Judging by World Cup records, the southern hemisphere countries are consistently stronger – just better – than the northern ones.
This is what makes this summer’s Test matches so remarkable. Ireland won a three match series 2-1 in New Zealand. England beat Australia by the same margin. Wales lost 2-1 in South Africa, but all three matches were mighty close, and Wales had gone there with little expectation after an undistinguished Six Nations which ended with them losing to Italy in Cardiff.
Because of this recent history, this afternoon’s match between South Africa and New Zealand as the curtain raiser for the 2023 Rugby Championship takes on unusual significance. New Zealand may even be happy that this first round of the southern championship is being played in South Africa, away from a critical and doubting home crowd. Losing there – which would be their third defeat in a row, wouldn’t be quite as bad as losing at home. After all, historically, either South Africa or New Zealand is the best team in the world, and indeed it is only against South Africa that the All Blacks have a less than 50 per cent winning record – not much less, only 48 per cent – but it does mean that South Africa is the only country that the All Blacks aren’t always expected to beat.
New Zealand have a coach, Ian Foster, and captain, Sam Cane, who are under pressure. Their immediate challenge is tough as they come. South Africa of course have work to do themselves. Scraping a series win against Wales is nothing to shout about. Wales after all are at present not nearly as good as Ireland. The Springboks were expected to thump them, and didn’t. Perhaps they were a bit arrogant? All the same their position is not as bad as New Zealand’s.
The All Blacks have had an aura like no other national side. They are of course the only country that Scotland has never beaten, and this may in part be because, like the other Six Nations teams, we have found it hard to think of them as a country like any other. They are the All Blacks, the gods of rugby. When you lose to South Africa, you can console yourself by recognising that you have been outpowered. But the All Blacks are different. Scotland aren’t the only team who, psychologically, after the haka, start seven points down.
The All Blacks have been like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. They have had the equivalent of being a break ahead before a ball is kicked. Consequently they expect to win. They recognise of course that it may be difficult, but they have had the confidence in their ability to turn things round that comes from experience. But they are now in a trough. It seems likely that self-confidence is being eroded by self-doubt. I suspect the malaise goes back to the last World Cup, at a time when they were favourites and seemed invincible.
Then, in the semi-final, they were taken apart by England. It was, admittedly, the best performance by any England side since the day of Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson, but it was an annihilation. The losing side were no longer the gods of Mount Olympus, no longer the awe-inspiring All Blacks, just a team called New Zealand having a thoroughly bad day. On reflection, they have scarcely never been the same team since. Ireland, one may say, won this summer because they had convinced themselves they were playing New Zealand, not the All Blacks. Something of the mystique had gone.
The SRU announced this week that all tickets have been sold for the match against New Zealand in November. Scotland may of course find themselves up against a team that has recovered its self-belief and returned to winning ways. We may ourselves be a bit uncertain. Yet Ireland has pointed the way – and yes, one must admit, Ireland are currently a better side than Scotland. Nevertheless, there is one lesson Ireland offers: never mind the haka, you are playing New Zealand, just another country. Forget about the All Blacks.