It has been a fairly testing time for the big four Southern Hemisphere teams on their Autumn tour. I feel we may be seeing a closing of the supposed gap between north and south here with only the All Blacks managing to put together a clean sweep of wins although they got a bit of a scare up in Murrayfield.
Australia are on an upward curve but still lost to England for the fifth time in a row and were humbled by a rampant Scotland . Both Argentina and South Africa have massively underperformed and been on the wrong end of some beatings. New Zealand are still flying the flag for the Southern Hemisphere although by their standards they were not totally at their best. Mitigating factors for them would be that some of their best players were rested and it has been a long old season for those boys.
So what have we learnt and does it give us any idea of where the Six Nations teams are in their preparation for the Rugby World Cup.
It was definitely a C minus for our Gallic cousins who seem a long, long way from where they should be. Surely coach Guy Noves must be updating his CV at the moment as it is hard to see France sticking with him for much longer. I have always admired the French with their hard nosed forwards and mercurial backs but I don’t honestly know what kind of a team they are at the moment. Shambles would not be too strong a description! A fresh coaching team two years out from Japan might be a risk but scratching my head as to how else they can stop the rot.
As for Scotland they have been fabulous this Autumn and a joy to watch. The Wallabies were torn apart by their attacking game and that was even without their genuine world class player Stuart Hogg. Aussie coach Michael Chieka could barely contain his anger at the referee decisions that reduced his team at one point to 13 men. The red card for prop Kepu on 38 minutes was obviously a turning point but I have seen enough games where teams manage a red card better than the Aussies did. As for Scotland they played with buckets of flair and attacked with such intent. The front row which was mostly made up of 2nd and 3rd choice players managed on the whole to deal with their Wallaby counterparts and overall the packs were evenly matched.
Over the Irish sea an Ireland side is quietly going about its business doing all the basics incredibly well and steadily building squad depth with young guys notching up caps and experience. They took on old foes Argentina this weekend and managed to make amends for the hammering they took in the quarter finals of the World Cup two years ago. The Pumas had a wobbly first half but picked up the pace in the second half to score three tries however it always looked like Joe Schmidt’s men had the match under control and so it proved. I loved watching the wing sensation Jacob Stockdale who has looked very classy indeed and scored a brace of tries one of them a cracker. Overall then it was a clean sweep for Ireland and along with England they look to be a growing threat to the Southern Hemisphere’s firm grip on the Webb Ellis trophy.
Probably a disappointing series for Wales although they have South Africa this coming weekend to try and finish with a bit of a flourish. The one game however where I thought they were magnificent was this weekend’s clash with New Zealand. The scoreline suggests another yawningly predictable thumping by the All Black machine but believe me New Zealand did not have it all their own way. I thought Wales put them under real pressure and there were some real standout performances. How good was Josh Navidi – he led that red line magnificently. Sadly after a a superb hour the All Blacks took back command mostly through their inspirational winder Rieko Ioane. How do they manage to toss aside wingers of the calibre of Julian Savea and just pop in someone as world class as Ioane? It was as good an opportunity for Wales to grab a win against New Zealand as they have had for a long time but early injury to Rhys Webb and the absence of some key players meant they did not quite have enough to get over the line.
As for the men in white I would say a good although not excellent Autumn season. They needed a slick performance against underdogs Samoa as the win was right up there in the Fully Nailed On category. Eddie mixed his options up which meant he could try out some new combinations but as we all know you need to put players in a pressure cooker to really see who performs and although Samoa upped their game at Twickenham they are not the team to really test England.
As for the England performance the backs did not really manage to click which was not totally surprising but you could see flashes continually of the talent Eddie has at his disposal. Slade looks much more influential at 13 and Elliott Daly continues to prove what a brilliant all round rugby player his is. Front row and the pack overall went well with Jamie George getting his long overdue first start and using it to great effect buzzing all over the pitch and popping up to give a scoring pass to Alex Lozowski.
The minus for me was the breakdown where England were turned over 20 times which probably had Eddie and his coaches very wound up. It was a new look back row and young Sam Simmonds the Exeter Chief was a pocket dynamo around the pitch playing a number 8. However having Robshaw and Itoje as the flankers means a lack of pace in getting to the breakdown and as talented as Itoje is he is a lock not flanker. However with Nathan Hughes or Billy Vunipola back at 8 it would be interesting to see Sam Simmonds at 6. This would leave Robshaw to fill the number 7 shirt which would be an interesting dilemma for Eddie Jones in his Six Nations selection meeting.
Six Nations time will be intriguing and give us a chance to in the see who can claim top dog status in the Northern Hemisphere.
England look in pole position and with all their players fit and firing would be hard to bet against. Ireland has to travel to Twickenham but if they get a win there it would be another massive step in the right direction. England will face Scotland in Murrayfield giving the Scots a perfect chance to turn around that awful performance at Twickenham in last year’s Six Nations and set down a marker. As for Wales we know they have the talent and their attack is improving so come next February Warren Gatland will be hoping to pull it all together. France? Who knows – the Six Nations can often bring out the best in Les Bleus so we could be in for one of the most competitive and compelling tournaments we have seen for a long time. With the Six Nations 2018 being just 18 months before the world cup every team will see next Spring as the start of the build up to Japan.