By Julian Linden
There are still two weeks to go in the Rugby World Cup but the winner is already known.
For the seventh time in the eight editions of the tournament, the Webb Ellis Cup will be heading south of the equator.
For the first time, all four semi-finalists are from the southern hemisphere after South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia all won their quarter-finals against opponents from the north.
The tournament has been a humiliation for the Six Nations teams and is sure to raise questions about where European rugby turns to solve their deficiencies on the field.
Apart from crowning the champions, the World Cup has always settled the old battle for global supremacy between the north and south, but it has been mostly one-way traffic.
While Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have each won two titles, only England, champions in 2003, have racked one up for the northern hemisphere.
With England hosting the 2015 tournament, hopes were high that the north might win again, but this World Cup has shown that the gap might be widening, and the south are assured of another champion.
England failed to make it out of the pool stages while Ireland, the current Six Nations champions, were thrashed 43-20 by Argentina, the weakest of the southern hemisphere’s big four teams.
“The result just reflected the tour de force demonstrated by the southern hemisphere teams this weekend,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
Scotland and Wales were desperately unlucky in their matches, with the Scots giving up a last-minute penalty in a one-point loss to the Wallabies, and Wales conceding a late try in a four-point defeat by the Springboks.
“I think that divide, it’s not a chasm, said Schmidt, one of three New Zealanders currently coaching Six Nations teams.
“The margins are still fine enough but they can get expanded very quickly on the scoreboard if you’re up against a good side.
“On any given day we have seen northern hemisphere teams compete with southern hemisphere teams and while we’ve got to be at our very best to be competitive, even if we’re a little bit below par they can still be incredibly dangerous against us.”
France learnt this the hard way on Saturday, thrashed 62-13 by a ruthless New Zealand team that are the favourites to win the title.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, who knows the northern hemisphere teams well after coaching Wales between 2002 and 2004, said the southern hemisphere teams all benefited from playing each other regularly.
“If you look at the three teams they are different. When you play South Africa, you have to be physical. When you play Australia, you come up against a highly skilled team who like to play running rugby and you have to be able to combat that,” he said.
“Then, you’ve got New Zealand who have a little bit of both. So, the competition creates a rugby player that can be multi-functional.
“The environment and weather down with us helps too. When you contrast that with the northern hemisphere, when you can be playing in snow and rain and freezing cold. That is not conducive to playing running rugby.
“What that does is build a really combative, physical game up here and maybe that’s what, in the end, limits their ability to play running rugby to the point that when they want to, it becomes difficult.”
Hansen also criticised the club structure in Europe, saying the influx so many overseas players was having a detrimental effect on the national teams.
“The other thing, although the owners would disagree, is that there are so many foreign players playing in their teams up here, that they are taking the place of the local player. That limits the number of players they can select at national level,” he said.
“You only have to look at the football model that rugby up here follows, and England haven’t won anything for years.
“Yet they have the best league in the world. They have the greatest players and most of the top players are playing here in England.”