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Why Ireland has two unofficial world titles and South Africa has none

By Ben Smith
Bundee Aki and Jamie Heaslip of Ireland, Schalk Burger of South Africa. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images/Jamie McDonald/Getty Images/PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Nations Championship set to begin in 2026 will bring an annual world title up for grabs between the Six Nations nations, the SANZAAR nations and two further  invitational teams.

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This move will bolster the in-between years of a Rugby World Cup, but there has been an irregular, unofficial world title match since the formation of the modern professional calendar in 1996.

The Six Nations champion and Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) champions have met in the November window 11 times in 21 opportunities for a would-be title match between the two hemispheres.

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In the absence of a full-scale Nations Championship, formalising this one-off game would have been an ideal solution that crowns an annual champion in a supplemental way to the Rugby World Cup.

A Champions’ champion match in a sanctioned ‘final’ would have been the most-watched game of rugby every year and add meaning to the calendar.

Despite end-of-year tours in November commencing regularly from 1997, it took until the year 2000 to finally get a match between the Six Nations winner, England, and the Tri-Nations winner, Australia. England won this Test match 22-19 at Twickenham.

The two sides would met again as hemisphere champions in 2001, with England claiming another 21-15 victory to win back-to-back over the Wallabies.

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In 2002, Grand Slam champions France met Tri-Nations winners New Zealand in the November window and the two sides shared a 20-all draw.

Due to the irregular scheduling of internationals in the November window, there are many times where the two tournament winners didn’t met.

In 1998 and 2004, the Springboks did not get to play France, who were respective winners in both of those years.

More recently, the great England teams of 2016 and 2017 did not face off against the All Blacks.

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When the two sides met in 2018, England were no longer Europe’s top side. The All Blacks did face off against the Grand Slam champions that year, Ireland, and Jacob Stockdale’s famous try claimed an 18-9 win.

Four-time Rugby World Cup winners South Africa would have zero titles from the in-between years. From their three Tri-Nations wins, 1998, 2004 and 2009, they would have played in just one final.

The vaunted 2009 Springboks side who put together a 2-1 Lions series win and 3-0 sweep over the All Blacks, ending up losing at Croke Park to Ireland 15-10.

With the clock in the red and South Africa attacking in Ireland’s 22, a clutch Brian O’Driscoll tackle and counter-ruck forced a game-winning steal. O’Driscoll lay on the turf as players erupted around him. Had that been a world title match this moment would go down as iconic.

Fixture
Internationals
South Africa
11:00
6 Jul 24
Ireland
All Stats and Data

New Zealand would have six hemisphere crowns, with one shared. Their last being 2021 when they played Wales with a 54-16 win with Beauden Barrett scoring two intercept tries in his 100th match.

France would have claimed the latest title in 2022 with their 40-26 win over the All Blacks in Paris.

Overall, their would be just four nations who have won; New Zealand six times (2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2021), England (2000, 2001), Ireland (2009, 2018), France (2002, 2022) all twice.

In the modern age, there is no reason why international rugby can’t have an annual champion. The world demands as such. Back in the amateur era, long years stretched between contests.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were often four-to-five year gaps between All Blacks-Springboks Tests. We now have them every year and it’s what fans expect. A four-year of five-year absence again would be unthinkable.

The Nations Championship is the next logical step to find an annual world champion. And once it’s here you won’t be able to look back. The current system will seem archaic by comparison.

Let’s start with two world title matches in 2024 and 2025 between the two hemisphere champions as a precursor to the Nations Championship.

Every rugby fan on the planet will watch and many more casuals.

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D
Diarmid 10 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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