Tri-Nations stranglehold a potential problem for rugby
Northern hemisphere hopes are raised at the start of every November but by the end of the month it has usually become crystal clear that the Tri-Nations’ stranglehold on world rugby remains as tight as ever.
Already, after the opening exchanges produced a 3-0 sweep for the south last Saturday, the imbalance is there for all to see.
Rugby’s problem, with so few major national teams playing the game, is that it will not be long before fans just get bored with the same old same old.
New Zealand were not exactly comfortable in beating England at Twickenham but they did win by 10 points and always seemed able to add to their tally whenever the hosts drew close.
Australia, despite again looking weak in the scrum, brushed past Wales 25-16 while South Africa shook off a dire Tri-Nations campaign to beat Ireland much more convincingly than the 23-21 scoreline suggests.
Those wins meant that since 2005, in all fixtures, the Tri Nations v Six Nations scoreboard stands at 79-16 in the former’s favour.
Six of the northern wins belong to France, though, in balance, 12 of the defeats – out of 12 contests – belong to Italy.
When it comes to the November tours, when the southern teams are supposed to be weary at the end of the season, New Zealand’s record is particularly impressive, having not lost a November tour game since England beat them in 2002.
There have been hiccups for the others, with the Springboks losing three times to Ireland, England and Wales beating Australia a few times between them and France taking southern scalps usually when it is least expected, but the trend is clear.
What is not so clear, and is a subject for never-ending pub debate, is why.
It certainly seems to have little to do with the timing of the two playing seasons, as the southern teams are equally dominant on home soil in June and July when it is their turn to be rusty and the Europeans either weary or battle-hardened, depending on your outlook.
One calendar-related argument that does seem to hold a little water is the fact that the southern teams usually get first crack at the regular changes of laws and interpretation issued by the IRB and that by the time they come north in November they have months of practice while northern players are still coming to terms with them.
That, though, is clutching at straws.
It is easy to understand why New Zealand continues to churn out so many great players and great teams as the entire country seems geared towards rugby and, importantly, ensuring the best All Blacks team possible.
That is hardly the case in Australia, however, where rugby has to fight for its players amid rugby league and Australian rules. Or South Africa, where soccer still has first call on vast swathes of the population.
True, soccer will always attract the majority of Europe’s youth but the playing base in England in particular is vast.
The Rugby Football Union now has all it ever wanted in terms of player release, rest, monitoring and guidance of up and coming players as well as huge financial resources to ensure the very best of everything is available.
Yet England are still regularly beaten by the Tri-Nations giants, just as they always were before Clive Woodward briefly turned things round.
It is becoming predictable and, in many cases, dull.
As the vast swathes of empty seats in Dublin and Cardiff showed on Saturday, fans are no longer prepared to pay huge ticket prices to see their teams get beaten again by the same old opposition.
Unless the northern teams can rouse themselves to start winning a few more of these matches and unless or until some other “developing” countries step up to the plate, international rugby is going to have to face up to a real problem.
PHOTO: New Zealand’s Richie McCaw lifts the Hillary Trophy after winning a friendly international against England at Twickenham, November 6, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh.