By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The curtain has come down on a very entertaining month of Autumn Internationals and the Northern hemisphere nations acquitted themselves surprisingly well against their southern counterparts. Now admittedly there were a lot of tired bodies amongst the SANZAR nations who were coming off the end of a long season whilst the home nations are bang in the middle of theirs, but nevertheless, victories against these giants of rugby are always significant and should never be sniffed at. Here’s the lowdown on the performances of the four home countries.
The Emerald Isle just keep on improving under Joe Schmidt. After winning the Six Nations title in his first season in charge, the New Zealander masterminded a clean sweep of victories over South Africa, Australia and minnows Georgia this autumn. They trounced the Springboks by fourteen points, matching their physicality up front and providing more ingenuity in the back line than their opponents. Key to Ireland’s recent success has been the half-back relationship between Jonathan Sexton and Connor Murray. Both have had an outstanding November and, alongside the effervescent try-scoring machine Tommy Bowe and captain marvel Paul O’Connell, have been integral to an Ireland side that has lost only once this calendar year.
Four matches, two wins, two defeats. A satisfactory November for Stuart Lancaster’s side but one which still poses more questions than it answers after only one victory over the southern hemisphere ‘big three.’ The plus points were the performances of Gloucester winger Jonny May who scored three tries in four games, his teammate Number 8 Ben Morgan who also scored three tries and Bath fly-half George Ford. Brad Barritt had a barnstorming game in the centre against Australia, tackling everything in sight and Chris Robshaw was a solid workhorse in the back row, as were Dave Attwood and Courtney Lawes in the second row. But it is not in the forwards where the problems lie for the red rose.
Previous first-choice half-back pairing Danny Care and Owen Farrell did not perform to their potential and whilst Ben Youngs and Ford provided more impetus, it is telling that of the seven tries England scored against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (an impressive statistic), only two were scored by backs (May and Barritt). With Manu Tualagi’s persistent injury problems, the centres do not look settled at all. Farrell, Bath’s Kyle Eastmond, Barritt and Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees all had opportunities there but none made a convincing case for a permanent spot. Tualagi and Barritt would be a solid centre partnership but then there is no kicking option outside the fly half and Barritt isn’t the most subtle of rugby players – neither is Tualagi.
I would like to have seen Eastmond given more of an opportunity outside his club teammate Ford. Eastmond has Jason Robinsonesque explosivity and, coming from Rugby League, is a shrewd passer of the ball. At 5ft 7ins he is diminutive for a 12 and there is a danger that he could get overran by a South Africa or a New Zealand, but surely his attacking flair is of greater importance than his defence which he can and will improve? Eastmond’s teammate, 20 year-old winger/full-back Anthony Watson made his England bow and showed promise but he is still young and yet to cement a place permanently. Semesa Rokoduguni also had an opportunity but equally he didn’t set the world alight. On this showing, only May and full-back Mike Brown are shoo-ins for the Six Nations opener in Cardiff on the 6th of February. Sam Burgess anyone?
Warren Gatland’s side finally ended their southern-hemisphere hoodoo with victory over a desperately poor South Africa side at the weekend for only the second time in the principality’s history. Elsewhere in the Autumn Internationals, it was a familiar tale of competing for the majority of the game and then letting it slip in the final 15 minutes, firstly against Australia and then New Zealand. Even against a fourteen-man Fiji side Wales couldn’t score any points in the second half and almost surrendered their lead altogether.
The match against the Springboks was a horses for courses victory. Admittedly Wales played very sensibly; they looked for territory, didn’t play expansive rugby, were ferocious in defence and always competed at set pieces. It is a blueprint that might work against a less-than-subtle South Africa side but that came unstuck against the attacking verve of New Zealand and Australia, and probably won’t succeed against the likes of Ireland and their supreme fly-half general Jonny Sexton.
As much as it was pleasing to see Wales finally beat one of the ‘big three,’ the manner in which they did it was rather depressing; an up-your-jumper battering can be an effective game plan but it is not the traditional Wales way of playing rugby. Think of the great Wales backs of the past: Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies, and in more recent times, Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams and Gavin Henson. They were all brilliant rugby players with the ball in hand – magicians who could turn the course of the game in an instant. Maybe it is the romantic inside me but I want Wales to win by playing beautiful, flowing attacking rugby, not by bashing away at the opponents defence until it either relents or concedes a penalty.
Sadly that is the way the professional game is going these days. The diminutive conjurer, the likes of Willie Le Roux (who had a dreadful game on Saturday), Quade Cooper, Carlos Spencer and Williams are slowly being replaced by muscular enforcers (Brad Barritt, Jamie Roberts) who don’t offer the same attacking threat. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate defensive skill is as important to the game of rugby as attack, it’s just that maybe the pendulum has swung slightly the wrong way.
Aside from the sterling performances of Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Jamie Roberts, the most pleasing aspect of Wales’ play was the link-up between Ospreys half-back teammates Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar. Webb’s sniping around the ruck is reminiscent of Matt Dawson and a younger Mike Phillips – his two tries against Australia and New Zealand were great examples of this. Biggar seems to have added an inner composure to his game. His decision-making is much improved and as a result, so has his game management which, along with his brilliant tackling, was one of the main reasons for Wales’ victory at the weekend. Hopefully this means Gatland will see sense and finally confine Rhys Priestland to the sidelines, and promote the mercurial James Hook to the bench.
Two victories from three matches is a tidy enough return for the men in blue. An impressive 41-31 victory against Argentina (who went on to beat Italy and France) was followed up by a fighting but ultimately fruitless performance against New Zealand and then a comfortable 37-12 victory over Tonga. In hooker Ross Ford, lock Richie Gray, scrum-half Greg Laidlaw, wing Sean Maitland and full-back Stuart Hogg Scotland have quality throughout the side, and under Vern Cotter’s leadership they are not only making themselves harder to beat, but they are also playing a more expansive brand of rugby. The forwards are getting over the gain-line and providing Laidlaw with quick ball to release the backs. Wing Tommy Seymour has especially lethal with a try in each of his three games and the back three generally have been a consistent threat. It all bodes well for a promising Six Nations, and with three games at home and a spine of class players, Scotland have a real chance of troubling the upper echelons of the table.
So there you have it. Ireland and Scotland can reflect on a good November’s work whereas England and Wales still have significant room for improvement. With France in the ascendency once more, it is all gearing up to what in my opinion could be the closest and most interesting Six Nations in history. Roll on the 6th of February.