Portrayals of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby are typically contrasting: the latter marked by ball movement, skill and attacking invention, and the former tightly contested and brutally physical. The pre-eminence of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for much of the professional era often meant that this contrast of style was also framed as a contrast of quality, and that its natural consequence was the rest of the rugby world falling into step with such an approach to the game. This pre-eminence, however, has faltered for both sporting and economic reasons, and with it the notion that style is a necessary prerequisite of substantive performance in international rugby. In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, the home nations in particular have been resurgent, and their success has been a result of honing traditional strengths: ball retention, breakdown work, defence and tactical kicking. On top of these foundations, individual skill levels have improved as a result of sustained exposure to a high level of coaching and a focus on all-round player development at all levels.
These increased skill levels have undoubtedly had a positive effect on the quality of attacking play in European rugby, and at international level both Wales and Scotland in particular have expressed publicly a desire to ‘modernise’ and change the way they look to play with ball in hand. Nevertheless, an examination of the Six Nations in comparison to other competitions during this World Cup cycle – as will be seen below – suggests that such deeply entrenched stylistic differences have sustained, and that higher skill levels are being applied within a markedly difference game structure to the international game in the Southern Hemisphere. This has important implications for test match rugby in the long-term: looking further ahead into the future of the international game, the apparently inevitable movement towards Northern economic and on-field dominance will have a clear effect on the nature of the on-field product. However, this also raises interesting questions in the context of the 2018 Six Nations championship, which begins on Saturday 3rd February: in particular, whether changes to breakdown laws will negate any such attempts and push Northern Hemisphere rugby even further down its current path, or the attacking ‘philosophy’ espoused by Gregor Townsend will result in Scotland truly departing from the European model.