A South African's view of the Guinness Six Nations
It’s all anyone can talk about. It’s a narrative that loomed over rugby’s discourse, covering all other discussion points in its shade. You’d swear that William Webb Ellis picked up that football in 1823 in the hope that Eben Eztebeth would one day be rightly recognised as South Africa’s player of the year.
Of course I’m being facetious. But this is what it means to be a southern hemisphere rugby fan on the eve of the Six Nations. Outside of the World Cup there is no greater event. Consume enough of the news cycle and you might assume that Europe’s premier competition is in fact the greatest prize of them all.
Previously I’d have scoffed at that notion. I was reared on the Tri Nations which was, for the better part of two decades, unquestionably the most challenging competition the sport had to offer.
The three southern hemisphere giants were head and shoulders above their northern counterparts. From 1996 to 2011, with the exception of a brief spell either side of England’s World Cup win in 2003, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would have waltzed into Europe and carved a path of destruction. Then Argentina made it the Rugby Championship and added gloss to an already glittering showpiece. After all, it was only four years previous that the Pumas finished third in the World Cup.
The southern hemisphere packs, even Australia’s, seemed as if they were better organised and more robust. Their backs, even South Africa’s, were sharper and more direct. Across every facet of the game, in any situation, I’d have bet the farm on the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks lifting the Six Nations trophy if given the chance.
World Rugby’s rankings and the deluge of World Cup titles helped foster this slanted view of the game’s power rankings. Any rugby played south of the equator was simply better by right and design. Nothing could shift that notion from my mind.
I’m not the only one. In a previous piece for RugbyPass I spoke with Schalk Britz and Bakkies Botha, World Cup winners who went on to lift numerous Heineken Champions Cups with Saracens and Toulon. They each spoke of their unshakable belief in the supremacy of southern hemisphere rugby when they were growing up. It was only after they’d made the journey north did they start to question this idea.
Having never played elite rugby my own understanding has been cultivated from a distance. Like Britz I swapped South Africa for London and over the past four years I’ve had to grapple with the possibility that everything I once held sacrosanct could be built on little more than reputation.
For starters, Ireland and France occupy the top two positions on World Rugby’s rankings. This would have blown my mind a decade ago. England have won their last two tours to Australia. Wales have finally triumphed in South Africa and New Zealand’s indomitable aura has all but evaporated, a fact underlined by their near miss against Scotland in the Autumn. The ravens have left the tower. The sun is rising in the east. Nothing makes sense anymore.
Rather than accept this new world order I’ve tried to rationalise it. I’m sure there are other members of Team Southern Hemisphere that have worked through their own routine of mental gymnastics. Caveats – such as the decline of Super Rugby and the proliferation of southern hemisphere talent in European leagues – have helped assuage the sense that the floor is slipping beneath my feet. At least there’s a reason behind my unease.
The truth is the game has changed. The centre of power no longer resides in Cape Town or Auckland or Sydney but somewhere in south-east Dublin or northern Paris. Maybe Twickenham’s moniker as the ‘Home of Rugby’ isn’t so self-aggrandising after all.
Much of this has to do economics. Pounds and Euros have a knack of luring players across the world. This in turn weakens the infrastructure of southern hemisphere rugby and creates holes where there was once depth. But it would be glib, and unfair, to simply attribute these changes to cold hard cash.
The Six Nations is of course a separate entity to club rugby but, from the outside looking in, it appears to be the apotheosis of something genuinely special in Europe. I can’t imagine the Rugby Championship masking a presidential scandal at South African Rugby or claims of sexual harassment at Rugby Australia or an unpopular law change from the headquarters of New Zealand Rugby.
But that is what the Six Nations has done, or at least will do once the opening whistle on Saturday sounds. For sure these political and cultural talking points will emerge over time, but while the rugby is on, the magnetic magic of this grand event will be all-consuming. There truly is nothing like it. The packed stadiums, the traveling fans, the stirring anthems, the centuries-long feuds and now, finally, top tier rugby that is ahead of what’s being produced down south. It’s hard not to feel a sharp pang of jealousy.
None of this I write with joy. I’m gritting my teeth while the keys on my laptop clank out an obsession I never thought I’d make. Which is why, as someone invested in South African rugby on a molecular level, I hope the Springboks join the party.
This would be handy for me on a professional level. But even if this is the last piece I ever have published I’d still be in favour of the move. This is not a piece to try and convince you that the Springboks should hitch their wagon to a competition that is doing just fine without them. I can address the logistics at a later date. Instead this is a window to what I feel, to what I’d want.
I’d love to see Siya Kolisi and Cheslin Kolbe and Etzebeth conquer Europe. I’d love to see Antoine Dupont and Maro Itoje and Ange Capuozzo make annual trips to Durban or Pretoria. I’m conscious that it would mean the demise of the Rugby Championship as we know it. But selfishly that would be a palatable sacrifice for what South African rugby, and its fans, would gain.
Until then I’ll watch on, as an outsider. I could never support England. Just the thought sends a shiver down the spine. Backing France or Ireland feels like a betrayal given their current positions at the top of the world. Throwing my lot with Wales doesn’t sit right either given their recent success over South Africa and Italy would be akin to a wasted vote.
So I’m committing to Scotland for this year and every year until they’re serious World Cup contenders. So too should every South African fan. After all, five of Gregor Townsend’s starting team is connected to the country in some capacity. That’ll have to do for now.
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Penalty perhaps but leave players on the field and have them cited after the game if necessary. Red card for vicious foul play only.Go to comments
Nice one.Go to comments