The 2011 Rugby World Cup has turned into a battle between the northern and the southern hemisphere. Rankings and continental pride is at stake and the pressure is very much on England, France, Wales and Ireland to prove they are a match for the best that New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina have to offer.
Ireland’s shock win over Australia in the pool stage has left the draw split down geographical lines; nations north of the equator in one half, and countries south of it in the other.
It means we won’t get to see north versus south until the final itself on Sunday October 23rd, and if England stumble along the way either Wales, Ireland or France will get the chance to become only the second European nation to be crowned world champions.
Interestingly, for all the improvements made by the smaller rugby nations at this World Cup there are no shock quarterfinalists. Argentina are the only side to get this far having been outside the top eight in the world rankings at the start of the tournament - and their qualification ahead of Scotland didn’t surprise many.
The way the draw has panned out, supporters in New Zealand and the millions watching across the globe can sit back and compare and contrast the four northern hemisphere countries against the rest.
On one hand, we have two historic Celtic nations – Ireland and Wales – doing battle on the same day as cross-Channel rivals England and France. On the other, a titanic clash between defending champions South Africa and the only other team to win the World Cup twice, Australia, while hosts New Zealand take on the 3rd placed team from 2007, Argentina.
There is still a strong sense among southern hemisphere rugby fans that their top sides are better and England’s 2003 triumph was a blip, fast disappearing in the rear view mirror as the mighty Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks motor towards future World Cup success.
For those of us who want rugby’s world champions to come from as diverse a pool as possible, Wales, Ireland, England and France can’t just aim to win their matches. One of them must storm to victory; thrill us with power, pace and guile; allow the undoubted talent of their individuals to shine while still operating effectively as a team unit.
The big three of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are usually always good at this.
Yes, each nation will only be thinking of itself right now but we’ve seen in golf’s continental team contests – the Ryder, President’s, Solheim and Walker Cups – that playing for a region can matter just as much as playing for your country.
Now is the time for northern hemisphere rugby to stamp its mark on the World Cup and to ruck and maul the initiative away from the game’s traditional powerhouses.