one in 20 times it actually comes off. Inevitably the ball is lost by the attacking team and the circus continues.
In my opinion, the Rugby Championship has become nothing but an extension of Super Rugby. Either that or these teams and players are so sick of playing one another weekend in and out that they do not take these Test matches serious anymore.
The point was driven home to me in the Loftus Test, a game in which South Africa, in true super rugby fashion, decided to make multiple changes to their side in the last 10 minutes, while simultaneously disabling their tackle button (something the Cheetahs perfected.)
I mean seriously – circa 2009 the Boks became so efficient at closing out games that this DNA now permeates every schools team in the country. Yet somehow the national team has lost that ‘institutional memory?
Straight after the game I tuned into the Pro 14 derby between Leinster and Munster. Suddenly this felt like a Test match. The breakdown contests were really brutal, as opposed to brutal because the commentators say so.
Neither backline had any space and it required lightning-fast hand speed to create the smallest of line-breaks. It was an almighty battle for every inch.
This weekend the same thing played out when Munster met Exeter in the Heineken Cup. The match was played in a gale-force wind with each team pulling out every trick in the book to break the other’s defence.
I think this is what Rassie Erasmus meant when he said that Northern Hemisphere rugby better prepares players for Test rugby. It has nothing to do with the talent and athleticism of players. In this regard the south will for a while still trump the north. Instead it’s about the rivalry between teams and travelling fans.
Remember, due to its vast geography, Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship are both in essence television-only competitions, with very few fans able to follow their team abroad. As a result, the live experience is augmented with Zulu dancers and haka’s and fireballs and all kinds of TV trickery.
This approach in my opinion has now spilled onto the playing field, where after every fake scuffle you see locks and props employing the same tough-guy smile at the opposition. Where rugby up north resembles heavyweight boxing, Southern Hemisphere rugby is more WWE.
The one thing still saving the south is our reputation. Teams up north still fear us based on history, and this factor alone contributes around 10 points per game in our favour. However, once the north realises what an overhyped clown-show southern rugby has become, we are cooked.
They already have superior resources, not to mention a more favourable player environment. Now they have become really good at the game and play a type of rugby that creates great Test players. Something has to give.
I have never taken seriously the pre-World Cup blabber that the north has overtaken the south, but after this year’s Rugby Championship I am not so sure anymore. I honestly believe that Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales has the beating of any one of the southern powerhouses at the minute, and that includes New Zealand.
Japan 2019 might represent a massive tipping point in rugby union.
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