Mick Cleary: 'How northern hemisphere made the south look mortal'
The upbeat northern hemisphere results are no fluke, no fag-end-of-the-year occurrence when the southern superpowers are reduced to mere mortals after endless months on the Test treadmill, drained physically, flattened mentally by the sort of repetitive cycle that is now the norm on the calendar, all planes and hotels and training pitches. Those issues are a sideshow and will certainly have no bearing by the time events kick off in Tokyo in under 10 months’ time. A Rugby World Cup is a playing field of equals when injury tolls are a mere incidental feature, when even tier two countries are granted time together, when there are no excuses. That has largely been the case even this autumn.
“The North” is on the move upwards, assured, on-message and right in the ball game. The gap has become wafer-thin. The North is in good shape, as is the 2019 World Cup itself, which is shaping up to be the most competitive tournament there has ever been.
Too often rugby’s global showcase has been something of a formality, invariably a parade of southern hemisphere talent striding towards the podium. Only England have managed to barge their way into that procession, the sole victors from the North.
Ireland have never been beyond the quarter-finals, a rather extraordinary state of affairs given their current elevated, and well-deserved, status. You can count the genuine upsets on one hand – Japan giving the Springboks a bloody nose in Brighton three years ago, Samoa doing likewise to Wales way back in the mists of time.
But consider where we are now, unsure perhaps even that two-time winners, Australia, will get out of their group given what Fiji (in their pool along with Wales) did to France. There was a bonfire of Gallic vanities at the Stade de France on Saturday night in keeping with a Paris still smouldering from the fuel protests earlier in the day.
What has happened to close the gap? Several things. One has been the importing of intellectual properties from south of the equator, a Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt or Eddie Jones at the elite Test end or a raft of coaches operating at club or regional level be it South African, Johan Ackermann at Gloucester or New Zealander, Dave Rennie at Glasgow Warriors.
There may be few, if any, technical or tactical secrets left to pass on as every match at every level is packaged into DVDs within minutes of it taking place. What there has been is an implanting of attitude, of the need to pursue excellence at every turn, of leaving nothing to chance, of improving conditioning in order to be able to stay mentally strong right to the final whistle. How often have we seen New Zealand flick a switch around the hour mark and take things to a different level? Not any more. England came close to doing a number on them at Twickenham and Ireland did manage to close out the deal seven days later in Dublin.
The Aviva scoreboard (16-9) might have suggested that it was close, especially with the All Blacks threatening to mount one those great escapes in the very last sequence but, in truth, there was a certainty about Ireland’s play, a real sense that they would hold the line. And they did.
Of course, these matches have been played in European conditions but, even that old chestnut no longer seems to have as much clout and relevance as once it did. There is no such thing as a boggy pitch at Test level.
Sure, there was plenty of rain at Twickenham, but that did not hinder England when it came to moving the ball, never mind New Zealand.
We all know that New Zealand will come back strongly next year, refreshed and energised for events in Japan. But what is to say that Ireland, Wales and England will not also have upped their game by then? In fact, it is legitimate to argue that they will be in even better shape given that they will have had three months rest and preparation time.
What is indisputable is that there is now not a sliver of inferiority lurking in any of the home nations after the November results.
Even Scotland, who came up short against South Africa and have never beaten New Zealand, have seen enough growth in their own game to approach the new year with confidence.
The others have all hit notable landmarks in the past four weeks. Indeed, Ireland have won 18 of their past 19 matches, a run of success that used to be the preserve of the All Blacks.
The self-belief generated by such a run will not fade any time soon. Ireland, too, have depth as the likes of flanker Josh van der Flier showed so vividly when stepping into the breach left by injuries to Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy to perform with such aplomb against New Zealand.
Wales have made a seamless transition from the Sam Warburton era to register their first ever November clean-sweep and enter a World Cup year with tangible signs that they are going to be genuine contenders for honours. They have been very much in the running in the past two World Cups and have the wherewithal to continue in that vein in Japan.
And England? They will only get better once the Vunipola brothers are back in harness to enhance Jones’s selection options. The autumn has given the head coach far greater resources be it prop, Ben Moon or No 8 Mark Wilson.
The All Blacks remain favourites for the World Cup. Of course they do. But the sound of chasing hooves grows ever louder as the field closes in on them.