Reviewing the Autumn International – Part 2
The 4 Home Nations racked up 11 wins from 14 games against 7 different teams, 5 of which are in the top 10 World Rugby rankings. On paper that seems a very good result. But who actually performed to capacity and whose results were indicative of where they are as a team, not where they are perceived to be.
I opened Part 1 of this article talking about Wales. While a 3 and 1 record looks positive it doesn’t take much to recognise that they did not perform very well albeit still winning 3 games. Losing to Australia by such a large margin considering the overall poor performance level of Australia in 2016 is indicative of a team that a) struggles under pressure, and b) can’t place pressure on the opposition. These traits played out similarly in their other 3 games, however the Argentina game was their best performance by far. Argentina is a quality team but was at the end of a very log grueling season for Argentinian players.
Unfortunately for Wales this slide in performance is not a blip but an ongoing trend. They are still suffering the fallout from structural selection decisions made a number of years ago. When you look at the Wales team you see familiar names that have successfully played for Wales over a number of years. But these players are now coming from different teams and different places. They are coming back into a Wales team with new players who they don’t really know. Wales is losing both cohesion within the national team and the cohesion coming up from their clubs. The more cohesion that is lost, the more performance drops.
Scotland will never have the size and skill to consistently compete all of the time. That is not to say it doesn’t happen and won’t happen for them but it will be rare. What this size and skill differential does is makes Scotland’s performances better than generally realised. On the whole they have maintained a competitive team while not dominant. The key to Scotland success is the strong cohesive input from Glasgow Warriors (Glasgow also benefits from the cohesion that the national payers bring back). This enables them to continue to build a strong defensive base – as discussed in previous articles, cohesion manifests itself strongly in defense. While not necessarily having a great win/loss record Scotland do show poise under pressure and this is a great strength to have. Australia squeezed past them in a game that could have gone either way and they managed to get past Argentina through composure. Scotland is the team you don’t want to have a bad day against.
Out of England’s 4 victories the South African and Fijian games should be of the biggest concern for them. Allowing 21 and 15 points respectively is an issue considering the state of the opposition. The Argentinian and Australian victories seemed decisive but how England scored their points was as much determined by the opposition as them. Compounding this was the turnover of players in both the Argentinian and Australian teams. This inconsistency with selection (either by choice or not) impacted their performance. England’s critical try from a mistake by the returning Wallabies #9 is a prime example of this. England benefited from the inconsistency of their opponents selection. Overall the 4 and 0 record looks impressive especially with the possibility of the All Blacks 18 game streak on the horizon, but the quality of the results are still not there. While Eddie Jones sharpens the sword forged by Stuart Lancaster the frightening thing for world rugby is that England can improve significantly more – if, and only if, they understanding what is driving their success. If they take a leaf out of the Sir Alex Ferguson/Manchester United playbook and develop players like the Saracens class of ‘08 in a similar fashion to the Manchester United class of ’92, there is a very bright and dominant future ahead.
Ireland’s victory against the All Blacks in Chicago seemed so unlikely as history, form and the perceived image of the All Blacks said otherwise. As I mentioned previously, I went on national television in Australia to say that the game was significantly closer than realised. I didn’t predict an Ireland victory outright but from what the numbers were saying the difference between the teams was minimal. From my perspective there were two factors at play 1) Ireland were better then understood because of how the team was selected and 2) the All Blacks were not as good as understood. Even when they had changed their lock combination just prior to the game nobody, not even the betting markets, made an adjustment to the predicted outcome. Because the All Blacks are thought of as a singular entity very little consideration is given to the parts that make up that entity. My colleagues at GAIN LINE Analytics. did a study last year that showed that the All Blacks results against the Northern Hemisphere teams have been getting closer and closer showing that the performance gap is getting smaller. The only top tier nation that has been getting worse against the All Blacks during this time has been Australia. In a way Australia has masked the performance of the All Blacks because Australia is thought to be better then they currently are. This is a similar scenario I have discussed previously with regards to the USA and USSR Olympic Ice Hockey ‘Miracle on Ice’.
This should not distract from Ireland’s victory but to put it more in perspective. In no way were the All Blacks easy beats; they just weren’t as good as perceived. On the return game the All Blacks had a more settled line-up and it was ‘situation normal’. It still takes a very very good game to beat New Zealand. Ireland’s game against Canada can almost be discounted because of the amount of changes. However, it is a great example of the impact on defense through disrupted cohesion. Letting in 21 points against Canada is not a reflection of the individuals themselves but a reflection of the lack of cohesion in the defensive line.
The Australian team Ireland played had been developing a consistent selection grouping and was getting better (something they lost against England the following week). The changes to the Ireland team brought this game back to a much closer contest, albeit in the clichéd ‘game of 2 halves’. Gauging results against the Wallabies is problematic. Since the very brief golden era of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s the Wallabies have been on a continuous slide. No amount of players, coaches or CEOs have been able to change this. A win against the Wallabies now is not like a win 10-15 years ago.
Irish rugby does look to be in a rosy situation with success at the national and provincial level. The concern they should have is that they are almost at maximum capacity with not much more room for improvement. Developing depth in the national team will be critical. Working out how and when they do that will be the hard decision.
Using the Autumn Internationals as a gauge, England will be identified as favorites for the 6 Nations. However, when England was tested at the end of this year (which wasn’t a lot) they struggled. How the 6 Nations play out for the 4 Home Nations teams will not necessarily be a reflection of their performance of late but how they choose their squads. The interesting thing is that squad selection will most likely be influenced by the current set of results and results at provincial and club level. More often than not these results are the ones that have the least impact on the performance going forward – basing selection on skill and form is a recipe for disaster.