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Back at the end of November the evidence seemed pretty conclusive. France and Ireland had just beaten New Zealand on successive weekends, England had knocked over South Africa and Australia while Scotland and Wales had also defeated the Wallabies. Looking down the list of results it felt as if the “battle of the hemispheres” had swung decisively towards the north.
And now? We are about to discover whether any northern smugness was premature or if it was truly a sign of the times. If Ireland win a best-of-three series in New Zealand it would make a colossal statement. And should England, having muddled through the Six Nations, inflict more woe on the Wallabies it would do wonders for the pre-Rugby World Cup confidence of Eddie Jones’s squad.
A little caveat is required: given South Africa’s provinces now compete in the United Rugby Championship and, soon enough, the Heineken Champions Cup, the equator is not as clear a dividing line as it once was. These days it can even be argued that some Welsh players have had more recent first-hand experience of the Highveld than of rugby pitches over the Severn Bridge.
For the purposes of this debate, however, let us stick with strict geographical tradition and contemplate the likeliest winners of a straight head to head between the four home unions and the four Rugby Championship sides. Which means that, with 12 Tests scheduled over the next three weekends, the north need to win seven before they can make any grandiose claims.
It is not going to be easy, particularly as Welsh ambitions in South Africa are not sky high. If the Lions could not win a series played solely at sea level last summer, what chance of a depleted Wales beating a world champion squad whose strength in depth seems to be developing nicely? If it ends up as anything other than a 3-0 victory for the Springboks, Wales will consider the tour more than worthwhile.
Nor are Scotland going to find Argentina in mellow, relaxed mood, with Michael Cheika now in charge and some high-level European-based pros back involved. In 2010 Scotland won both matches in a two-Test series but with Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Chris Harris absent they will be delighted if they can claim a 2-1 win this time around.
All of which theoretically leaves Ireland and England needing an unprecedented five wins from their collective six Tests against the All Blacks and the Wallabies. The Irish have yet to win a Test in New Zealand in their history so even a 2-1 defeat would, relatively speaking, represent progress. While England won 3-0 on their last tour to Australia in 2016, it would be an even bigger achievement to replicate that margin this time.
Let’s start with Ireland, fourth in the world rankings. Along with everyone else they will be sending best wishes to all the All Black coaches and players who have tested positive for Covid but it makes the first Test in Auckland even more pivotal. If New Zealand sail on without their head coach Ian Foster, assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod and the centres David Havili and Jack Goodhue, history suggests they will take some stopping thereafter.
Whistling up the former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt to help out does slightly level up the psychological playing field but Ireland will see no reason why they cannot be more than competitive at Eden Park. For all Leinster’s recent hiccups in major knockout games there is a genuine green threat to New Zealand’s imposing home record.
Assuming Covid issues do not impact further on both squads, it is up front and aerially where New Zealand will need to be especially alert. As demonstrated in both Chicago and Dublin, an Irish side who really go at their opponents can be almost impossible to stop. If they lost to France in Paris in the Six Nations, the 30-24 scoreline was closer than the All Blacks’ 40-25 defeat in the same arena three months earlier. New Zealand remain outstanding going forwards but in retreat they can be made to look mortal.
So let’s imagine Ireland sneaking a one-point win this Saturday. Their defence is good enough to imagine them subsequently being hard to subdue in both Dunedin and Wellington, particularly if red or yellow cards enter the All Black narrative. So let’s go for a 2-1 Irish series win, with New Zealand having not played any hard-core Test rugby for months. It may not transpire but the potential for an historic outcome unquestionably exists.
Which leaves England, a team presently so hard to assess they could either win a series against Australia 3-0 or lose it by the same margin. You fancy Australia to win a game at some stage but England, with Billy Vunipola, Danny Care, Owen Farrell, Jonny Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie all back having missed the Six Nations, have a steelier spine again. The weather in Perth is set fair and the anticipation of their younger players tangible. A 2-1 series win to England – with a Wallaby victory in Brisbane – would not be a massive surprise.
Which would leave the unofficial north-south league table tied at six wins apiece, with a busy November Test “window” to come. The next few weeks, therefore, may not prove wholly decisive. But try telling that to the host nations. If England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland go home with just a couple of wins between them it will represent a significant southern revival.