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Greed kills World Cup campaigns

By Ben Smith
(Photo by David Ramos - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Since England’s 2003 World Cup victory it has been 20 years of Southern Hemisphere rule at the Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks and Springboks taking the four tournaments since.


Despite being on different seasonal calendars, there is one undeniable difference between how the two Hemispheres approach the game’s pinnacle event.

One side of the world plays far less rugby, and the other plays far more before a ball is even kicked in pool play.

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The Six Nations teams have just wrapped up the annual competition where they have each played five Tests in 2023. With the world’s top two teams Ireland and France in the competition, the intensity has been high.

On returning to club land the players will work through their respective Top 14, Premiership and URC seasons and complete European Cup competitions by late May.

But it is in the summer period is where the Northern Hemisphere nations really harm their World Cup prospects.

Faced with the loss from the usual November international period where they would usually rake in revenue from packed stadiums, the Unions schedule full-blown test matches in August to fill the coffers.


England played Wales twice, Ireland and Italy in summer 2019. Wales played England twice and Ireland twice, four games against two of the strongest in Europe.

These were labelled as ‘warm-up’ fixtures, but presented more like test matches with near full strength line ups. That meant they played another four Test matches on top of the five completed already in the calendar year.

Wales, Grand Slam winners in 2019, were not able to peak at the business end of that year’s Rugby World Cup as a result. The injury toll was immense by the time they reached the semi-final against South Africa.

Gareth Anscombe did his ACL in one of the summer warm-ups against England and didn’t make it on the plane to Japan.


No 8 Taulupe Faletau didn’t make it either after a training run injury before the event.

Josh Navidi was sidelined after the quarter-final win over France with a hamstring tear. Liam Williams was scratched before the semi-final, while George North suffered a leg injury right before half-time. Midfielders Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes were under injury clouds to even play.

Injuries are expected of course but here many key players in the squad were dropping like flies as they entered their 15th Test match of the year.

Had they made the World Cup final for a 16th Test, they would have been cannon fodder and we know this from the bronze final where the All Blacks wiped the floor with them.

Wales put up a tremendous campaign and valiant effort but undeniably were a shell of the side that conquered all in the Six Nations that February.

They may have won the William Webb Ellis trophy with smarter player management given they still pushed South Africa to the brink in the 19-16 semi-final loss with a walking wounded squad.

They did not have the playing resources available when they needed them most to fulfil their potential.

Scotland and Ireland also floundered in pool play, both suffering shock losses to Japan. Neither team were playing very well while Japan hit the ground running having timed their approach perfectly.

Japan threw conventional wisdom out of the window for their World Cup preparations by pulling all their players out of Super Rugby for the entire season, leaving the Sunwolves without any Japanese internationals.

A shadow World Cup team played a handful of Super Rugby ‘B’ squads instead, even playing total amateurs out of club rugby.

After that Japan played a grand total of four Tests before that World Cup, three in the Pacific Nations Cup against Tonga, Fiji and USA and one warm-up against the Springboks.

That preparation was enough to stun Ireland 19-12 in pool play, who were playing their 11th Test of the year, many of whom were from a Leinster squad who had also played a European Cup final and a Pro14 final earlier that year.

The amount of rugby that Japan’s players had been put through was minuscule compared to their Irish opponents. The result suggests playing far less in a World Cup year, not more, worked in the Brave Blossoms favour.

European players have a two-month summer break over June and July, but when you consider the actual playing load and demands over the trailing 12 months into a World Cup, it still vastly outweighs those in the South even with the break.

There is a solid argument that greed killed the Northern Hemisphere nations in 2019 as they ran their players into the ground before they were needed to peak.

Even England, who maintained a rather healthy squad without losing key players, just couldn’t match the intensity of South Africa in the final game after emptying the tank to stun the All Blacks.

Yet the Southern Hemisphere teams take the complete opposite approach when it comes to the lead-in to the tournament.

As has been the case for a number of years, the resting protocols are already in place for All Blacks during Super Rugby Pacific, who will be forced to sit out games.

When the Southern Hemisphere nations get together for the Rugby Championship this July, they will play a reduced version with less travel and fewer games.

They will play three in-competition Tests instead of the usual six.

The All Blacks and Wallabies will play one extra test to decide the Bledisloe Cup, while South Africa and Argentina will duke it out again for four tests in total.

New Zealand, Argentina and Australia have one extra warm-up Test in August while South Africa have two.

The Southern Hemisphere nations will begin pool play with just five Tests under their belts, while South Africa will have six.

Ireland and France have the two best teams in the world and currently hold the best chances to end the Northern Hemisphere drought.

There is absolutely no logic to players like Johnny Sexton, Josh van der Flier, Antoine Dupont, and Romain Ntamack playing warm-up Tests in summer.

For Sexton, particularly, even playing for Leinster this year is questionable. He is so critical to Ireland’s campaign that he needs to be preserved at all costs, this opportunity is too valuable to squander.

Irish Rugby doesn’t need him playing another Champions Cup final in May, they need him playing a World Cup final in November.

Japan showed the way, they don’t need to play.


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