I am always nervous of drawing too many conclusions from the annual burst of Autumn Internationals, especially because it’s the final round of games for all the Southern Hemisphere sides at the end of a long season. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating observations to make as many sides rebuild towards the next World Cup.
A severely depleted Australia and South Africa found ways to win to round off their seasons with a smile. The lack of power in the Australian forwards will be a worry, but they have the two of the best open-sides in the world, which will enhance the wit and intelligence of their three quarters, boosted by the return of Genia, Cooper and O’Connor. Their lack of a midfield creator will hurt them though – is there really no way back for Giteau?
The Springboks look solid but very beatable and I see no discernible back play which will win them big games . Steyn in the centre reminds me of a non-passing Tuilagi – very powerful but one tracked. He has the talent, it’s a question of mindset and tactical decision making, which may not be a particular strength of the current Springbok management. With Nick Mallett lost to England, they have a ready-made replacement if Meyer cannot develop that flexibility.
As for the World Champions New Zealand, I think we were guilty of forgetting their travails in the latter part of the tournament when France could have edged them in the Final. Without a fully functioning Carter, they are more competent than world class. It was so clear that he wasn’t fit – admittedly the Scottish defensive backs made him look unbeatable in their first match but even so he creates such a midfield threat that the limitations of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith are often overlooked. However, their desire to maintain a high standard post the World Cup win has been impressive. Let’s remember how quickly the 2003 World Champions, England, unraveled their own web of success. It was the very first game v Ireland at Twickenham which sparked an immediate decline. So all credit to the All Blacks, who took their defeat against England with good grace and possibly a wry smile. But I suspect when the return match takes place in Auckland there will be a score to settle.
Running a critical eye across the Northern Hemisphere teams, I sense a steeliness about the French squad, unsurprising given the thoroughly English conservatism of Saint-Andre. Luckily they have to travel to Twickenham, and England will definitely have the beating of them there in the Six Nations. However, they have Fofana, the prodigiously talented centre, as well as the Toulouse sensation, so watch out for fireworks.
The cutting edge for Ireland and Scotland remain sadly lacking where it matters, and the fading lights of O’Driscoll and D’Arcy will be very impactful, as well as Tommy Bowe’s injury, a man I rate very highly.
I suppose that the Scots will remain in denial that DeLuca can ever step up as an International centre, and meantime the feisty forwards will cry into their pints of heavy as their ball winning and carrying capabilities are terminally wasted by the men outside them, Visser excepted. If any side needed Wayne Smith, this is it although I am unsure whether the talent exists to point in the right direction. Their arrival at Twickenham for the first match of the Six Nations will hold no fears for England – I predict a thumping win, and thats simply logical.
Wales have really confused me. Perhaps someone doctored the cryogenic facility in Poland they use in preparation for big games, as ever since that visit they have left form and fitness at the bottom of the RIver Taff. However, they are the reigning Six Nations Champions, and with a potent back-row and midfield could still be a tough nut to crack, especially at Cardiff where England have to travel. The key is in the core of their team, who collectively have to rally the others, because its not talent that is lacking, but their heart and soul. It doesn’t help when the squad seem to spend a chunk of time working out the Euro exchange rate as they swap Cardiff Bay for the Cote D’Azur… an easy call when you throw in the big premiums available in France, but it can’t do much for team spirit. Good business though for the agents who are gleefully making the most of the windfall at the expense of their national teams performance.
Finally, saving the best till last, I turn to England now that the dust has settled after their epic win. Many people had written them off after the dullest of dull campaigns, but suddenly they got rid of the redundant forwards in the middle of the field and the interminable phase rugby. I can’t help thinking that Mike Catt finally got a chance to have his say – after all a Farrell/ Lancaster/ Rowntree tactical plan was always a recipe for a worthy but limited outcome. The two heavily criticised centres Tuilagi and Barritt finally showed us some star quality and it was intoxicating for sure. It’s been an age since the long suffering English supporters could punch the air with such conviction.
Of course, nobody will be taken in by 30 minutes of magical play, as many stern challenges remain, not least two 6 Nations away matches in Wales and Ireland. However, it shows that if England seize the opportunities they can operate successfully at the highest level. In a professional era where almost every minute of the game is pre-planned, the important lesson for England to take forward is that there is no substitute for flair and off the cuff decision-making which can turn a game. Those moments in the second half against the All Blacks arguably rescued England from accusations of mediocrity.
However I do buy into the Lancaster argument that this team has it in them to produce such a performance consistently – of course he is right. He is echoing a well rehearsed refrain over the years – there’s a good England team around every corner. The law of averages and weight of money/resources should enable us to dominate world rugby, year in year out. As David Brailsford, Head of British Cycling said, our success in the Olympics was planned meticulously and was in no way unsurprising. In the same way that New Zealand has done, and the great sides of the past, England must set out their stall from the off, frighten teams, develop winning margins in the first 60 minutes and lay the pathway for 2015 success. As we sit here, there are six countries which could make a Final, we need to see that number come down.
So a hopeful New Year, and for the first time in many years an England team as genuine favourites for the Six Nation title and a possible Grand Slam, our last one in 2003 is a long time ago so I think it’s a sense of English optimism, but born of 9 years of underperformance. Why not !?