We say farewell to the Australians after yet another close fought win against the Welsh, warmed by the memory of Quade Cooper and Israel Folau. Their array of skills emphasises the telling difference between the willing Northern Hemisphere teams and the largely invincible Southerners.
The ball handling skills of the All Blacks were never more on show than in their incredible last gasp try against Ireland, and the emergence of Willie le Roux has breathed extra life into the likes of Bryan Habana and Jean De Villiers. I have already earmarked South Africa as potential winners of RWC 2015, if they weren’t already, based on a new cutting edge to add to their bludgeoning forward play led by Bismarck Du Plessis and Willem Alberts.
So, we are left with the inescapable reality that the paucity of backs coaching up here, and I include the self-inflicted shortcomings of the French, leaves us looking like World Cup quarter/semi-finalists at best, with the Big Three comfortably ahead right now in the winning of tight contests. Crucially, we must also look at the back row, now a potent attacking weapon in the hands of of Kieran Read and Michael Hooper.
Lest anyone think I am overawed and over impressed by the general success of the Southern Hemisphere sides, there were some encouraging signs close to home. I applaud the belated emergence of Billy Twelvetrees in England’s midfield, the power and pace of George North and the supreme pick and drive play of Sean O’Brien, overshadowing the All Blacks back row, no mean feat. England now have a pack to rival any side in the world, and Dylan Hartley finally got his head straight and looks a potential England captain as well as an automatic selection.
The other interesting aspect of the November Internationals is that none of the Big Three looked particularly fatigued. They have started the run-in to the World Cup and plenty of new players are getting a chance to lay claim to a squad place. For example, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the performance of Beauden Barrett for NZ. How England would like someone of his running and passing quality.
As the best positioned home nation in the world rankings, England’s performances have attracted much attention. To be brutal, we scored two highly fortuitous tries based on opposition mistakes close to their own line.
I won’t totally exclude the Argentinian effort, although they are at a level below the top six in the world and we must not be seduced by one half of positive play against a largely amateur team. Farrell’s deadball kicking was very accurate, as usual, but now we want to see him add more to his creative play. How many times have we said that in recent times. I become more concerned about the 10 position as weeks go by, because no one is improving. In particular, what’s happened to Freddie Burns, seemingly submerged by Gloucester’s forward woes?
I was struck by Chris Ashton’s comment over the weekend, trying to explain away his drop in form and try-scoring. He claims that Lancaster doesn’t want him to come off his wing, and has asked him to stay wide. Fine if you pick a midfield to express itself and introduce the full back into an attacking channel, like Folau, Halfpenny or Dagg. If not then you have to go looking for work, and I am one of the very few who sympathises with Ashton. England has no attack strategy yet and he is suffering for it. If Lancaster is sticking his nose into the debate, as he is allowed to of course alongside Farrell and Catt, you start to wonder about mixed messages.
Wales will point to injuries, which is fair enough and they have by far the greatest strike power and ball playing ability. Jonny Sexton is the best running fly-half around and was only half fit, so Ireland will feel happy enough if they can build on the performance against NZ. Everyone’s heart went out to them as they clearly deserved to win. But Clive Woodward has often referenced the fine line between success and failure and the All Blacks have nailed that part of the game! I don’t know what to make of Scotland, all I can say that if there is any good midfield player with Scottish ancestry, make the call, they need you!
In summary, it may sound simplistic, but international back play and attack is still about running straight and at pace, crisp passing and vision to see the opportunity. I don’t hear any of that talk, or see much of that sort of play up here. Until I do, I will refrain from criticising poor Chris Ashton or indeed any of the other under-utilised outside backs in the Six Nations.