There can be no doubting the long-standing supremacy of southern-hemisphere rugby nations. For many of us north of the equator, it might be a bitter pill to swallow but we still have to gulp it down. Since the first World Cup in 1987, eight of the nine victorious nations have been from the south. New Zealand and South Africa hold three titles to their name, Australia have two and England – of course – have the triumph in 2003. But could this be about to change in 2023?
When the giants of the southern hemisphere come to visit in the autumn, results have offered little to change the narrative. Typically, a match-up between a northern-hemisphere side and the All Blacks, Wallabies or Springboks has ended up with a heavy points deficit for the former.
But the balance of power might have shifted. Of the 15 Tests between Tier One rugby nations in this year’s Autumn Nations Series, 10 were won by northern-hemisphere sides.
From 2010, an autumnal visit from New Zealand meant almost certain defeat. Up until 2016, the All Blacks had lost only one game on their European travels; a 38-21 triumph for England in 2012. They have never come away from an autumn series without winning more than two games and have been victorious in 22 of their 30 Tier One Tests in the past 11 years.
This year, though, Scotland emerged from the autumn with a better record than the All Blacks. This is the first time on record that this has happened in an autumn tour. Yet the 2021 Tests leave behind a legacy of first-time rarities. Australia have never before finished a tour of Europe without winning a match and their consecutive losses to Scotland, England and then Wales are a memory that Dave Rennie and his coaching staff will want to forget in a hurry.
For Australia’s opponents, these victories should be a sign of optimism. Scotland have much more to feel encouraged about these days and are steadily building on the foundation established during their Six Nations victories against England, Wales, France and Italy. Scottish fans can feel genuinely aggrieved with the result against South Africa and that’s not something we can usually say for the crowd at Murrayfield. With just one more opportunity to play southern-hemisphere sides before the World Cup in 2023, Scotland, in particular, will be licking their lips with the prospect of continuing on their current trajectory.
However, it must be said that all this talk about Scotland, positivity and the World Cup is verging on dangerous. A successful autumn series goes nowhere near far enough towards closing the gap between southern and northern-hemisphere Test teams. But this year, for a change, the numbers add up.
Northern Tier One sides posted enough on the scoreboard against southern opponents to accumulate a 47-point net advantage in these matches. This trend has been evolving over the past decade but that doesn’t make the results in 2021 any less impressive from a European perspective.Sceptics might point towards how tight some of the contests were this year. It’s true to say that four of the 15 matches played between Tier One sides finished with a points difference of five or less. The final week of Tests saw two games that could have tipped off either side – Wales v Australia and England v South Africa both finished with a solitary point proving the difference.
The same argument can’t be levelled at Ireland, who clocked up the best points record of the Autumn Series with decisive wins against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina. France also looked consistently convincing and took advantage of a deflated All Black side on the back of their defeat by Ireland to post a breathtaking victory. Of all the northern-hemisphere sides, it is probably Les Bleus who offer the best challenge to the dynamic, expansive rugby most associated with Australia and New Zealand. With squads that both look full of young promise, Ireland and France are shaping up as serious contenders to southern-hemisphere dominance.
But whether this year’s Autumn Series was simply a blip in the imposing European record of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is a question that won’t be answered until 2023. The results will certainly stir faith in northern camps but it’s unlikely to think that either Jacques Nienaber or Ian Foster will be rubbing the chalk off the drawing board just yet.