Between them, they share four of the eight World Cups on offer to date. Yet, having been on the receiving end of some embarrassing hammerings from northern hemisphere foes this autumn, the demise of rugby in South Africa and Australia must have alarm bells ringing in World Rugby headquarters.
New Zealand apart, the order of world rugby is changing rapidly. France might not have won a World Cup but their record of three final appearances coupled with six semi-finals — remember Ireland are still chasing a first — offers an appropriate appreciation of their standing.
The fact that Japan left Paris with a 23-23 draw on Saturday night serves as another reminder of the state of play in French rugby. It should have been worse as Japan missed a relatively easy conversion of their 74th-minute try to win the game. Having just secured the hosting rights for the 2023 World Cup for his country, you can be sure that French Federation president Bernard Laporte will now turn his focus on the national team. That may well spell the end for their coach Guy Noves.
With so little time between now and the key opening game of the Six Nations championship against Ireland at the Stade de France next February, Noves may get a stay of execution but with Laporte looking for his head, you never know. There is no love lost between these two, dating back to Laporte’s tenure as national coach and to a highly successful time at the helm of Toulon.
France are as unpredictable and inconsistent as ever. Noves did introduce a number of highly promising youngsters over the course of the month, including an impressive pair of under 21 half-backs in Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau, but they look rudderless at times.
When the draw for the pool stages of the 2019 World Cup was made, Joe Schmidt, even though he would never admit it, must have been purring silently.
Coupled with Scotland and host nation Japan in Pool A, the opportunity to top our pool for a third consecutive tournament appears well within Ireland’s grasp. In addition, not only did Ireland avoid their tournament nemesis Argentina, whom the draw decrees we can’t meet unless both progress to the final, we have also sidestepped all three SANZAR nations.
Compare that with Pool C where England, France and Argentina go head to head for two places and Pool B where New Zealand and South Africa are coupled together. Should everything go to form, Ireland would face the Springboks in the quarter-final.
However the shifting sands of international rugby, highlighted by results in recent weeks, has altered the complexion of Ireland’s pool completely. After a decade of decline and ineptitude, Scotland turned a corner under the impressive reign of Vern Cotter and he transformed them into a decent side. Remember, despite a highly satisfying November series last season, the Scots sent Ireland packing in our Six Nations opener in Edinburgh last February.
Murrayfield witnessed three classic encounters this month alone and hasn’t bristled with this much pride and passion since that famous day back in 1990 when Scottish captain David Sole slowly walked his men down the tunnel and out to the centre of the field before beating England to win the Grand Slam. That England side, under Will Carling, were unbackable favorites to lift the same prize that day but were beaten in a thriller.
Nobody was quite sure what would happen when Gregor Townsend was, somewhat surprisingly, elevated to the role of Scottish head coach when Cotter’s contract wasn’t renewed in controversial circumstances. Townsend did a brilliant job with the Glasgow Warriors, leading them to Guinness Pro12 success in 2015, playing some brilliant rugby on the way.
Incredibly he has continued on that vein. Scotland scored 16 tries in the games against Samoa, New Zealand, and Australia this month. Eight of those came against the Wallabies last Saturday when Michael Cheika’s men were routed 53-24.
Beaten 30-6 by England the previous week, rugby in Australia, despite beating New Zealand only a few weeks ago, faces big challenges.
The fact that Scotland were still chasing a win entering additional time against the All Blacks the previous weekend, before going down 22-17, augurs well for their future. Schmidt will be keeping an eagle eye on their Six Nations form and their visit to Dublin in March. That will be a spicy affair.
Quite what World Rugby as a body is making of this shift in the power base is intriguing. It is good for the game globally that Ireland and Scotland can continuously put it up to the traditional powerhouses on a regular basis — England have been doing it for longer than us — but the game needs South
Africa and Australia at their best. The fact that Japan is continuing with the level of progress that saw them beat the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup is also brilliant for the game.
It must, however, be a massive concern to the governing body that this November window has served to highlight forcefully the fact that the lucrative financial attractions of playing club rugby in Europe and Japan is serving to dramatically dilute the playing strengths of the Wallabies and Springboks. The last thing rugby needs is for the international game to be damaged by the power of the club game to the extent it has in soccer.
New Zealanders were shocked this month when the Hurricanes back rower and captain Brad Shields turned down a call to join the New Zealand party and a potential All Black cap — after Jerome Kaino was ruled out through injury — because he plans to sign for Wasps next summer and declare for England.
Sheilds’ parents are English but, having been brought up in their system and winning an U20 World Cup with New Zealand in 2011 alongside several of the current All Black side — Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, and Codie Taylor — the New Zealand public were flabbergasted. Nobody in that country turns down a chance to become an All Black.
The exodus of so many top quality players from South Africa and Australia is having a serious effect on the game in those countries. The ARU face massive competition from their league counterparts, cricket, soccer, and Australian Rules for sponsorship, corporate hospitality, and broadcast money and not having their best players available to them is proving crippling on all fronts.
The revelation that their latest young star, 23-year-old No.8 Sean McMahon, is set to leave for Japan to play club rugby there, thus ruling himself out of the next World Cup, is the latest hammer blow for Cheika.
The international game is too small and the prospect of Australia, South Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Argentina becoming uncompetitive because of unavailability of frontline players is doing the game a disservice. Having so many overseas players taking up key positions in their domestic league is doing nothing for French rugby either. The sooner Laporte addresses that problem in the Top 14, the better for the game as a whole.
Ireland and Scotland emerged as the big winners from this November series but Schmidt will be mindful that Ireland felt even better about themselves this time last year having beaten New Zealand for the first time, along with another gritty win over Australia.
That didn’t prevent the Scots from bursting our bubble with that opening day Six Nations win in Edinburgh. This time we have been forewarned. History tells us that success in November guarantees nothing in the new year.