Gap Narrows at the Top of Rugby

For the past two decades, the Southern Hemisphere sides have largely controlled the rugby world, dominating tournaments and hogging the number one spot in the rankings. However, this year's fall internationals show that things are finally changing at the top. The arrival of some high-quality players in the North, such as England's wonder-boy Marcus Smith, and the retirement of key players in the Southern Hemisphere sides, such as New Zealand's legendary Dan Carter, mean things are leveling up a little. With the next world cup just around the corner in 2023, it is an exciting time for the game.

Southern Hemisphere dominance

The Southern Hemisphere sides, and New Zealand in particular, have led rugby union since it turned professional in 1995. Between them, New Zealand (3), South Africa (3) and Australia (2) have won eight of the nine world cups, with only England's epic victory in 2003 preventing a clean sweep. They have also dominated the world rankings, with New Zealand sitting at the top for 508 weeks straight between 2009 and 2019. Overall, New Zealand have been number one 80% of the time, with South Africa taking top spot 16.5% of the time.

A change in the air

The good news is that this all-conquering era looks like it is coming to an end. The rot began back in 2016, when Ireland broke the All-Blacks' 18-game unbeaten run with a shock 40-29 win at Chicago's Soldier Field. It was the first time the Irish had beaten New Zealand in 111 years, but it wouldn't be the last. In 2018, the Irish ran out 16-9 winners in Dublin and they repeated the feat in this year's autumn fixture, beating the All-Blacks 29-20.

The vulnerability of the All-Blacks was also shown up when England beat them in the semi-final of RWC 2019, although they had exacted revenge on the Irish with a 46-14 thrashing earlier in the tournament. New Zealand's fall from glory was completed this autumn with back-to-back losses, first to Ireland and then to France, 40-25. Add in England's dramatic last-minute win over South Africa at Twickenham, and it would seem that rugby is starting to look more like the level playing field of the NFL, where there have been 13 different Super Bowl winners since 2000, and seven more have featured as runners-up.

No clear leader

The chaos is reflected in the world rankings, with the number one spot changing hands five times in two months in 2021, with New Zealand slipping to their lowest ever ranking of third in February. Despite their loss to England, the world champions, South Africa, retain the top spot, with the All-Blacks close behind.

However, it's England, Ireland, and France that make up the rest of the top five, with Australia seemingly a spent force after their losses to England and Scotland this fall. Just a single point separates each of the sides from second to fifth, showing just how tight things are at the top. If things continue in this way, then the 10th World Cup in France in 2023 could be wide open.

Upsets ahead

The closing up of the field is reflected in the odds for RWC 2023 on Pennsylvania sports betting site Unibet, with New Zealand no longer automatically odds-on favorites. With the All-Blacks paired with their recent tormentors, France, in pool A, and South Africa paired with the Andy Farrell's rising Ireland in pool B, there are some thrilling encounters ahead. Only England appear to have a straightforward run to the knockout stages, with just Japan and Argentina to get past in pool D.

With the 2023 Rugby World Cup held on the 200th anniversary of William Webb Ellis inventing the game, an open and truly competitive tournament feels like an apt way to celebrate. Who knows, after his last-minute kick to beat the world champions, Marcus Smith could be on course to repeat Johnny Wilkinson's magical moment from 2003 and bring the World Cup north for the first time in 20 years.

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