2. England vs. Wales
The Scots, French and Irish may want to be England each year as much as Wales, but two factors make this the big one in the northern part of the globe. First, Wales’ national identity is intrinsically linked to rugby – a game that unites a nation and cuts across class barriers in a way in never has in England means there is a particular edge to this match (often to Wales’ detriment).
Secondly, Wales’ superior record against England compared to the other northern hemispheres means this is no one-way rivalry. Welsh captain Phil Bennett once gave a team talk that went: “We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”
1. New Zealand vs. South Africa
When South Africa plays New Zealand, consider your country at war,” said legendary Springbok Boy Louw back in 1949. It’s a sentiment that has rung true since the teams first met in 1921, with the intervening years pock-marked by rows over biased local refereeing, on-field violence and dirty tricks. As Springbok centre John Gainsford once reportedly said: “When you come to us, we cheat you and beat you. And when we go to you, you cheat us and beat us.”
Tensions came to boiling point in 1981, when the Springboks team that toured New Zealand was met by fierce anti-apartheid protests everywhere they went – previously, South Africa’s government had denied the Kiwis the right to play Maori players on their soil – and almost forced its abandonment. Politics plays less of a role now, but for two countries in which rugby union is a way of life, and who are often jousting for the game’s biggest prizes – they have racked up four World Cups between them – relations will always be icy.