It’s the south­ern coaches who are bridg­ing the gap

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

IRE­LAND coach Joe Sch­midt said after his team’s nar­row se­ries loss to the Spring­boks that the gap be­tween the North­ern and South­ern Hemi­spheres had nar­rowed to be­ing nearly non-ex­is­tent, but how much has re­ally changed since last year’s World Cup?

A lot was made of the fact that four south­ern teams made the semi- fi­nals in the global show­piece tour­na­ment in Eng­land. But let’s take a closer look at what re­ally hap­pened at the World Cup.

The head­line fea­tures were that New Zealand won it by some mar­gin, and al­ways looked like win­ning it; the dra­matic im­prove­ment and progress to­wards a more mod­ern, in­clu­sive play­ing style by Ar­gentina; and the big choke by the hosts, Eng­land; and the Ja­panese win over the Spring­boks.

Aus­tralia and South Africa, the teams that fin­ished sec­ond and third, didn’t pro­duce any­thing spe­cial that sep­a­rated them markedly from the North­ern Hemi­sphere op­po­si­tion.

Aus­tralia did thump Eng­land in a pool game, but they had to rely on an as­tound­ing de­fen­sive ef­fort to beat Wales in the pool de­cider, and they had to rely on a con­tro­ver­sial late penalty to win their quar­ter- fi­nal against Scot­land.

The Spring­boks played a de­pleted Wales team de­bil­i­tated by three tough games in their group in the quar­ter­fi­nal, and it was only a late try from Fourie du Preez that sep­a­rated the teams.

Yes, you may well point out that the World Cup was played north of the equa­tor, but the tour­na­ment was played in weather and con­di­tions that felt more like late sum­mer than early au­tumn and thus suited the south­ern teams.

The All Blacks were the only team that were sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than their north­ern op­po­nents, but then they were miles ahead of both the Wal­la­bies and the Spring­boks too ( for­get the two- point dif­fer­ence, they dom­i­nated the Boks in the semi- fi­nal).

So the real story of that World Cup wasn’t the su­pe­ri­or­ity of South­ern Hemi­sphere teams, but the su­pe­ri­or­ity of New Zealand.

And the events of the past month shouldn’t have changed that per­cep­tion. The Ki­wis won their se­ries against Wales at a can­ter, while the Aus­tralians were white­washed at home by resur­gent Eng­land, and the Spring­boks were for­tu­nate to scrape a se­ries win against a de­pleted Ire­land squad that had been medi­ocre dur­ing the Euro­pean sea­son.

If there is an au­then­tic story re­lated to South­ern Hemi­sphere su­pe­ri­or­ity, it should be fo­cussed on the coaches.

Ire­land are like the Proteas when it comes to ap­pear­ances at a World Cup, in the sense that they un­der- per­form. But un­der Sch­midt, a New Zealan­der, there has been great im­prove­ment in their gen­eral per­for­mances over the past few years.

Scot­land didn’t play any big South­ern Hemi­sphere na­tions dur­ing the June in­ter- na­tional win­dow but un­der an­other Kiwi, Vern Cot­ter, they im­pressed at the World Cup and then also showed im­prove­ment dur­ing the Six Na­tions.

Wales ap­pear to be tran­si­tion­ing at the mo­ment but for­mer All Black War­ren Gat­land took them to the semi- fi­nals of the pre­vi­ous World Cup in New Zealand in 2011 and they did well to get out of a tough pool in the most re­cent one.

What the June in­ter­na­tion­als will be most re­mem­bered for, though, will be the per­for­mances of Eng­land, who have been un­beaten since Aus­tralian Ed­die Jones took charge and now look like the only na­tion – par­tic­u­larly if you note their age- group suc­cesses – that could chal­lenge the New Zealand hege­mony in this four- year cy­cle.

Of course Jones was the first choice of West­ern Prov­ince di­rec­tor of rugby Gert Smal to coach the Storm­ers this year, and he even took up res­i­dence in Cape Town last Novem­ber for a fort­night.

His ini­tial suc­cess with Eng­land has proved a num­ber of things, but among them is surely that Smal was on the right track when he backed the “cross- pol­li­na­tion of ideas” phi­los­o­phy that he was ex­posed to and part of when he was the Ire­land for­wards coach.

It dis­turbs me when I hear cur­rent Storm­ers coach Rob­bie Fleck is tak­ing some heat for re­cent per­for­mances from the ad­min­is­tra­tors who over­ruled Smal when he backed an­other man of An­tipodean de­scent, New Zealan­der John Mitchell, to take the reins when Jones left for Eng­land.

Fleck was look­ing for­ward to work­ing with and learn­ing from Jones. And he would have been pre­pared to do the same with Mitchell.

The for­mer Spring­bok cen­tre is an ex­cel­lent coach but the Li­ons, who had Mitchell lay the foun­da­tion for them five years ago, re­main the only lo­cal team that is be­ing ef­fec­tive em­ploy­ing the more ex­pan­sive pos­ses­sion ori­en­tated game that ev­ery­one wants to see in­tro­duced. And that in­cludes the Boks.

I’m not sure an over­seas head coach would work for the Storm­ers or the Boks given the trans­for­ma­tion de­mands that out­siders would strug­gle to get their heads around, but there has to be space for a for­eigner in both man­age­ment teams.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d re­move the in­terim from the front of Fleck’s ti­tle and in­stall him as the per­ma­nent head coach – he’s done enough to prove he can do the job – but re­cruit a top Kiwi or Aussie as his tech­ni­cal ad­viser or se­nior as­sis­tant. And I’d do the same with the Boks.

The ev­i­dence of how ef­fec­tive for­eign in­flu­ence can be has be­come over­whelm­ing.

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