It’s the southern coaches who are bridging the gap
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.