Travel and television help turn tide of southern hemisphere dominance

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Until quite recently, the superiority of the countries of the southern hemisphere was accepted as a fact of rugby life. Or, rather, it was the superiority of New Zealand and South Africa. Australia were relatively late on the scene with, I would say, the 1966 Wallabies.

Until quite recently, the superiority of the countries of the southern hemisphere was accepted as a fact of rugby life. Or, rather, it was the superiority of New Zealand and South Africa. Australia were relatively late on the scene with, I would say, the 1966 Wallabies.

The tide turned in the early 1970s, when the Lions beat first New Zealand and then South Africa. But these series victories served to show only that the job could be done. The broad pattern remained as it had been previously, with famous but isolated victories by European countries, Welsh clubs, Irish provinces or English divisional sides.

Matters have changed over the last decade or so. There are many causes. There is the Rugby World Cup, which was inaugurated in 1987. Though all four competitions so far have been won by southern hemisphere countries, it has introduced a sense of equality or, at any rate, of potential equality. Then there is professionalism, which has benefited England and, perhaps more surprisingly, Ireland, while leaving Scotland and Wales at a comparative disadvantage. And there is the importation both of players and of coaches from the southern hemisphere. So far this has largely been a one-way traffic, though I can envisage a handsome offer to Clive Woodward after he has finished his stint as England manager.

But the most important cause of all lies, it seems to me, is modern travel. Many years ago I wrote in this column that rugby had yet to come to terms with the invention of the jet engine. Well, it has certainly done so now, and no mistake: perhaps too much so for the game's own good.

Fifty years ago the man on the touchline or in the stand would have seen, say, Jonah Lomu once in a lifetime. He would have talked about the experience to those friends of his who had not been lucky enough to see him and to his children and maybe his grandchildren also.

Today, on account of television as well, Lomu is as familiar a figure as the big wing at the club down the road. As with any other local player, we can (despite his two tries against England) see Lomu in decline. This is perhaps the saddest aspect of all. But that is progress for you. We should never have experienced the feast of rugby which Twickenham has provided over the last fortnight.

Jannes Labuschagne was nevertheless, I thought, unlucky to be sent off permanently on Saturday for his flagrant late tackle on Jonny Wilkinson. At the same ground nearly 25 years ago Paul Ringer, the Wales flanker, was sent off for an attempted late tackle on John Horton, the England outside-half. That tackle was, however, dangerously high. Ringer looked as if he was about to take Horton's head off. He claimed afterwards that he was merely trying to charge down the outside-half's kick.

But Ringer was a marked man because of his disciplinary record. Labuschagne was not exactly a marked man. But the referee, Paddy O'Brien, was clearly determined to make an example of somebody, pour encourager les autres. Labuschagne drew the short straw. As a disciplinary ploy, it clearly failed.

While England have never been the force they are today, they have not always been complete wallflowers either. I was reminded of this by the death of Ron Jacobs at 74, which was announced last week. In his period as loose-head prop, 1956-64, they won the championship four times (in 1960 jointly with France). In 1957 they won the Grand Slam.

I met Jacobs much later, at a rugby dinner where I was the guest of his old international colleague, the late Ricky Bartlett. You know the kind of thing: no women, black ties, risqué speeches, auctions of signed rugby balls at £10 a throw. Towards the end of the evening Ron, a Cambridgeshire farmer (as he had been in his playing days), joined our table. We fell to talking about potatoes, as one does on these occasions.

"The best potato of all,'' he announced decisively, "is the Maris Piper.''

"Nonsense,'' I said. "It doesn't taste of anything and it's good for everything, which means that it's good for nothing.''

I went on to say that it suited the interests of farmers rather than of cooks because farmers could sell huge quantities of the type to gullible housewives and lazy restaurateurs. I may have added a few well-chosen words on the greed of farmers as a race. By this time Ron was alarmingly cross.

"I think he may hit me,'' I confided to Bartlett.

"I shouldn't worry,'' Bartlett replied. "I don't think he's in a position to do you much damage after his heart attack.''

As a peace offering, I gave him a lift to the East India Club, where he was staying the night. By now he was in the highest good humour.

"I enjoyed our little chat,'' Ron said. "Come and see us if you're ever in our part of the world.''

Alas, I never did.

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