Turn back to 1999, the last time the World Cup was based in Britain. In particular, to two days in late October, a week away from 16 years to the day this weekend. After three weeks and 29 matches, the quarter-finals. All four split, as they are now, between north and south. On Saturday 23, Wales v Australia. It was 10-9 at half-time and a one-point game still with 30 minutes to play. Then Australia pulled away, led by their wiry streak of a fly-half, Stephen Larkham, who stretched the Welsh open with sly kicks and sleights of hand, and sent Ben Tune and Joe Roff running through the gaps. Australia won 24-9. Larkham is back, Australia’s attack coach, and the inspiration, they say, behind the fine form of the team’s fly-half Bernard Foley.
The next day, England away, against South Africa at the Stade de France. England were set up by the Boks coach, Nick Mallett, and knocked down by his second-string fly-half, Jannie de Beer, in only because Henry Honiball was injured. Mallet’s plan, to commit Phil de Glanville and Neil Back by sending Pieter Muller hurtling up the centre, and so free up some room for De Beer to work in. In the space of 30 minutes, five drop goals, the first two snapshots from turnovers, the next three all on calls, the last of them from 40m out on the right touchline. Each one another nail in the coffin. De Beer’s boot guided, as he seemed to say afterwards, by divine providence. “I just want to honour God for giving me the talent.”
That evening, Scotland versus the All Blacks at Murrayfield. The Scots were seemingly so obsessed with stopping Jonah Lomu that they forgot to concoct a strategy for Tana Umaga in the centre and Jeff Wilson at full-back. Three tries between them, a fourth from Lomu. And then, at 30-6 with 15 minutes to go, the All Blacks faded and Scotland finally started to play. Final score 30-18.
Earlier in the afternoon, the fourth match, France against Argentina in Dublin. This was the only one to go the north’s way, though Argentina then were still outsiders. One of the quintessential French performances, the team sparking at last after slouching through the group. Philippe Bernat‑Salles flying through for two tries, lank grey hair flapping as he ran. Hints here, of what was to follow in the famous semi-final.
All distant history now but worth revisiting, given the parallels with this weekend. The 1999 World Cup was the last held in this country, and the last, too, in which the four teams from the southern hemisphere were pitched against four from the north in the quarter-finals. Back then, the contest between the hemispheres was sharp. There was a divide between them over the way rugby should be run, and the way it should be played. The split had its beginnings back in the decision to end amateurism and turn the sport professional, driven through by the three southern teams against the wishes of those in the north, and England and Ireland in particular.
Sanzar, the joint venture between South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, was launched in 1996. Along with it, the Tri-Nations, and Super Rugby, billed as the “perfect rugby product”, full of free-flowing games ending in extraordinary scores. Auckland Blues 56, New South Wales Waratahs 44. The Blues, who won the title in both of the first two seasons, played 26 matches along the way, which produced an average of 66 points each. A game unfamiliar to viewers in the north and anathema to more traditional supporters. All this was part of the backdrop to these four quarter-finals in 99. Sanzar vindicated, in the end, by the results, 3-0 in its favour.
The antagonism between the hemispheres grew as the teams began to tour more often, and at the same time as each other. All three Sanzar teams started to come each autumn, where, for years, the only annual fixtures had been those against the neighbours. After their first match against New Zealand in 1905, Wales played 15 matches against them in the 90 years before the game turned professional. They have played 14 in the 20 years since. Likewise, of England’s 44 matches against Australia, 25 have been in the past 20 years. And of Ireland’s 22 against South Africa, only 10 were in the amateur era. Fixtures between north and south became regular features.
This overfamiliarity is one reason why the divide between hemispheres does not seem as significant as it once did, even if the gap is as conspicuous as ever. Another is that, as Graham Henry has said, so many sides in the north are trying to play New Zealand’s way. The clash of styles is not what it was and, where it does exist, often seems to be sharpest between the teams who share hemispheres. Australia and South Africa, for instance, could hardly be said to have a common style of play, any more than Scotland and France could.
Globalisation has changed the game in other ways, too. So far in this tournament, Japan are the only northern hemisphere team to have beaten a southern one, with their 34-32 defeat of South Africa. But Japan have far stronger ties to New Zealand than to Europe. As of next season, they will have their own Super Rugby franchise, the Sunwolves. On the other hand, while Argentina compete in the Rugby Championship, for years most of their squad have made a living playing in Europe. Though this will change now that they, too, are getting their own Super Rugby side.
Boil it down and the north-south contest reduces to the rivalry between two annual competitions, the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations, and in particular between five European teams and the three southern sides. And to be honest, that rivalry has been so one-sided it hardly merits the name. The stats make sorry reading for northern supporters. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have won two World Cups apiece and six of seven between them.
In all, the five nations, England, Ireland, France, Scotland, and Wales, have played 526 matches against Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The south won 384, or 73%. Forty six of those matches were in World Cups, and here the north’s winning percentage falls further still. They have taken nine games between them. Four of those by the English, three of those by the French, one apiece for Wales and Ireland.
South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all start as favourites with the bookmakers. Ireland have the edge on Argentina, though you can turn yourself around in circles thinking about it, which suggests it is too close to call. Despite that, Wales, even after all the injuries, are capable of beating the Springboks. And the French and Scots have an outside shot, the French threat growing more unpredictable after the turmoil of the last week. Some think it will be a clean sweep for the south again this weekend, that the four teams from the Rugby Championship could well be the same four in the semi-finals and decide the title between them. But it feels a little early to be caught making a call like that.