As the English and Welsh rugby stars return to these shores following tough test series in New Zealand and South Africa respectively, there can be only one conclusion to draw from these tests – South is better than North! Series whitewashes by New Zealand and South Africa once again show that, for all the talk from the Northern hemisphere big guns, the Southern hemisphere giants are on another level from their European rivals and with a World Cup just over a year away, on current form the trophy looks to be heading South once more.
Just over a month ago England travelled to New Zealand with high hopes following a promising Six Nations campaign where they came tantalisingly close to winning their first championship in three years. With a squad high on confidence, Stuart Lancaster and Chris Robshaw set their team the ultimate challenge of winning the series, and following the first test that may have looked remotely achievable as an England side missing a number of key players still on club duty, held a near full-strength All Blacks side for 78 minutes before Conrad Smith went over in the corner to rob England of a deserved draw and seal an unconvincing 20-15 victory for the world champions. Following this heroic performance hope was high that, with key players returning for the second test in Dunedin, England could tie the series and take it to the final test in Hamilton. However despite England’s courageous display, they rarely looked like scoring with all 15 of their points coming from penalties kicked at goal, and came up against an All Blacks side missing arguably their two best players in Julian Savea and Kieran Read. The fact that England failed to beat the All Blacks, despite the world champions registering their worst performance in many years, would come back to haunt them. With key players returning in the second test a week later, England started strongly once more but this time with more purpose as they went in at half-time with a slender 10-6 lead, courtesy of an early Marland Yarde try. However, New Zealand also had a key player returning in the shape of Julian Savea and with Ben Smith orchestrating the play marvellously from full-back in the second half, New Zealand ran in three tries in 22 minutes to seal victory before a brace of tries at the end for England gave the score line of 28-27 a rather flattering look for the English. With the series won, Lancaster took the option to make changes in search of that elusive victory. With the talismanic Kieran Read returning for the All Blacks however, New Zealand showed why they are world champions as they ran in five tries – three of them coming through the thunderous running of Savea – to wrap up the series with a comprehensive 36-13 victory and in the process tie level with the great All Blacks side of the ’60s, in recording a record-equalling 17 consecutive test match victories with their last defeat coming in December 2012 against the English. For Stuart Lancaster, despite some encouraging performances, they returned home knowing they still have some way to go before they can call themselves the best.
For Wales, the signs were ominous. After a disappointing 3rd place finish in the Six Nations, it looked like a case of damage limitation as Wales travelled to South Africa for a two-test series. With just one victory recorded against the Springboks in their history, many were expecting a comprehensive series win for the South Africans, and the first test showed why as full-back Willie Le Roux inspired South Africa to a convincing 38-16 victory. If anything the score line flattered an abysmal Wales team, who only had the consolation of a superb individual try by Alex
Cuthbert to cling on to, as they were steamrollered by a far superior Springboks outfit. For the second test many were predicting a similar outcome, however the Welsh – minus the imposing figure of prop Adam Jones who paid the price for that terrible showing the previous week – responded with a courageous and gutsy performance as they raced into a 17-0 lead before being pegged back to just a three point lead at half-time. In the second half, Warren Gotland’s team continued to set the pace and were soon presiding over a 30-17 lead with just ten minutes to go. As Wales looked to be heading to a historic first victory on South African soil, South Africa responded in ruthless fashion to run in two tries – the second of which was a penalty try following an illegal tackle by Wales full-back Liam Williams – to deny Wales right at the death, to seal a 31-30 victory that wrapped up the series 2-0 in their favour and leave a dejected Wales to wonder what could have been.
So despite encouraging performances which nearly led to victory, the failure of England and Wales once again shows that the Southern Hemisphere sides remain the best and despite the likes of Ireland (New Zealand 2013) and Wales (South Africa 2014) presiding over leads going into the latter stages of matches, the failure to finish off these sides coupled with the opposition’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat shows just why New Zealand and South Africa remain the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in 2015.