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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Rugby Union – The North/South Divide

North vs South: One of the most traditional divides in the world. In England it is whether you are North or South of the imaginary line drawn across the country at the Watford Gap. In New Zealand it is which island you come from. In rugby it is which hemisphere you play in.

The measuring factor has always been that Southern Hemisphere countries have won more World Cups (5 out of 6) and that they play more attractive rugby. The mindset of the two hemispheres is distinctly different when it comes to the attitude of winning cups and styles of rugby.

The mercurial genius of players like Carlos Spencer is often frowned upon in the North as being “champagne rugby”; it looks very pretty but doesn’t win games. The pressure that has been put on New Zealand rugby to win World Cups has been phenomenal, and they have changed their setup so that it is the focus of each four cycle. The players are wrapped up in cotton wool and trotted out once a year for the Tri Nations and this then decides who makes the World Cup Squad. To put this into focus English Captain Martin Johnson played over 30 games before the 2003 World Cup campaign; last year Jerry Collins was in single figures.

This is not to say that the northern unions shun the practices of their southern colleagues. Due to the dire financial state of the Welsh and Scottish Unions they have taken a cue from the regional structure in New Zealand to create super clubs by merging two or three smaller struggling clubs. Unfortunately this has meant that the oldest club in the world, Neath, no longer exists as a national club, but this was done for the greater good of the Welsh game.

A few years ago the English Premiership adopted the idea from the Super 12 of having a grand final so that the top four clubs have a playoff against each other. To many in England it seemed ridiculous that the fourth placed club at the end of the domestic season could actually become the competition’s overall winner. There are restrictions in place that determine how many games a year each player is allowed play. By careful management of your squad, by sending out under-strength teams with the aim of finishing in the top four you can bring out all your best players for the finals.

Is this right? A team that has played the best and most consistently all season, and has gone out to win every game is then robbed of their glory as they then have to go on to play another one or two games and no longer have the depth in their squad.

The eagerness for the financial benefits of these extra games has had a huge impact on the state of English rugby as more players are being injured and more compensation has been demanded for the injuries and time taken up by international duty – club vs country. This has hardly been an issue for English football, financially the most successful in the world. If there is a national game being played, then you simply don’t have any top flight games that week.

Money has always been a driving force in rugby since it turned professional. It hasn’t reached the lunacy of Association Football as salary caps are in force – to put this into context, a top footballer in England earns more in one week than a top rugby player does in one year. TV rights are now the biggest earner for Super 14 clubs; gate receipts for the opening games have been falling year on year. I was at the Hurricanes vs Chiefs match at Westpac Stadium a couple of weeks ago and it was half empty, and will remain so until the competition starts getting interesting.

Wales recently adopted the New Zealand policy regarding the national team: if you don’t play your club football at home, you can’t represent your country. The recent mass-exodus of All Black journeymen to northern clubs is due to the need to make a buck before retirement. This means they are now ruled out of being an All Black until they return home. The ‘stay at home’ approach will work for Wales: they have to drive about 200km or fly for two hours to find most of their international competition at both club and country levels. New Zealand is the most remote of the rugby playing nations, and doesn’t have population to support a fan base that can compete with northern salaries, so players are leaving at the expense of the national side.

This year will see a Bledisloe Cup game played in Hong Kong. I’m sure that many fans from both countries will travel to the game, but many feel they have been robbed of the chance to see their national team play in their national stadiums. This is at odds with the idea that your national players can’t be overseas. Recently the Argentinean Football team played an international game in Europe as most of their players were based there. Surely Australia isn’t that far away. Robbie Deans managed to find it, so why not let your players play their club rugby there?

There will never be a common approach from the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The geography and demographics are too different. But until there is at least some parity, the Southern Hemisphere will always dominate the international game, and the Northern Hemisphere will always have the more successful clubs.

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