Professionalism tilts balance of power towards north

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The Independent Online

If the Rugby World Cup had been inaugurated after the last world war, the only question for many years afterwards would have been whether the winners would be South Africa or New Zealand. The Australians were not then the force they became. The countries most likely to upset the established order were Wales and France. England were nowhere, or thereabouts.

If the Rugby World Cup had been inaugurated after the last world war, the only question for many years afterwards would have been whether the winners would be South Africa or New Zealand. The Australians were not then the force they became. The countries most likely to upset the established order were Wales and France. England were nowhere, or thereabouts.

Move on to the turn of the century, and the world order had changed. Of the four World Cups held before then, Australia had won two, while South Africa and New Zealand had only one each. England were a formidable force, Wales apparently in a terminal decline. Ireland were constantly promising to do great deeds but, through no fault of their own, breaking their word with equal consistency. Only France retained their old high spirits.

This state of affairs led to a fashion in rugby writing. The northern hemisphere, it was said, would never be able to take on the countries of the southern hemisphere "on equal terms'' unless they first divested themselves of the incubus of what were known as the Celtic nations. This was maintained despite, at that time, Ireland's clear superiority to Wales and Scotland.

The solution, it was proposed, was effectively to do away with the Five (soon to become the Six) Nations' Championship and to establish a Celtic competition, with Italians as honorary Celts: so leaving England and France more free to meet their equals or, at any rate, their prospective equals from the southern hemisphere. It is perhaps difficult to recall now the seriousness with which this proposal was taken at the time. I opposed it.

It was an act of vandalism, destroying as it would do the best rugby competition in the world. It did not allow for the intermediate position of Ireland. And it did not consider the possibility that in a few years, Scotland and Wales would be restored to something approaching their old selves.

In the few years that have passed, only Scotland have remained a disappointment. England and Ireland have both beaten South Africa, France have beaten Australia, and Wales have very nearly beaten South Africa and New Zealand. Instead of saying that the Six Nations' should be abolished, commentators have been writing that they are looking forward to the competition in the new year.

England and France are, in alphabetical order, still the leading countries in the northern hemisphere. But Ireland are gaining parity. And Wales are barely recognisable as the team that stumbled and fumbled in Rome only a few years ago.

There are, I think, two main reasons for this change. One of them is professionalism. Most of the leading performers in the southern hemisphere were, or contrived to be, rugby players first, and holders of ordinary jobs afterwards. The acceptance of professionalism in Great Britain and Ireland has for the first time introduced a balance. The more prosperous parts of these islands have benefited accordingly: not only England but Ireland as well, for anyone who doubted the wealth bestowed on Irish rugby had only to observe the crowd at Sunbury - all camel-hair coats and Havana cigars - in the days when London Irish were a true exile club.

The other reason for the change lies in the improvement in forward play. This also is connected to professionalism. For while backs can be polished up and moves rehearsed, forwards can be manufactured if the basic ingredients are to hand. For decades the Lions had the better backs but the weaker forwards; and they always lost. The tide turned with their visit to New Zealand in 1971 and to South Africa in 1974, with Willie John McBride playing a prominent role in both tours, though others were involved as well.

But the transition was not complete until the England forwards' performance in the last World Cup. It was confirmed when a substantially different pack virtually annihilated the South Africans at Twickenham on Saturday. I was particularly pleased that Graham Rowntree, who was unlucky not to be chosen for Australia 2003, had such a good game.

The Welsh forwards were not so dominating at Cardiff, but they did better than anyone had the right to expect. Here I was pleased that Colin Charvis, who had been booed as Wales captain after a particularly dispiriting team performance, deservedly won the man-of-the-match award. It only goes to show that you can never be entirely sure about what the future will bring.

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