With the completion of the end of year internationals we are now nearer to the next Rugby World Cup than we are to the last global showpiece.
Who has reason to worry in terms of their preparation? Who appears to be on the right track? And what else did we learn from the latest inter-hemisphere clashes? Graham Jenkins reflects on a busy month of international action.
All Blacks a work in progress
Victories in Paris, London and Dublin ensured New Zealand made history this year with a 14-game unbeaten run and it was due reward for a side that continues to set the standard on the international stage. The All Blacks’ consistency is a key part of their armoury and when aligned with their mastery of the basics and their ability to execute under extreme pressure makes them an awe-inspiring force. The alarming thing for the rest of the world is that they are far from the finished article with the likes of France, England and Ireland all having exposed cracks only to fail to complete the job due to New Zealand’s trump card – their mental strength. The All Blacks’ unrivaled belief and trust in each other memorably rescued the game and their record in Dublin and that unstinting quest for excellence makes them the current favourites to make yet more history with back-to-back World Cup victories.
A man of substance
Just a few short months ago Quade Cooper’s Test career appeared to be over. Cast aside by Australia in the wake of his ill-advised criticism of the international set-up and unable to convince coach Robbie Deans that he had anything of worth to offer the Wallabies, Cooper was reduced to spectator as the British & Irish Lions triumphed Down Under this summer. Deans’ exit following that devastating loss led to Cooper being handed a lifeline by new Wallabies coach – and his former Reds boss – Ewen McKenzie. The 25-year-old playmaker has since repaid that faith with a series of eye-catching displays spanning the Rugby Championship and the end of year tour with his dazzling performance against Wales in Cardiff that showcased his vision and sublime handling skills arguably the pick of the bunch. A Wallabies side with an in-form Cooper at its heart may have beaten the Lions earlier this year but they will not dwell on the past with the side clearly on an upward curve. And could that exciting future see an increasingly influential and mature Cooper complete his comeback and lead his country into the World Cup?
A mental block?
There can be little doubt that Wales have been the best northern hemisphere side in recent years with two Six Nations triumphs – including a Grand Slam – since they reached the semi-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But they have repeatedly failed to use that success as a springboard to greater things against the world’s best. Coach Warren Gatland may still be basking in the glory of the British & Irish Lions’ triumph against Australia earlier this year but he has not enjoyed anywhere near that kind of success with Wales. The latest agonising defeat in Cardiff – their ninth in a row to the Wallabies – contributed to Gatland’s increasingly worrying record against the big three that now reads played 23, won one, lost 22. For years Wales have been talking about taking that next ‘step’ but yet another year has now slipped by. They desperately need to bloody the nose of a big name or two to maintain their own belief and that of their supporters.
Read all about it
The International Rugby Board are yet to crown their official Player of the Year but surely it is only a matter of time before New Zealand’s Kieran Read claims that honour. An integral part of the All Blacks machine, the No.8 stands like a Colossus over the game and is the nearest thing to a perfect rugby player currently lacing up his boots. Insatiable at the breakdown and tackle-hungry, his incredible industry also ensures he is a near-constant presence in attack with six tries and countless assists to his name this year. No player on the world stage – including his fellow nominees Leigh Halfpenny, Sergio Parisse, Eben Etzebeth and Ben Smith – exert as much influence on a game, such is his contribution in defence and attack. This year has also seen him cement his claims as the leading candidate to succeed Richie McCaw as All Blacks skipper having led them to six of their record-breaking victories. Put simply, he has no equal.
Closing the gap?
The International Rugby Board rankings have their critics but there is little doubt that they currently paint a realistic picture of the world pecking order with New Zealand, South Africa and Australia leading the way. The southern hemisphere giants have swept through Europe in recent weeks with their record of 10 wins and one defeat – a victory for England against the Wallabies – a reminder that they still set the standard on the Test match stage with their intensity, pace, power and flair more than a match for the vast majority off their rivals. But there is clear hope for Europe’s leading lights with France, England and Ireland all having tested the all-conquering All Blacks and Wales pushing the Springboks and the Wallabies to the limit. However, with the countdown to the World Cup well and truly on they are running out of time to produce the confidence-boosting consistency of their rivals and secure the much-needed psychological boost of a high profile scalp that will fuel their 2015 fate. The results are a little more worrying for Scotland and Italy who continue to struggle to justify their Tier 1 status and once again their fortunes are reflected correctly in the rankings.
What have you learned from these Autumn Internationals? Is there a team capable of taking it to the All Blacks in 2015?