Rugby: Autumn International Report Card

Six_Nations_2009_-_Scotland_vs_Ireland_10Wales

SMOKE and mirrors. Welsh rugby fans can crow about winning Six Nations titles until the cows come home, but if Wales want to take it to the next level they have to beat one of the Big Three; Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. This Autumn proves that the Welsh dominance of the British and Irish Lions squad was far from deserved, and that the roles played by Corbisiero, Paul O’Connell and Jonathan Sexton in the summer were massively undervalued. A 17-7 defeat of Tonga salvaged some national pride, but the performances against South Africa and Australia were abysmal. Putting 40 points past a forlorn Argentina should be applauded, but that isn’t a test for the best home nation in recent times.

The number of times that Wales conceded penalties on their own ball at the breakdown was poor for such an impressive side. Missed opportunities a-plenty, as the European style of tight rugby was outgunned by an Australian side who had the gumption to run around the outside of the defensive line. Playing Southern Hemisphere Rugby against a side coached by a New Zealander, and yet it comes as a surprise. Warren Gatland has to be put under pressure for an autumn that promised so much and delivered so little. No tries against the Springboks, a team the back-to-back Six Nations Champions are yet to beat, is far below the standard we have come to expect of this side littered with world stars. If you were going to come up with a composite World XV as of today, Leigh Halfpenny would be the second name on the team-sheet, behind the New Zealand and Canterbury Number 8, Keiran Reed.

C

Six Nations Prediction: 2nd

England

Two from three but if they want to be competitive at home in two years’ time, have to find a way to truly test New Zealand. Our view of England this autumn is incomplete because they did not play South Africa, my pick to win the World Cup in 2015. England fully deserved to triumph over the Wallabies, and for an hour against the unbeaten All Blacks they looked as if they were going to beat the World Champions for a second successive year.

The best thing about England is that they appear to be winding up for a tilt at the William Webb Ellis Trophy in 2015. Owen Farrell is doing well and Chris Robshaw at 7 is continuing to make Warren Gatland look foolish for not taking him to Australia in the summer. I know The Lions won the tour, but Robshaw does so much commendable work in the loose for country and his club Harlequins and never gets the deserved praise. One man does not make a team, but if Manu Tuilagi plays versus New Zealand, England win. Geoff Parling had a good autumn, and, unlike Wales and Scotland in particular, the RFU can justify staging games against the Southern Hemisphere giants. England were playing the All Blacks at their own game and succeeding, before the New Zealand character really came to the fore, eventually winning 30-22.

B+

Six Nations Prediction: 1st (Triple Crown)

Ireland

Joe Schmidt’s men missed an enormous opportunity last Sunday. 19-0 in the lead against the world’s best team, New Zealand, going for an unbeaten 2013 who were slightly arrogant and naive for the first half. No international rugby team should lose a 3-try lead, regardless of who they are playing.

Rob Kearney was superb under the high ball and Jamie Heaslip continues with an exceptionally high standard of performance. Eoin Reddan’s return at scrum half was a delight having struggled to get in the side in the wake of Conor Murray’s meteoric rise through the Munster system. The result against the Aussies must have been massively disappointing having come off the back of a convincing win versus Pacific Islanders Samoa the week previously. Ireland fronted up against Samoa, only to let Stephen Moore run the show from hooker 7 days later. How can you be out-scrummaged by Australia?

B-

Six Nations Prediction: 3rd (It will hinge on the game against Wales in Dublin)

Scotland

The SRU need to have a long hard look at themselves. The bank balance after games versus South Africa and Australia gained a massive boost but the sport in the country is left in a state of disrepair. Scotland just aren’t good enough to play the top seven or eight nations in the world. The men in high places should be brave enough to schedule no more games against the traditional Tri-Nations teams, rather playing Japan, Romania, Argentina and the like. Greig Laidlaw, Kelly Brown and Stuart Hogg and by far and away Scotland’s best players, but are undone by the ineptitude being served up by Ross Ford at line-out time, and the indiscipline of 50-cap Jim Hamilton at ruck time.

The enfranchisement of the sport to Edinburgh and Glasgow exclusively, with no direct pathway to the international scene from The Borders, the heartland of Scottish Rugby, is a sad state of affairs. Scotland won The Five Nations in 1999 with a side that played running rugby with players of the standard of Alan Tait, Stuart Grimes, Glenn Metcalfe and Gregor Townsend. Gary Armstrong at 9 was superb for the best part of a decade. This built off the back of Scotsmen playing the best standard of rugby week-in-week-out at Newcastle and Northampton in England.

Where is the talent network? There is one, but with so few opportunities to make it as a professional, Scottish rugby has hit a nadir. The XV always play as if they have never met, never mind actually played rugby together.

D

Six Nations Prediction: 6th (Wooden Spoon – They play Italy in Rome, need I say anymore?)