Autumn Internationals November 2014 – Review

IT IS THE first week of December, and I am currently in a state of desolation as I am faced with the reality: no Test rugby until February 2015. At least we can all look back on an action-packed and entertaining month of Test rugby. There have been moments of magic. Pat Lambie’s delicate chip, Willie le Roux’s following catch and offload to set up Cobus Reinach for the try against England was worthy the Nobel Prize of Rugby… if that ever existed. Teddy Thomas’s solo effort vs Australia, leaving a number of high quality players for dead in the process, was equally monumental. A classical Tommy Bowe-intercepted try is always saluted. There have also been moments of controversy, especially related to TMO’s role in rugby. Ultimately, there have been moments of agony as history repeats itself with France’s inconsistency. Nevertheless, two epic games of rugby on Saturday afternoon wrapped up what has been a tantalising taste of what to expect in less than a year.

Although the World Cup is a year away, it is difficult to discuss the last month of Test rugby without addressing it in that context. Not only was it was the final opportunity for both hemispheres to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of each other, but it was also about creating momentum and going into the World Cup-year with a solid fundament and a decent run of games. Frankly, two wins were the difference between failure and contentment from a Northern Hemisphere perspective.

rugby-walDespite rather disappointing series from Wales and England, they claimed big wins in an action-packed weekend. England’s best performance of the series restored faith in Project Lancaster with a 26-17 win over Australia at Twickenham. Despite a slightly disappointing run of games lately, they sign off 2014 on a high. Psychologically, it is extremely pivotal to go into next year’s ‘Group of Death’ having recently defeated the Wallabies. Frustrated by flattering scores in the defeats by New Zealand and South Africa, it was all about making a statement and proving a point for Lancaster’s side ahead of the Six Nations with tough games away to Wales and Ireland. Wales, on the other hand, finally put an end to their Southern Hemisphere jinx. Their first win in 26 games to one of the SANZAR giants surely takes some pressure off Warren Gatland in their preparations to regain the crown in the Six Nations and the World Cup later in the year.

Although the recent results speak for themselves, the North have still lots to learn. The match statistics are not pleasant reading for the national coaches, and some of the rugby from the last month was worrying at times. Wales still seem to struggle to adapt a new game-plan now that the Southern Hemisphere’s have learned to deal with Wales’s dependency on big carriers like Jamie Roberts and George North. Watching Wales and Fiji was, in all fairness, painful and it is 80 minutes I will never get back. Moreover, the win over South Africa was purely a result of a world-class scrum, a stand-out performance by Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny’s boot. It will take more than that to succeed next year. The same goes for England, as Lancaster continues to experiment in his search for the perfect combination of players. Within months of the Six Nations, he would ideally have settled on his core set of players. As of December 2014 there are still doubts about a number of positions, particularly amongst the backs.

Whether Vern Cotter’s newborn Scotland can continue their encouraging run of games into the Six Nations has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the Autumn Internationals is definitely one big step in the right direction. Two comfortable wins over Tier Two side Tonga was more or less expected. Yet a solid win over Argentina, a cheerful performance against the All Blacks, and a sudden increase in the number of tries per game, indicate that Scotland’s days as a pushover may be over as we sign off 2014. The talent of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw and the Gray Brothers are a solid fundament for further improvement.

One step forward, two back. That is the case with France these days. It is the same old story with Philipe Saint André’s side as they start off the Autumn Series with a comfortable win over Fiji, followed by an impressive win over Australia, only to finish off with an agonising defeat to Argentina. That aside, France tend to struggle in the year leading up to the World Cup. The circumstances were exactly the same in 2010/11. Their talent cannot be neglected and they will remain a dark horse in next year’s Six Nations and World Cup.

A month ago, the big question was whether the Northern Hemisphere had got what it takes to bridge the seemingly widening ‘north v south-gap’. 32 Test matches and 31 days later on there appears to be blurred lines between North and South. Ireland secured a clean sweep this Autumn with a huge defensive displays and offensive variety which saw them secure wins over South Africa and Australia. Schmidt’s tactical brilliance and his ability to put together a balanced squad full of experience and raw talent has surely paid off. Two wins over two of the ‘Big Three’ are a sign that there is more to expect from Joe Schmidt’s talented squad. And now that Wales and England each secured a win over one of the SANZAR’s, it seems safe to say that the World Cup next year is as open as ever before.

It goes without saying that there is still plenty of national, regional, and international rugby to be played between now and September 2015. Things will definitely change, as injuries will hold some key players back and new potential starters will emerge on the national and international stage. Most importantly, the Southern Hemisphere teams will be back next year with new game-plans, tricks, and talent of which the North will have to deal with.

Until next time.