16 Sep

It's not a gap, it's a chasm
by Tracey Nelson
16 Sep 2007

What we’ve been suspecting for the last 18 months now seems to be pretty clear – the gap between the home unions and their southern hemisphere counterparts has widened to the point where you could almost split the current Rugby World Cup pool teams into three divisions.

The total demolition of the reigning World Champions, England, by a rampant South African team that still managed to play within themselves to keep England scoreless throughout the 80 minutes was best summed up by Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times when he wrote "England obviously never expected to win, and they did not know how to play".

What has become glaringly obvious in the opening 10 days of the 2007 RWC is that the Southern Hemisphere teams are quite simply bigger, better and faster than their northern counterparts, with the possible exception of France should they decide to turn up at this tournament.

The few attempts at attacking play by the northern unions are simply read and immediately nullified by the southern teams. Everything the northern sides do can be done better and faster by the southern sides. Tactical nous, ability to see and use space, put players into the gap, produce quick ball at the breakdown, offload the ball, kick for territory, organise the line both on attack and defence – all are executed more efficiently and ruthlessly by New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and even Argentina (as they showed by toppling the host nation France in the opening game of the tournament).

Watching England fumble their way through their opening game against the minnow USA team did not bode well for their chances against South Africa, and so it proved as they failed to score any points at all at Stade de France. There did not appear to be any sort of gameplan, they were sluggish, their attack was impotent, and most of the players didn’t even really look like they wanted to be there.

For all the snorting and derision aimed at the Super 14 competition, and the continued vehemence from the UK press that the club game in Europe is the better and stronger competition, the proof of the pudding is here for all to see. It seems blindingly obvious the only reason the rugby is good in the northern club competition is because of the injection of southern hemisphere imports over the last 5 to 10 years. Take out the imports and suddenly you’re left with something decidedly less talented.

The problem being faced by the UK game is that by importing overseas players to play in key positions such as the loose forwards, halfback and 1st 5/fly half they are leaving themselves dangerously empty of their own player development and this has come back to bite. It is desperately awful if not tragic at times to watch teams like England and Wales get the ball out to their backline only to see a potential scoring opportunity botched because their backs can not use the width of the field to put players into space, or to see a tight forward spill the ball in a counter attack because he simply doesn’t have the ball skills.

Despite the growing number of top players heading to the UK and Europe from New Zealand and South Africa, we continue to churn out top players because our governing unions had the foresight to keep control of the game and the players. Sure, we may not have the money to prevent players from heading to the northern hemisphere, but at least we are continuing to nuture the game and the developing talent in our own back yards via the player academies, and as one generation leaves the next generation is there to fill the gap. Someone suggested the other night that both New Zealand and South Africa could gather a second WC squad beyond the one they already have here and end up with two teams each in the quarter finals, and I’m inclined to agree given what we’ve seen so far.

There are now calls from many over here that it’s time for England to have a Southern Hemisphere coach, some are even suggesting Graham Henry – but the truth is that it will take more than a Great Redeemer to remedy the cancer that has spread into English and UK rugby. It’s not so much a coaching dilemma but a lack of understanding and feeling for the game that has made it’s way into rugby on this side of the world. Until they get their heads around this, even the best coaches in the world are not going to be able to change it.

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