TOKYO, Oct 22 – The history of the Rugby World Cup is dominated by the rivalry between the northern and southern hemispheres, with an intriguing new chapter set to be written this weekend.
The England-New Zealand and Wales-South Africa clashes are the first north versus south semi-finals at a World Cup in 20 years. The last came back in 1999 when France famously stunned New Zealand 43-31, below. Overall, there have only ever been five north-south semi-final clashes, with the south winning three of them.
But while England remain the only northern hemisphere nation ever to have won the World Cup, there has been a burgeoning sense that the northern teams are beginning to close the gap on their illustrious southern rivals, especially over the past four years.
In the three years leading up to Rugby World Cup 2015, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France won just 20 of their 66 Tests against the four Rugby Championship nations. If you exclude Argentina, then the record becomes an even more dismal nine wins from 52 tests.
However, over the past three years there has been a remarkable shift. Suddenly, those five have reeled off 37 wins from 65 tests, a win percentage of 57 per cent. Even without Argentina, their record of 23 wins from 50 tests is highly respectable. The transformation of England and Wales has played a particularly important role, with the two World Cup semi-finalists winning 14 of their 23 tests against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa between January 2016 and September 2019.
The narrowing of the gap adds a fascinating element to this weekend’s semi-finals, when the northern hemisphere nations will be competing on a more level playing field than ever before with their southern rivals.
But one aspect which could give New Zealand and South Africa the edge is the humid Japanese weather. Southern hemisphere players compete in Super Rugby across four different continents, so they are used to competing under pressure in a much more diverse and demanding spectrum of weather conditions than European nations.
If you look at the five main north-south clashes at Rugby World Cup 2019 so far, namely Wales-Australia, France-Argentina, England-Argentina, England-Australia, and Ireland-New Zealand, a clear pattern emerges in the points scoring.
Across these five matches, the northern nations heavily outscore their rivals in the first half – nine tries to four, including Jonny May, pictured above, against Australia. But in the second half the picture reverses, with the southern teams performing more strongly. Jordie Barrett's try against Ireland, main picture, is one of 10 scored by the southern teams after half-time, against seven from the northern teams.
In order to make World Cup history and set up the tournament’s first all-northern hemisphere final, England and Wales will probably need to start fast and build a lead, to protect against potential late surges from New Zealand and South Africa.
North v South semi-finals
1987: New Zealand 49-6 Wales
1991: Australia 24-30 France
1995: South Africa 19-15 France
1995: New Zealand 45-29 England
1999: New Zealand 31-43 France