The emphasis on club rugby in the northern hemisphere has led to the downfall of its international scene.
For years, the Southern Hemisphere sides consisting of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have dominated the World Rugby stage. This is nothing new to the majority of rugby enthusiasts. However, the gap was beginning to narrow as the game in the Northern Hemisphere developed.
The 2003 World Cup win for England was seen as a massive development in this regard. They backed it up again with another World Cup Final appearance in 2007. Unfortunately, we have failed in the last few years to finally close that gap and it appears that Europe has found itself in a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario.
A large proportion of this blame can be directed towards the LNR (Ligue Nationale de France) and PRL (Premier League Limited). The fiasco that brought the Heineken Cup to an end illustrated the greed of the French and English clubs. However, it also displayed an element of ignorance and lack of insight on their behalf.
European Club Rugby, now acting as a retirement home for Southern Hemisphere players to come and play out the rest of their days with lucrative pay deals, has made the International game suffer. It has made it increasing more difficult for young players to emerge onto the club scene at present. Toulon has won the last three titles in the European Championship and it looks inevitable that they will win again next May. One only has to look at their team sheet to back up the above arguments.
There has been much talk lately about tier two European sides catching up to tier one sides. Georgia in particular has been shouting to be given a place on the Six Nations roster. Much praise has been given to the likes of this Georgia side but how fast are they progressing and is it, in fact, a case of Tier One teams deteriorating or development slowing down?
The Six Nations is highly competitive each year but has the standard been raised along with the competitive nature of the competition? The French team are a great example of the backward step European Rugby has taken.
The French, once oozing with flair all over the pitch, have now been transformed into a route one bulldozing machine with a severe lack of options. The France that beat the All Blacks back in 2007 and indeed pushed them close in the 2011 World Cup Final have well and truly evaporated. Scotland came within a kick of reaching a World Cup Semi-Final and beating twice world champions Australia. Even at that, Australia failed to fire on all cylinders and Scotland were at their very best.
Another interesting observation from this World Cup is the manner in which Northern Hemisphere sides have become riddled with injuries while Southern Hemisphere sides have been quite the opposite. Many say this is simply down to lack of luck when it matters but it could also be subject to the physicality of the teams and perhaps the Southern Hemisphere are just far superior in this regard.
While Rugby up this side of the world disintegrated into the gutter, Argentina joined the Rugby Championship, formerly the Tri-Nations back in 2012. As a result, they are successfully competing against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They beat South Africa on their own patch in Durban this year and dismantled Australia the year before. All of this happens as teams in the North of the Equator battle against each other each Spring without any significant improvement tediously picking off each other in the Six Nations.
Southern Hemisphere teams have faced stiff opposition in the November Internationals. However, this comes at the end of their Rugby Championship Season when there are plenty of tired bodies trying to manoeuvre themselves around the pitch. Furthermore, all silverware has already been won and players are sure to have one eye on the well-deserved break until Super Rugby kicks off again in February. From our perspective, it would be difficult to see European sides put in formidable performances against their compatriots south of the Equator just after the 6 Nations.
When we look at the Super Rugby infrastructure in place which now has the addition of an Argentinian team and a Japanese team, it is no wonder this side of the globe is so significantly superior. Our players hardly get to opportunity to compete for their own trophy with the sheer influx of Southern Hemisphere players coming into the European game.
If the Webb Ellis is to come back to Europe again, changes need to be made and rapidly to reverse the catastrophic decisions that have already been made. If changes are not made soon, it will not be a case of trying to keep up with Rugby Championship nations but rather staying ahead of the oncoming improving pack of Japan, Samoa and Fiji. England 2015 has left Europe with a lot to ponder but it remains to be seen if lessons have been truly learnt.
By Aonghus Ó Maicín