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The sporting chance which drives the South to success.

Byline: By Sarah Miloudi Western Mail

It's Rugby World Cup quarter-final weekend, with games in Marseille, Paris and Cardiff. The experts predict that next weekend's semi-finals will be Australia v New Zealand and South Africa v Argentina. So what makes the Southern hemisphere teams so powerful, asks Sarah Miloudi

WALES versus Australia: 20-32. England versus South Africa: 0-36. Wales versus Fiji: 34 -38. New Zealand are tournament favourites, Argentina beat hosts France and Samoa and Tonga have put in strong performances.

This year's Rugby World Cup successes have predominately belonged to teams from the Southern hemisphere.

In recent years, the question of why players from the Southern hemisphere seem to outperform players from Europe has been the question on every fan's lips.

Not for the first time, it appears pundits' predictions that the four semi-finalists in the tournament will all be from the Southern hemisphere will be proved correct, leading fans and players alike to ask the question: why do teams from the South Pacific, South Africa, Argentina and Australia excel time and time again.

According to Professor Peter Stead, a retired cultural and sports historian from Swansea, there are three main reasons, revolving largely around culture, attitudes towards fitness and rugby intelligence.

"The issue of Northern versus Southern hemisphere rugby has been around for quite some time now, and has really come to the fore in the current World Cup, and cultural, physicality and rugby intelligence are where the differences could lie," said Prof Stead, who has been a keen follower of the sport since the beginning of his career.

According to the historian, sport - especially rugby - is at the centre of Southern hemisphere nations' culture and identity.

He said that "physicality" and the need to be in peak physical condition is also a central theme throughout much of the Southern hemisphere, as countries such as Fiji depend on the land and their ability to work it for economic prosperity.

By contrast, people in European nations and in North America rely on a variety of sources for income and, as a result, high levels of fitness may not be as important.

Prof Stead said, "Rugby is central to the culture in the Pacific islands and New Zealand, and has been taken to the heart of these nations to such an extent that there is a high degree of emphasis put on physical fitness and strength in all aspects of their societies as well as in their sports.

"This is even true in Australia where, even though rugby is not the favourite sport, it still falls within the country's top three or four, and the people have an affinity with the sport and the outdoors with which Wales has never really been able to compete.

"As strength and physical wellbeing is central to these countries' culture, this trickles into their sports and form part of their national identity in a way that is hard to equal.

"All of these countries are very single-minded about this, whereas here we are a bit more pluralistic, and we must become more like the Southern hemisphere players to compete."

Professor Stead also said players from the Northern hemisphere countries such as Wales are lacking in "rugby intelligence" - an ability to think tactically about each match and its outcome before it is played.

He said that, as well as the larger size of players from the Southern hemisphere countries being linked to their ability to place sport at the centre of their culture, in some parts of the hemisphere, such as Africa, the bulkier torsos of the players may also be tied to their ancestral links with the Boer or Afrikaans people who had strong genetic links with the Dutch, thus giving them an added ability to bulk up.

But not everyone agrees a solely cultural explanation is behind the dominance.

Professor Bruce Davies - a leading figure in health and sport sciences at the University of Glamorgan - says physiological (namely muscular) differences found between players from nations within each hemisphere could also contribute to the difference in their prowess. These could mean that people from some Southern hemisphere countries are physiologically more suited to sports involving short passages of play requiring snippets of intense power - a characteristic central to the sport of rugby, and one which cannot always be overcome by good ball skills and technical know-how.

Prof Davies, who also works with Welsh Rugby Union players to examine their aerobic fitness, said, "Genetics and the type of muscles people in different parts of the world have could contribute to the difference between the two hemispheres, but this does not apply to all people from all Southern hemisphere countries.

"Players from New Zealand, for example, are not different in size to Scottish players, but as a whole the team is more powerful, largely due to the presence of players of Fijian origin present in the team.

"Fijians typically have more fibres called fast twitch muscle fibres present in areas of the body required for power, such as the legs. This means they are more suited to sports that use short bursts of power as is needed in rugby, whereas players from other parts of the world tend to have more slow twitch fibres, which makes them better at aspects of the sport that are done at a slower pace but go on for longer, such as running long distances."

Slow twitch muscle fibres make players from the Northern hemisphere physiologically more suited to less powerful aspects of the sport because of the way these release oxygen into the body.

As their name suggests, slow twitch muscles release the gas at a much slower and consistent rate than fast twitch fibres do - a trait which gives players from the Northern hemisphere more stamina and endurance than is often found naturally in players on Southern hemisphere sides.

Conversely, fast twitch fibres release oxygen in the recovery stages of sport - allowing players to bulk up and recover quickly from short bursts of exercise, but makes them less able in aspects of the sport that need long spells of stamina. Prof Davies said the difference between the players' muscle fibres and the difference between players from both hemispheres does not impact in all positions, and that forwards - players most likely to be involved in scrummages - are less likely to be at a disadvantage when challenged by the strongest players in rugby, as the pooled strength of scrums is likely to balance out.

Backs on the other hand are more likely to be overcome by the physicality of the strongest players, as these players bear the brunt of the collisions. In this case, Prof Davies said, the bigger the player, the bigger the advantage is likely to be.

Prof Davies explained, "Unlike the forwards, where good skills can often overcome power, where the backs are concerned it is a question of physics as much of what goes on here will involve straight collisions between players. If a 17 stone man runs at a 12 stone man, it is obvious which is going to come off worse in the tackle, and the same applies to the backs in rugby."

Wales back James Hook is a classic example of this. Although the 21-year-old star is one of the Welsh squad's most skilful players, he was still overcome by Seru Rabeni's strength when he was challenged by the Fijian centre during last month's clash.

But, while there is a role for physiology or aspects linked to our genetics when examining why some nations succeed in sport, geneticist Dr Yanis Pitsiladis, of Glasgow University's International Centre for East African Running Studies, said, "The issue is partly one of genetics and partly environment, and where genetics are concerned, the advantage does not come about through race, as it is the familial aspect of genes that matters.

"If a child's parents are good at rugby, the chances are they will be too, in the same way that mathematical abilities, or a skill for language, can be passed on."

Dr Pitsiladis said that , as people in some Southern hemisphere countries are more likely to play rugby, their talent for the sport is more likely to be recognised and harnessed through professional training.

Whereas, in Europe, children are more likely to be seen throwing their coats down on the street to make goalposts for football than rugby, and that frequently it can be this talent that is nurtured instead.

But hope springs eternal. This weekend's Rugby World Cup quarter-final fixtures: Today

Australia v England, Marseille (2pm)

New Zealand v France, Cardiff (8pm)

South Africa v Fiji, Marseille (2pm)

Argentina v Scotland, Stade de France, Paris (8pm)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 6, 2007
Words:1438
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