A gulf in class?
June 21, 2012
Brian O'Driscoll and his Ireland team-mates came up just short against New Zealand last weekend © Getty Images
Welcome to the latest edition of Tackling Rugby - our regular feature that will debate the key issues in the game.
With Europe's leading sides holding their own on their current tours of the southern hemisphere, we ask whether the gulf between the two is a thing of the past.
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ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins talks up the northern hemisphere's recent showing:
The gulf between the leading northern and southern hemisphere sides was a blight on the game for many years but is clearly now a thing of the past.
The results from the recent inter-hemisphere clashes may not quite reflect that but the ability to go toe-to-toe with the world's best on their own patch and come within a whisker of victory - or even claim an historic triumph as in Scotland's case - underlines the fact that Europe's finest stand on the brink of shaking up the world order.
The World Cup, the only time the two hemispheres meet on a level playing field not hampered by the lack of a global calendar, offered a hint that the times were changing with an impressive Wales side powering their way to the final four and France defying the odds to the reach the final where they were only narrowly beaten by the All Blacks.
Long gone are the days of England getting schooled on the infamous 'tour of hell' and while they may have only won just two of their last ten meetings against one of the southern hemisphere giants, only two of those defeats have resulted in a winning margin of more than 10 points. Fine margins.
It is a similar tale for Wales who not so long ago leaked forty points to the All Blacks and offered little in return. The current crop are made of sterner stuff and their last five games - admittedly defeats - against the same opposition have seen them beaten by a combined total of 20 points. They have set the bar of late and were understandably bullish entering their latest series against Australia and while victory may have so far evaded them, they lead the assault on the top of the world rankings.
Ireland may not be able to boast the same level of consistency as their Six Nations rivals with some notable blow outs in their last 10 matches against the sport's pace setters but they can point to high-profile victories over Australia and South Africa and an agonisingly narrow defeat to New Zealand last time out. Scotland have also suffered significantly at the hands of the All Blacks but two victories over Australia and another against South Africa cannot be ignored and warrant a great deal of credit.
As is their way, France see fit to mix magic with mediocrity and as a result it may not surprise you to see some ugly-looking scores in their recent encounters with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa but they have also achieved the rare feat of beating New Zealand - on Kiwi soil.
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton argues Europe's finest remain some way off the pace:
The northern hemisphere sides are still some way from closing the gap on the southern hemisphere. Going into this weekend's matches all three of our supposed premier teams in the British & Irish isles are 2-0 down with tales of 'What if?' dominating talk rather than the pages of national newspapers heralding momentous victories on the hardest of stages.
There is no doubt that they have showed heart while on tour with England's second-half showing against the Boks one highlight and Wales pushing Australia all the way only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. Then there's Ireland who came within five minutes and a couple of dodgy refereeing decisions to shocking the All Blacks on their own turf. But there's one residing factor in all three examples - they still registered as defeats. Heroic losses, impressive intensity and displays of heart are all relevant in the week between Tests, but in a year's time, they will still be defeats.
The southern hemisphere sides do not have any necessary advantage over the teams. It's still 80 minutes on a rugby field and it is down to the individual to how much they are influenced by the partisan crowd. But at times the southern hemisphere sides appear to be playing rugby from a different planet, let alone a different time zone.
Until Wales - who were meant to be on the verge of breaking into the world's top three when they travelled Down Under - break their mental hoodoo of closing out a match on southern hemisphere soil, then they will not record a series win. For Ireland, they will bid farewell to the irreplaceable Brian O'Driscoll in the coming year or two, and they need to find that spark - a Test series win on foreign soil will be even more unlikely when that happens. England are still in the embryonic stages of their development but while a 2-1 series loss to the Boks may be received by the press as a good return for a tour to South Africa, it's still a defeat.
France also did little to alleviate the gloom surrounding the Six Nations' showing in the southern hemisphere when they fell to a shadow Pumas side last weekend.
The anomaly in this, and yet to be mentioned, is Scotland. They defeated Australia 9-6 in horrendous conditions and that was the necessary wake-up call the big three needed. They all raised their games and each stands a chance of completing a series whitewash this weekend. While that still happens, the record books will show the southern hemisphere in the ascendancy, regardless of northern hemisphere commitment.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.