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The battle of the hemispheres

Greetings from chilly Edinburgh.

I am writing this at 5am, having woken up ready to take on the world at 4:30. Such are the joys of jet lag, this being the eighth time change I have put my body through since late July.

Still, who’s complaining, when there is a month of North v South international rugby to look forward to?

I’m not sure when this rivalry between the hemispheres started, but you hear constant references in the UK to “Southern Hemisphere Rugby” and it’s not always complimentary.

It encompasses playing style, refereeing interpretations, and a general sense of two entities wanting different things from the game. It certainly adds some spice every June and, in particular, every November, when we get to see the world through the eyes of the British media – many of whom are great writers of the game, like Stuart Barnes, an ex-international with a fine style of analysing the game.

There are some more disaffected former players plying their trade, but there are also the garden-variety poison-pen types who are just out to stir up ill feeling, which they do pretty well.

The rivalry seems to have heightened since rugby went pro.

It was the three SH powers who led the game into professionalism in the mid 90s, ending years of “shamateurism”. It was the SH powers who pushed for the Rugby World Cup. SH nations have driven many of the law changes aimed at making the game more attractive for fans, and of course it is SH nations who more often than not occupy the top three rungs on the international ladder.

The NH nations have fought hard to preserve the traditions of the game, warning of the dangers of professionalism – and some of those fears having been vindicated. They firmly believe their referees are the best at policing the laws, and the English in particular tend to rubbish the style of SH play, especially Super Rugby, which has often been likened to basketball. The All Blacks and Springboks are routinely accused of cheating in order to win.

Polar opposites, in many respects, and I love it!

I note that the Springboks have just three games, and coming on top of the year they have had, with all of their injury troubles, this may not be a bad thing. The Irish should provide a good first-up challenge this weekend, especially if they can repeat the form of the second test against the All Blacks in June, which they nearly won. However the Boks have the advantage of having played together more recently.

The Wallabies have the toughest four-match schedule, with France, England and Wales to contend with, all of whom will fancy their chances of a victory. They kick off against France this weekend, and the home team is to my mind a slight favourite. The problem with the French, however, is that often when they should win they don’t, and when you think they are right for a stuffing they often prove the opposite, so who would know?

And the All Blacks have four games, kicking off this weekend in Edinburgh, moving to Rome, then the big two to finish in Cardiff and at Twickenham.

Scotland have never beaten the All Blacks in 107 years of trying, the closest they have come being drawn matches in 1964 and against a second-string All Blacks side in 1983. They will be missing their outstanding tighthead prop Euan Murray who won’t play on Sundays, and despite having twice beaten Australia in recent times, they are not expected to make history this weekend.

The matches will be played under the latest experimental laws, which might set the Boks, Wallabies and ABs at a slight disadvantage for the first couple of games. While the laws have been used in the domestic competitions, I know that very few of the All Blacks have actually played under them.

The “five-second” rule governing ball at the back of the ruck will have a big impact, but certainly suits the way the All Blacks want to play.

The one that worries me a bit is the ‘Crouch, Touch, Set” scrum sequence, and I hope we’re not going to have a whole lot of collapses, especially in games involving Italy, where no doubt the irrepressible Martin Castrogiovanni will be out to try and destroy every single scrum.

Still it all makes for an intriguing month, and providing I can sort out my body clock, it will be a lot of fun.

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