Rugby World Cup: Do fans support their own hemisphere?
- 13 October 2011
- From the section Magazine
With northern hemisphere teams competing in one semi-final at the Rugby World Cup this weekend and southern teams playing in the other, a north-south showdown is guaranteed for the final. So will fans back the team from their own hemisphere?
Ever since the Irish shocked Australia in the group stage of the Rugby World Cup, the game's global showcase has come to be framed as a tournament of two halves - the northern hemisphere against the southern.
Had the seeding system worked as planned, both semi-finals would have featured at least one side from south of the equator. But when Ireland unexpectedly topped their group, it set up a north-south divide that started in the quarter-finals and will go all the way to the final.
At Eden Park in Auckland a week on Sunday, the best of the Tri Nations teams will take on the best of the Six Nations teams. New Zealand or Australia will play France or Wales. Neat and simple.
With one side of the globe pitted against the other, it raises the intriguing question of whether there is any such thing as hemisphere loyalty.
Will fans below the equator be hoping that either Australia or New Zealand will continue a winning run that has seen southern teams claim five out of six world cups? Will northerners be yearning for France or Wales to emulate England's solitary success in 2003?
Far from unleashing any kind of hemispheric loyalties, the tournament so far has simply amplified existing, neighbourly rivalries.
The quarter-finals pitted England against their traditional cross-Channel foes France. The group stages saw a resumption of the old Calcutta Cup rivalry between England and the Scots, a South Pacific stand-off between Fiji and Samoa and even a Cold War heritage fixture between USA and Russia.
There has certainly not been much southern solidarity on display yet in Australia or New Zealand. Watching the semi-final between Argentina and the All Blacks at a pub in Sydney, one Wallabies fan was hoarse by the end of game, after shouting "Choke!" at the television every two or three minutes - a reference to New Zealand's repeated World Cup heebie-jeebies.
The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid, meanwhile, has been running a daily column entitled The Kiwi Chokedown.
Neither has New Zealand offered much of a welcome to the Wallabies - far from it. Partly because their star player, fly-half Quade Cooper, was born in Tokoroa in the North Island and only crossed "the ditch" to live in Queensland 10 years ago.
Setting the scene on Monday for a week of trans-Tasman banter, Australian sportswriter Anthony Sharwood warned: "Prepare for a week of verbal warfare. Here on the civilised side of the ditch, expect perfectly hilarious sheep jokes.
"Over in the land of the long white ugg boot, expect endless tedious quips about Quade Cooper, Quade Cooper and Quade Cooper. With a few Quade Cooper jokes thrown in for good measure."
While a north-south battle became the inevitable climax of this World Cup at an unusually early stage this year, in fact five out of the six finals since the competition began in 1987 have ended up as a battle of the hemispheres.
In those games, the presence on three occasions of England stood as a bar to the emergence of a united northern front. Many Welsh, Scottish and Irish fans staunchly adopted an "anyone-but-England" stance.
For their part, fans on both sides of the Tasman Sea can recall supporting their rivals in finals past, but say that in recent times the Wallabies/All Blacks rivalry has intensified - probably due to Quade Cooper. He made himself even more unpopular in the land of his birth by kneeing the All Blacks hero, Richie McCaw, in the head during this year's Tri Nations.
But despite all the talk this year about a north-south divide, there are senior figures within the game who do not believe the tournament should be framed as a battle of the hemispheres.
Among them is John Eales, the World Cup-winning captain of the Wallabies.
"The divide in rugby is not, as the trite would have you believe, between northern and southern hemispheres," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
"It may have been at other times in the history of the sport but not currently.
"The divide at the moment is between positive and negative - or between enterprising and timid - and unlike at the World Cup in 2007, in 2011 the good guys are now winning."
Eales has a point. Tellingly, the tournament's four flair sides have made it through, while sides like England and Ireland, which are instinctively more cautious, defensive and conservative have ended up in the departure lounge.
Those who have stayed true to William Webb Ellis's founding heresy by basing their play on running games with the ball kept in hand have rightfully prospered. For the most part, attack has triumphed over suffocating defence.
Here, it is by no means coincidental that three out of the four coaches to reach the semi-finals hail from New Zealand, where the game is played in its purest form. Graham Henry of the All Blacks, Robbie Deans of the Wallabies and Warren Gatland of Wales.
So perhaps this is less about a north-south divide and more about teams setting out to play ambitious and altitudinous rugby - the game in its highest form.
Let us hope we are in for a weekend of mountain-top rugby.