North? South? Which is better — and does it even matter anymore?

2009-01-23 00:00

RUGBY followers around the world seem to enjoy discussing the relative merits of the game as it is played in the northern and southern hemispheres.

This debate will be substantially informed by an intriguing match at Newlands tomorrow afternoon when the Stormers start their preparations for the imminent Super 14 with a match against Saracens, fresh from the English Premiership and the rigours of European competition.

It would be true to say the respective positions are well entrenched. The consensus in the south insists the Super 14 and the Tri-Nations series produce more open and more exciting rugby, while the northern perspective maintains the top clubs in England and France play a harder, tougher game.

“The European stuff is so dull,” they chorus in the bars of Cape Town, Sydney and Auckland.

“It’s grinding, kicking rugby from the dark ages, completely devoid of flair and imagination.”

“In fact, it’s proper rugby,” retort the men in tweed jackets and matching caps, sipping from whisky flasks as, braving sub-zero temperatures, they picnic in the west car park at Twickenham.

“The Super 14 has become so loose and predictable. You score, I score — it’s almost as boring as basketball.”

The clash of styles will be savoured by what is likely to be a near-capacity crowd on a Sunday afternoon in Cape Town, with the Stormers’ twin advantages of home support and playing according to the Super 14 ELVs (in the north, three additional variations have infiltrated the laws) being effectively mitigated by the fact that Saracens are in mid-season, challenging for a place in the top four place of the Premiership.

It will, however, be a match between a South African team and an English team only in name. Such is the increasingly cosmopolitan face of club rugby in either hemisphere. Both teams will take the field with Fijian wings and Saracens have two former All Blacks (Chris Jack and Justin Marshall), two former Springboks (Wikus van Heerden and Cobus Visagie) and Brad Barritt, the former Sharks centre.

The battle of minds on the touchline may prove equally interesting. It is possible to foresee a scenario, in due course, where both Rassie Erasmus of the Stormers and Eddie Jones of Saracens feature extremely high on a list of candidates to succeed Peter de Villiers as Springbok coach, and a positive performance either way, even in a friendly, might just make an enduring impression on South Africa’s rugby officials.

Matches between full-strength English club teams and full-strength South African provincial sides have been relatively rare in recent years, simply because the reality is that one of the teams must make an exceptional effort for the fixture to take place.

For Saracens, this weekend was earmarked for their concluding group match in the European Challenge Cup, but the London club is eager to spread its wings and effectively divided its squad in two, with one team travelling to Cape Town on Wednesday to prepare to play the Stormers and another side flying to south-west France where they played the struggling French club, Mont de Marsan, last night.

The latter group of players and coaches planned to wake early this morning, drive to the airport in Pau and catch a flight to Amsterdam, where they will connect with the KLM day flight to Cape Town, eventually joining up with their team-mates at a hotel near Stellenbosch around midnight tonight.

There is method to this madness, for Saracens have set an ambitious course to establish themselves as the Premiership club of choice for about 750 000 rugby-mad South Africans currently staying in London and the south-east of England. A strong performance, and maybe even a victory, at Newlands will not go unnoticed in the pubs of Putney and Wimbledon, and the “Sarries” brand will grow.

In any event, the players will certainly enjoy the opportunity to swap the dark, misty mornings and frozen pitches of Hertfordshire for the Elysian Cape, where they will sweat through some warm-weather training and a second match against Boland on Wednesday. If in the process they can strike a blow for the reputation of rugby in the north, the demanding travel schedule will seem worthwhile.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, GM of SABC sport and is involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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