Thursday, 1 December 2016

Is rugby union's north/south divide closing?

All four semi-finalists in the 2015 Rugby World Cup were from the southern hemisphere. Of the eight champions since it began in 1987 there has been only one winner from the northern hemisphere. 10 of the 16 finalists have been from the south, as have 19 out of 32 semi-finalists.

In other words, the southern hemisphere teams, mainly New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, have dominated world rugby over the last thirty years. England's victory in 2003 stands alone as a beacon of northern hemisphere success, with two second places their next best, an achievement matched by France three times. Wales did come third in 1987 when they beat Australia with a last gasp conversion, but they have only beaten Australia once since then. Their victory over South Africa in 2014 was their first since 1999, and they haven't beaten the All Blacks since 1953. Scotland have never beaten New Zealand, and Ireland hadn't either until this autumn.

However, 2016 has been a different story. England whitewashed the Aussies 3-0 in their own backyard in the summer, and Ireland became the first northern hemisphere team to beat all three big southern sides in the same calendar year, including their first ever victory over New Zealand. Scotland came within a point of beating Australia, and Wales recorded another victory over South Africa. Even Italy chipped in with their first ever victory over South Africa.

This has all been reflected in the world rankings, which now sees northern hemisphere teams in three of the top five places. With the seedings for the 2019 World Cup to be based on world ranking next May, there could be some favourable draws for the northern hemisphere sides.

England complete the autumn international series on Saturday when they take on Australia at Twickenham. The Wallabies will be desperate for revenge after their thrashing in the summer, but on current form (England have won all of their last 12 matches) most punters would back another victory for the north over the south.