Complaining about the boring Super Rugby season? An English rugby fan writes in to remind us how lucky we are.
Southern Hemisphere rugby is, usually, the best rugby on planet. There, I’ve said it.
Often, as a person from the Northern Hemisphere and an Englishman to boot this is not an easy thing to let pass your lips for myriad reasons; the main one being the pang of disloyalty that comes with saying it. After all the Kiwis know they’re the best and never stop bloody banging on about it, so why give them the satisfaction of saying it out loud? If us Northern Hemisphere fans don’t big up our game then who the hell is going to? The Aussies? They’re too busy trying to decipher Quade Cooper. Oh, and they hate us. And everyone else.
There are times when this truth is not quite so obvious. England have won a World Cup – did we mention that? – and the team in white do occasionally dish out a beating to even the All Blacks. But it has to be said that this is probably a bit like the story of the man who once kissed Beyoncé and never stopped talking about it, but if you asked Queen Bey she’d say “who?” Unless it was Gavin Henson, she’d remember that, alright.
However the gulf between the hemispheres has seldom been as apparent as this weekend, when you compare the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup – the premier competition on the topside of the world – with what Super Rugby was serving up. If Charles Dickens were around today he may have changed the subject of one of his famous novels and called it A Tale of Two Rugbies, and the famous opening paragraph would have gone something like:
“It was the best of handling, it was the worst of handling, it was the age of sound decisions, it was the age of wanging the ball and hoping, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch panicking and keeping it tight, it was the season of offloads, it was the season of knock-ons…”
Hurricanes vs Chiefs was a sumptuous feast for a rugby fan. It had speed, it had craft and it had forwards who looked comfortable on the ball. Trust me, that’s still a bit like seeing Halley’s comet up here: turns up every few decades, everyone stares incredulously, then it burns out to leave only things that don’t really move. Even the Sunwolves, who according to some media down south should be exiled to the third division of the Madagascan Lemurs-only League, played a brand of rugby only sporadically seen in Europe.
Juxtapose this against Leicester vs Racing 92 the second match of the final elimination stage of the ERC Champions Cup. Leicester are a grand old side who have enjoyed great historical success and are undergoing something of a style renaissance under Aaron Mauger while Racing have so much money they will probably turn up in the Panama Papers at some point. Given all this, it is hard to fathom how the game ended up looking like 30 men with sausages for fingers attempting to unhook a bra. Every modicum of reasonable play was inevitably followed by a handling error, dreadful pass or terrible refereeing decision – I can only assume Nigel Owens fancied joining in with festival of maladroitness that was raging around him.
Towards the end, the mistakes were so inevitable it was like watching one of those documentaries about Tourette’s sufferers where no matter how well something is going for them, you know they will ruin it by bellowing a swear word at some point.
Of course, any competition can have a poor game in it, so is it reading too much into this game to suggest it is indicative of the whole hemisphere? Unfortunately not. Last year’s Rugby World Cup was mostly made wonderful by the non-European teams playing rugby that was both enjoyable to watch and effective; this has continued into the regular season. There has been drama in the North and there have been exciting games because of that, but Saracens being the best team tells you that their soul-splintering brand of ruthless efficiency is enough to overcome most of what comes their way.
This summer sees England visit Australia, Wales roll into NZ, a horribly out of form Ireland team face the Boks and Scotland take on Japan. If this weekend was anything to go by, it could be a cruel summer.