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Monday, 1 November 2010

Can the Six Nations fight Southern fire with fire?

Henry Salmon

For as long as I am able to recall, I have listened to the good and the great in rugby wax lyrical about the standard of the game in the southern hemisphere. In terms of style, there is a perceived gulf in class between the rugby played by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and that of the Six Nations. After England’s success at the 2003 World Cup – a tournament they won as favourites – many pundits still criticised their tactics and suggested the best team in the competition was probably the All Black side defeated in the semi-finals.

In truth, watching Australia vs. New Zealand and England vs. France in 2003, it would be difficult to argue the case for the latter match as the more exciting. England won it (in drab conditions) thanks to the tireless endeavour of their forwards and the boot of Mr. Wilkinson. It was slow and predictable, contrasting starkly from the open encounter eventually won by the Wallabies. New Zealand further proved their credentials as rugby's most exciting side in the 3rd place play off, putting France to the sword with a string of breathtaking trys.

Exciting though, doesn't necessarily mean better. Before almost every World Cup, New Zealand are touted as one of the strong favourites (if not bookmakers favourite) arriving at tournaments on the back of impressive wins against most sides in the draw. Their flamboyance makes their games the most eagerly awaited worldwide. However, for all their attacking flair and perceived dominance, they haven't won a world cup since its inaugural year in 1987. France are another side heralded as enigmatic talents but who have also never won the most coveted trophy in Rugby.

In contrast, England's successful side of 2003, and to a certain extent South Africa's 2007 winners, won on the back of rugby's truest clich√©: “Forwards win matches, backs decide by how much.” For England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, this is the basic mantra to the game. All four are built around the strength of their forwards to create opportunities to accrue points via boot or try. When correctly implemented, with a strong defence, playing this way is hugely effective.

Considering all of this, it may come as a surprise to you when I say that this will not be enough in the autumn tests starting Saturday – or at the world cup next year. I was fortunate enough to watch all 80+ minutes of Saturday's contest between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong. It was one of the most thrilling and evenly fought matches I have seen in any sport, with the fantastic extra-time climax. The standard of rugby on show was at times breathtaking, with neither side willing to relinquish possession by resorting to a kicking game, and keeping the ball in hand even within the confines of their own 22. The quality of handling on both sides resulted in phase after phase of attacking rugby which was only prevented from turning into a try-fest by the quality of both sides defence.

This is nothing new though. Many southern hemisphere sides have displayed such feats of excellence without converting them into world cup successes. It is worth adding that neither side was without fault: both made numerous errors in terms of turnovers, penalties conceded and wasteful kicking – particularly when the Australians kicked from hand.

The reason I fear for the northern hemisphere sides is the quality both sides showed at the breakdown. Richie McCaw has been commanding at the ruck for years but in David Pocock, Australia have their own McCaw and all eight members of both packs showed enormous levels of skill and savvy on the floor. Their backs too showed willingness and adeptness in protecting the ball and counter-rucking. The result was regular quick ball and the aforementioned turnovers and penalties.

Previously, England in particular have been able to control the breakdown and stifle the attacking threats of the more creative southern hemisphere back lines. If they play this way during the autumn, they will be embarrassed.

I don't think any of the northern hemisphere sides will beat any of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this autumn. However, I think they can prepare for the world cup and give themselves a chance if they play attacking rugby and try to take on their southern opponents on in all areas. The only way they will force mistakes is if they compete in all areas. If they kick the ball away – they will live to regret it.

Of the northern hemisphere sides, I feel it is England who have the best chance at next year’s world cup. Their backs seem to have the right blend of youth and experience, while their forwards will be bolstered by the long awaited return of Andrew Sheridan. Will they break the mould and attack? Who knows.

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