By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Four Rugby World Cup quarter finals. The southern hemisphere v the northern hemisphere. The chance for Scotland, Wales, France and Ireland to prove that they really belong among rugby union’s elite. Four defeats was disappointing for fans of those northern hemisphere teams but not entirely unexpected. With the exception of the Scots, they were all schooled (embarrassingly so in the cases of France and Ireland) by the better teams from south of the equator.
Why should this be? Why is there such a seemingly gaping chasm between the abilities of the SANZAR nations and the teams that make up the Six Nations? For the likes of England and France in particular, it’s certainly not a question of resources. Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy have a relatively small professional player pool, but have excellent facilities and access to some the best coaching available. In the cases of France and England, money might be able to buy you state-of-the-art training equipment, and it might ensure you have the richest and most competitive domestic league in the world, but it can’t seemingly guarantee success at a Rugby World Cup.
However, it has nothing to do with money. It comes down to something way simpler: skill. This weekend was stark evidence that players from the southern hemisphere have superior ball skills and tactical skills than their northern hemisphere counterparts. They exhibited one particular skill at the weekend quite brilliantly: the offload.
The offload is a vital component of attacking rugby because it doesn’t allow the opposition’s defence to reset. If a ruck is formed, even for a matter of seconds, defenders can find their positions and all momentum is lost. Offloads were directly responsible for both tries in the South Africa v Wales fixture (Duane Vermuelen’s to Fourie Du Preez was world class), at least five of New Zealand’s nine tries against France (Dan Carter’s offload for Julian Savea’s was so good it almost gave me the horn), Tommy Seymour’s try against Australia, and Jordi Murphy’s try for Ireland and Juan Imhoff’s second try for Argentina.
Now I don’t know whether this is because players get coached differently in the British Isles but there’s got to be a reason for it. What I can deduce, however, from watching the World Cup over the past month or so is that southern hemisphere sides (with the possible exception of South Africa) tend to look for space whilst those north of the equator almost seek out contact. Wales, France and England are very happy to shove the ball up their jumper and try to bash their way through the opposition. This makes it very difficult to offload to a support runner because the defence will swallow them up.
New Zealand, for example, have some of the finest rugby-playing specimens but they look to play in space and, most importantly, know how to run straight so as to draw defenders in, leaving space for fellow attackers. The support running is also superb and when you have perhaps the world’s best offloader in Sonny-Bill Williams coming off the bench against tiring defences, it is night on impossible to resist (next time the All Blacks play, watch how Williams draws two defenders but manages to keep his hands free for the offload – simply brilliant).
In Sam Burgess, England potentially have a player in the Williams mould for the future. Like Williams, Burgess comes from a Rugby League background, having been part of the victorious South Sydney team in the 2014 NRL final. Burgess is a willing and powerful runner but, unlike Williams, he runs at defences instead of trying to weave a path through, rather like Jamie Roberts or even George North. If Burgess can develop an offload game to add to his running game he will be a real asset to England.
It was not just offloading that was the difference between the southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere at the weekend. South Africa and New Zealand especially are very savvy at the breakdown. Personally, I think they get away with murder at the ruck but they seem to have found a way of slowing the ball down without getting penalised for it. And then there is that clinical edge that northern hemisphere nations lack. Wales were particularly guilty of it throughout their entire campaign (particularly against Australia). However that is not something that will or can change overnight. The ability to think and execute under pressure is almost instinctive. Until the home nations can locate that killer instinct, there will continue to be a significant north/south divide in rugby.