THE NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE
Alex Cuthbert was torn in two by Duane Vermeulen and Fourie du Preez five minutes from the end of Wales’s quarter-final against South Africa at Twickenham and then torn to shreds on social media for dumping his side out of the World Cup through what, put in politer terms, was viewed as a schoolboy blunder.
Failure seems to prompt a witch-hunt for a victim – Craig Joubert was to fill Cuthbert’s role 24 hours later – as the emotion generated by disappointment spews out vitriol. In past eras, the invective would have been confined to living rooms, bars and public transport but it now goes global in a click and spawns a furious frenzy, not quite what PG Wodehouse had in mind when he wrote his short story The Clicking of Cuthbert.
Cuthbert, it is not premature to say, will not feature in any teams of the tournament. The World Cup was not his finest month in what has not been the most memorable year of his career and he was only playing because of Wales’s numerous injury problems in the three-quarters – but to hold the wing responsible for Wales’s defeat for going to tackle Vermeulen as the No8 broke from a scrum, giving Du Preez an unguarded line to run at, not only ignores the skill shown in the play and the brilliance of the move that was called but also holds an individual responsible for what was a collective failure.
The lack of a European presence in the quarter-finals for the first time since the start of the World Cup 28 years ago should prompt an examination of the way the game in the north is organised, not least whether starting the Six Nations in February is conducive to the handling game that helped take New Zealand, Australia and Argentina to the semi-finals, even if Scotland lost to the Wallabiesthrough a disputed penalty one minute from time and Du Preez’s try finished Wales.
The vilification of Cuthbert would have been the same had he stayed out wide to cover an opponent who was not in view and Vermeulen had got to the line. The try was skilfully engineered by South Africa, who had lined up their backs on the openside. They wheeled the scrum so that when Du Preez changed direction to move towards Cuthbert’s wing, the Wales flanker Sam Warburton, who was playing out of position on the blindside, could not pick him up in time. Wales’s scrum-half Lloyd Williams was similarly fooled and the result was a try worthy of winning any game.
While South Africa look a side that would be comfortable in the Six Nations, direct and confrontational, preferring to keep skill a secret, all the sides in Europe would have to make radical adjustments if they competed in the Rugby Championship. The Argentina defence coach, Pablo Bouza, questioned this weekwhether the Pumas’ game would have developed so quickly had they been admitted into the Six Nations rather than joined New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
It is not that players in Europe lack skill, far from it. The approach is more conservative and risk averse. “You have to earn the right to go wide,” is a coaching mantra in the north but it took Argentina only a couple of minutes to do just that against Ireland last Sunday. The final weekend of last season’s Six Nations showed what was possible, Wales setting a high bar for Ireland to leap over after letting rip in Rome in the second half and England had to go higher again at the end of the day, just falling short.
It was an exhilarating one-off and even France joined in. Sadder than theirannihilation by New Zealand last Saturday is the chains that have come to bindLes Bleus. To watch Argentina during this tournament is to glimpse into the past when the French were a heady mix of power and panache; they were temperamental and could be indisciplined but they played the game like no other, forwards with the skill of basketball players and slick backs who relished risk. They had a joy of playing but now they have come to resemble factory workers clocking on at the start of the week.
What the World Cup has shown is that there is a difference between north and south, not the hemispheres as such but the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship. World Rugby has been looking at whether a global season is feasible: it would mean the Six Nations moving in the calendar, if only by a month, but the European unions are adamant that what they boast is the most successful tournament outside the World Cup is not for shifting, even by a month.
As long as the unions, or most of them, do not have to worry about selling tickets for Six Nations matches they are under no pressure to, in marketing terms, review their product. The Rugby Championship is no less physical than the Six Nationsbut it has a far greater emphasis on skill, pace and space than its European counterpart. Their rugby public is demanding and will not hand over money because of tradition.
England and Wales make much of their academy systems but are they producing rugby players in the sense of learning through their experiences on the field in their formative years or clones who from far too young an age become used to being told what to do? Wales gave it a real rip in the World Cup, lacking nothing in courage, but when their matches against Australia and South Africa reached the point where what counted was not coaching or preparation but instinct, they came up short.
It is an age of conformity in which mavericks are regarded as dangerous. A difference between the Rugby Championship and the Six Nations can be seen in Ma’a Nonu and Manu Tuilagi, two players who started their senior careers at outside centre. Tuilagi, when fit, still wears 13, but Nonu has long been converted into a 12, even though he initially did little more than stick his head down and charge.
He is now the complete footballing package, if not quite a second-five in the traditional New Zealand mould, someone who still takes some stopping but who brings others into play. That side of Tuilagi has still to be brought out even though he has shown he has the passing skills. It is the difference between a tournament that asks how high rather than how much.