The battle of the rugby hemispheres: the south can turn things around in July Tests | rugby federation


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By the end of November, the evidence seemed pretty conclusive. France and Ireland had just beaten New Zealand on successive weekends, England had toppled South Africa and Australia while Scotland and Wales had also beaten the Wallabies. Looking at the list of results, it was as if the “battle of the hemispheres” had swung decisively north.

And now? We’re about to find out if Norse smugness was premature or if it was truly a sign of the times. If Ireland won a best-of-three series in New Zealand, it would make a colossal statement. And if England, after coming through the Six Nations, inflict more misfortune on the Wallabies, it would do wonders for the confidence of Eddie Jones’ side ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

A word of caution is in order: given that the provinces of South Africa now compete in the United Rugby Championship and, quite soon, the Heineken Champions Cup, the equator is no longer such a clear dividing line as she used to be. These days, it’s even safe to say that some Welsh players have had more recent first-hand experience of the Highveld than the rugby pitches on Severn Bridge.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, let’s stick to strict geographical tradition and consider the most likely winners of a head-to-head head-to-head between the four local unions and the four Rugby Championship teams. Which means that with 12 tests scheduled over the next three weekends, the north needs to win seven before they can make any grand claims.

It’s not going to be easy, especially since Welsh ambitions in South Africa are not exorbitant. If the Lions couldn’t win a series played only at sea level last summer, what chance of a depleted Wales beating a world champion side whose strength from depth seems to be developing well? If it ends in anything other than a 3-0 win for the Springboks, Wales will see the tour as more than worthwhile.

Nor will Scotland find Argentina in a smooth and relaxed mood, with Michael Cheika now in charge and some returning top European pros involved. In 2010 Scotland won both matches in a two-Test series, but with Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Chris Harris out, they will be delighted if they can secure a 2-1 victory this time around.

All of this theoretically leaves Ireland and England needing an unprecedented five wins from their collective six Tests against the All Blacks and Wallabies. The Irish have yet to win a Test in New Zealand in their history, so even a 2-1 defeat would, relatively speaking, represent progress. With England winning 3-0 on their last tour of Australia in 2016, it would be an even bigger achievement to replicate that margin this time around.

Jonny Sexton, left, and Robbie Henshaw are hoping to inspire Ireland to a first Test victory in New Zealand. Photography: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Let’s start with Ireland, fourth in the world ranking. Along with everyone else, they will send their best wishes to all All Black coaches and players who have tested positive for Covid, but that makes the first test in Auckland all the more crucial. If New Zealand sails without head coach Ian Foster, assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod and centers David Havili and Jack Goodhue, history suggests they will stop eventually.

Whistling former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt to help improves the psychological playing field slightly, but Ireland will see no reason why they can’t be more than competitive at Eden Park. Despite all of Leinster’s recent misses in the big knockout games, there is a real green threat to New Zealand’s towering home record.

Assuming the Covid issues don’t further impact either team, it’s up front and in the air that New Zealand will need to be particularly vigilant. As demonstrated in Chicago and Dublin, an Irish team that really takes on their opponents can be nearly unstoppable. If they lost to France in Paris in the Six Nations, the 30-24 scoreline was closer than the All Blacks’ 40-25 defeat in the same arena three months earlier. New Zealand remain outstanding, but in retreat they can feel deadly.

So let’s imagine Ireland claiming a one-point win on Saturday. Their defense is good enough to imagine them difficult to subdue in both Dunedin and Wellington afterwards, particularly if red or yellow cards come into the All Black narrative. So let’s go for a 2-1 victory in the Irish series, with New Zealand having played no hard test rugby for months. It may not happen, but the potential for a historic result definitely exists.

Tom Curry punctured a gap during a training session in England ahead of their test series in Australia.
Tom Curry bursts into a training session in England ahead of their test series in Australia. Photography: James Worsfold/AAP

Which leaves England, a team currently so difficult to assess that they could either win a series against Australia 3-0 or lose it by the same margin. You fancy Australia winning a game at some point, but England, with Billy Vunipola, Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Jonny Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie all back after missing the Six Nations, have again a stronger spine. The weather in Perth is good and the anticipation for their young players is tangible. A 2-1 series win over England – with Wallaby winning in Brisbane – wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

Which would leave the unofficial North-South league table tied at six wins apiece, with a busy November Test ‘window’ ahead. The next few weeks may therefore not prove to be entirely decisive. But try to tell that to the host countries. If England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland return home with just a few wins between them, it will represent a significant revival of the south.

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