The North / South divide

The first weekend of the Rugby World Cup has confirmed fears that the Southern Hemisphere teams will dominate proceedings.

Having followed England’s stuttering build-up, I had turned to France and Ireland to try to ensure that the Web Ellis Cup remained north of the Equator, but teams from the South appear to be in much better shape.

England managed just three tries in their victory over the United States – the World Champions could not convincingly put away the side ranked 15th in the world. On this evidence, the South Africans next week will be a challenge too far, and I just hope it’s not embarrassing, whilst the Samoans will be a real threat and could prevent England progressing from the group.

In Pool B, Wales were down at half-time against Canada – another of the supposed minnows. Although they showed resolve to fight back and ultimately win comfortably, they looked scrappy, shapeless and made too many mistakes. If they make as many errors against Australia, they could be on the end of a drubbing.

The Scots scored a half-century of points against World Cup debutants Portugal, and were possibly the pick of the European nations. They scored 8 tries and always looked in control against a brave Portuguese challenge, but were still not particularly clinical against probably the weakest team in the tournament.

And then there’s the ‘Pool of Death’ where Argentina ruined the hosts’ party on the opening night and put a huge dent in the chances of the third favourites – read Stuart Peel’s article here. The other match in this pool saw Ireland looking nervous and clueless as they staggered to a 32-17 win over Namibia – the side that claims the record for the heaviest defeat at a World Cup (142-0 against Australia in 2003).

In contrast, the big three Southern Hemisphere teams were ruthless and unsympathetic in their thumping victories over lesser nations. New Zealand destroyed Italy (a far stronger team than Namibia, Portugal and USA), Australia amassed 13 tries against Japan, and South Africa dispatched Samoa by 59 points to 7. All three teams looked sharper, more aggressive and more clinical, and most importantly demonstrated a desire to win far greater than their northern hemisphere counterparts.

The fact that Scotland were the best performers says a lot about the prospects for Northern Hemisphere teams, and Argentina’s win over France confirms the growing North / South divide in rugby quality. The European nations will need to improve dramatically if they are to make any impact at all.

By James Hutchison