Since the dawn of the professional era, it has been apparent that there is somewhat of a gulf in the quality of talent and style of rugby being played between the hemispheres. The gap has closed at certain points; England's run up to the 2003 World Cup and the preceding years before that comes to mind. However, with only the occasional victory for any of the Home Nations and our European counterparts in recent memory, where have we been going wrong since professional rugby started to take shape?
Has it ever really been a surprise that a Southern Hemisphere nation has been chosen as the favourite or won every World Cup but one? Even when Wales made their historic run and France made the final in 2011, did anyone really expect anything but a Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand!) victory? What is so different between the Hemispheres that our win rate is so low against the so called 'Big Three'? Even Argentina are making serious headway in the Rugby Championship and are now challenging the European teams with every contest.
Super Rugby vs Club Rugby
Is the answer to these questions that fact that Super Rugby was developed by SANZAR at the very beginning of professionalism, with teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa going head-to-head week in week out? The challenges of travel and time difference overcome means that the best from these three nations square off against each other on a regular basis, getting to know and study player's abilities all year round. Not only this, but it means that there are more high quality players to choose from with only the best from the top domestic competitions chosen to represent their province or franchise.
The question is, has the Northern Hemisphere actually done anything that suggests their approach has been wrong? Each nation originally used its existing domestic competition and found backers and sponsors that could support the new professional element of the game. The Heineken Cup was developed to bring the best of each country together in a similar manner to Association Football's Champions League format. Players, coaches and even fans have long considered the Heineken Cup to be the pinnacle of the club game, with many contests compared to the attritional nature of Test match rugby. I am not debating that this is not the case, as I fully believe that Heineken Cup rugby is a fantastic spectacle; my biggest concern is that despite such a fierce competition, Europe's top players are still being outdone by our Southern Hemisphere counterparts.
Club vs Franchise/Province
Is Franchising our domestic teams the way forward? We already have the Pro12 as an example; with four nations being represented by franchises/provinces, albeit only two from Scotland and Italy respectively. Can England and France franchise their club teams and join the competition to create a Northern Hemisphere Super Rugby competition? Is this even the answer?
Franchising could prove extremely difficult in England and France; with the French Top 14 already a lucrative and expansive competition, would the sponsors realistically consider reducing the number of teams and joining another league, even if it was considered for the great good of the sport as a whole? Is it what fans would want? Rivalries in the English club game are rife: Bath and Gloucester easily spring to mind here, with the West Country derby always eagerly anticipated by both sets of fans seeking bragging rights for the season. The same is true of the Midlands - can we realistically expect fans of Northampton to cheer on players from Leicester? Even now, I am already making assumptions about which teams will have to align to form these franchises!
One of the positives of this type of competition is that it will significantly increase the player pool in the professional ranks. If we use New Zealand's ITM Cup as an example; the competition is always a spectacle even when the All Blacks and other Super Rugby players are not on the field. The competition is a breeding ground of talent with players trying not only to win, but also to impress provincial coaches and make that next step. Would the same be possible in the English League system? The Premiership and Championship can be the top two leagues with promotion and relegation in place; but with franchises above this level where there is no threat of relegation, will we see more players expressing themselves, and more teams looking try scoring bonus points and attacking rugby, rather than the defence orientated games we currently have?
I can't see this happening in the near future, or ever for that matter, but if it was an option, what would you choose, and how do you think it would affect Northern Hemisphere rugby?