Peter Bills: Southern hemisphere shames Six Nations

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Damn those Lions and Cheetahs!

How dare they go and produce a game like that at Johannesburg’s Coca Cola Park last weekend, a match of such vivid movement, power and panache that even thousands of miles away, true rugby followers thrilled to the action.

In our home, we had a driven-to-distraction-by-30-years-of-rugby wife, sitting captivated by the spectacle. Next to her, an 18 year-old rugby mad son gasped in amazement at some of the skills performed at such pace, whilst his elder sister, who makes the darkest accusations against what she terms her “rugby obsessed father”, couldn’t take her eyes off the spectacle.

I mean, it’s simply reprehensible of those two Super 14 teams to demolish all those deeply-ingrained views of the northern hemisphere diehards. Chiefly, these focus around two beliefs: Super 14 rugby is candyfloss rubbish, especially under the hybrid ELVs, and the true upholders of the game are to be found only north of the equator. Anything elsewhere is to be tolerated, smiled upon but dismissed in private, as irrelevant.

Yep, that even includes winning a Super 14 title or the Tri-Nations. Even when New Zealand played Australia in Hong Kong last November en route to their northern hemisphere tours, their rugby was written off. ‘Not much here for the northern hemisphere teams to beat’ wrote one journo with hardly prescient skills.

I’m telling you, the southern hemisphere guys have no chance of changing such deeply entrenched mindsets in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin.

Rugby in these centres is a game for men, and one to be endured. We’re big on endurance in these parts. Take Saturday at Stade de France and the six Nations game between France and Scotland. Air specially directed from the Russian steppes chilled the onlooker to the marrow. The temperature rarely rose above 2 or 3 degrees.

Not that that would have mattered had the game been something to warm you. Alas, that froze you even more. Scotland, brutalised by Wales a week earlier, went to Paris on a damage limitation exercise. The French, their own confidence clearly shredded by defeat in Ireland on the opening Saturday of the tournament, quickly realised they had no hope of breaking free from the shackles and settled for penalty goals to win the game. It was about as entertaining as watching paint dry.

But of course, it was sacred because it was the mighty, the esteemed Six Nations. It must have been great just because of that.

Equally, the Lions v Cheetahs Super 14 game in Johannesburg last Friday evening must have been rubbish, because it was that damn candyfloss muck, wasn’t it ? No scrummaging worthy of the name, no forward battles, no war of attrition. Hey, that’s not real rugby. Or so the dinosaurs reckon……

Well I have a confession to make. If players showing superb ball skills, handling and passing with accuracy at pace, players running clever lines of attack off second phase ball that has been cleared lightning fast and a Lions scrum that skewered its opponents later on with a terrific display of power and technique is all rubbish, then keep the garbage coming.

I can handle the sight of backs running straight and hard, committing defenders and timing perfectly the off load. I’ll put up with forwards scrummaging with real devil and establishing a hard fought superiority. And I’ll certainly accept a dynamism in the play that was nowhere on sight in freezing Paris.

I’ll tell you something else. Whether you, I or anyone else likes it, the game of the future was to be seen in Johannesburg, not Paris. As money becomes ever tighter and professional rugby comes to rely on it more and more, television will increasingly call the shots. And the game’s TV masters aren’t going to want the kind of stuff dished up by France and Scotland. They know what appeals to a wider audience, the type of new audience that will include wives and daughters, not just the male members of a family.

Watching women and daughters means the ad market opens up far beyond traditional borders. The lure of those riches is what will drive commercial television like Sky, the big paymasters.

But given the heads-in-the-sand mentality in the northern hemisphere, one of the reasons we trail a poor second to the southern hemisphere nations, it won’t change any time soon.

Of course, being serious for a moment, it is crass to suggest that every game in the Six Nations is tripe – what about that magnificent spectacle Ireland v France just 10 days ago – and every match in the Super 14 is scintillating. They’re not.

And no-one is suggesting we ignore all that wonderful, rich tradition that accompanies the matches of the Six Nations Championship. But equally, isn’t it daft to continue believing that the rugby of the southern hemisphere is inferior?