2022 so far has been a bit of a strange year if you're a fan of one of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses. The North has been sublime in both their domestic rugby and at 6 Nations level. The URC has dished up some stellar displays, the Premiership is on fire with Saracens having returned, whilst the Top14 continues to boast its premier status with numerous sides propelling themselves into the play-offs of the Champions and Challenge Cups.
The Champions Cup clash last night between Leinster and La Rochelle was another stern reminder that the Northern sides boast incredible talent in their playing pools. What a final it was as La Rochelle stole victory at the death (24 - 21) over Leinster who were touted as favorites for the fixture. It was incredible to watch and the last ten minutes reminded me of the dogged defense the Boks displayed against England in 2019 just before half time.
After the re-jigging of Super Rugby, the domestic competitions played across Europe have definitely usurped premier status for the South. Add to this the fact that the Champions Cup is as close to a club world cup that you can get, the stars are aligning well for the likes of France, Ireland and England to name a few. Their fans are upbeat, their players are in form and they have their sights clearly set on the 2023 show piece in France.
Add to this the fact that the last time the North and South clashed, England claimed victories over Australia and the Springboks. Both Ireland and France put the All Blacks away and Scotland toppled the Aussies. The playing field looks level across the board and arguably closer than it ever has been before. It is a great thing for the sport as a whole, competitiveness grows interest in the game and growing this beautiful sport is rightly the number 1 priority.
It is not unusual for some of the Northern sides to have stellar seasons the year prior to a World Cup, but this often amounts to peaking early and none know this better than the Irish. All of France, England, Ireland and at a push, Scotland will be fancying their chances in France. They will feel like they have the edge over the 3 sides that dominate the World Cups, the Boks, All Blacks and Wallabies. This July then, presents the opportunity for the pecking order to be re-established.
Ireland will be undertaking a mammoth task of a 3 test tour to New Zealand. Having won 3 of their last 5 fixtures over the All Blacks they will be taking a level of confidence on the tour that could greatly assist them in overcoming the mental battle of facing the Haka and the rugby mad public of the land of the long white cloud. A series white wash by the All Blacks over the Irish will be expected by the home crowd and if the side delivers it, they will deal a major blow to the Irish psyche a year out from the World Cup.
Wales are heading to South Africa and although clashes between these two sides are generally games of attrition and extremely close contests, the Welsh injury list and named squad have many touting a pounding in the Rainbow Nation. The Welsh domestic sides had a torrid time touring in the URC, losing all 8 games by large scores as they struggled with the SA physicality. They will have their work cut out for them if they are to front up to the physical and tactically astute Boks.
Eddie Jones will be leading his charged back to his home land of Australia. The tour will bring additional focus for the fact that their former coach is bringing the English through, the Wallabies uptake in form under Dave Rennie and the fact that they have just been awarded the 2027 World Cup. Jones will be chomping at the bit to make a statement down under. Dave Rennie will have his work cut out for him and should he manage a series (2-1) win over the Roses, the pressure will mount on Jones. Don't forget how the Boks struggled in Aus last year.
France are heading over to Japan and should be able to focus on squad depth as they match the Japanese fast paced game. The Scots will be touring Argentina and Los Pumas, under the guidance of Michael Cheika will be looking to get back on track after a disappointing 2021 season.
Should the All Blacks, Springboks and Australia manage series wins, a line will be drawn and a reminder sent out to the rugby world that the South hasn't gone anywhere. Should Argentina also get the better of the Scots, there can be no doubt that Southern Hemisphere rugby retains the rugby pedigree that has won 8 of the 9 Rugby World Cups.