So, the Autumn internationals are underway, and what polar opposites we had this weekend. England came stuttering out of the blocks and despite the fact the score line was a convincing win, it was not a convincing performance from the red rose. I’m not going to sit here and say that it was a bad performance, but it was lacking in that gusto and explosive ball carrier action that we saw around the tests last Summer. You’ve probably got to hand it to Mako Vunipola for creating some action in what was otherwise a steady performance against the Pumas.
Part of the problem for me was that no one individual had a horror show of game, but that feeling of going forward as one was a bit lost in translation from past performances. We’re looking at the number two team in the world, who have bold ambitions of becoming the number one team, but based on that performance we have a way to go yet. Some will say that this team hasn’t had the game time recently, and that there were a few changes from the usual line up that may have thrown some unknown variables into the equation, but not so much has changed that entire team dynamic to my mind.
Rokoduguni has got the opportunity to make a name for himself in the back three as he has a great combination of pace and ball carrying ability to really make a mess that the forwards can capitalise on. Eddie Jones naturally backed his boys and commended their ability to grind out a win against the Argentinians, citing the Pumas recent first half performances against Australia and New Zealand as benchmarks for being able play a solid forty minutes rugby.
On the flip side of the stuttering start from England, you had the Irish absolutely demolishing their opposition, in no uncertain terms. They played smart, attractive and clinical rugby. Ireland are on the cusp of big things. Their intensity is out of this world, and on any given day, they are probably the most ferocious team in the world, but it is all done with control and precision. We’ve seen them beat the All Blacks, Australia and now South Africa in the last year or so, but we’ve also seen them taken to task by the best of the Northern Hemisphere, which really does go to underline the seismic shift from Southern dominance to Northern parity.
The Springboks have had a rotten run of form recently, but have been thereabouts in terms of performance against some big names. Their recent scorecard reads played 5, lost 5, but this doesn’t tell the full story. The number of draws or losses by narrow margins doesn’t really portray the team’s capability. 18 months ago they were being soundly beaten by anybody and everybody but they are starting to come good again as I feel they have realised that it is no longer possible to just bully teams off the pitch and rely on physicality to get them out of trouble. Every team these days, is physical. The Springboks are starting to play the game again, but they just didn’t play it on Saturday, or at least weren’t given the chance to.
Wales have been long time victims of Southern Hemisphere stage fright (which is odd considering the performance a lot of them put in during the Lions tour!) but Australia are just in form right now and they want to make a point. After the summer tests when they were whitewashed by England, they have spent less time licking their wounds and concentrated on returning to their fast-flowing trademark rugby. Australia have gone back to seeing chances and jumping on them, none more than Michael Hooper who seized upon Welsh mistakes at the weekend like a toddler raiding the pic n mix at the Cinema.
The Scotland Samoa game was a veritable feast of high points scoring madness and although not particularly pretty, it looked like Scotland have managed to sew up the other half of their game in light of the fact that they are scoring tries, many of them! I shouldn’t think it was in a great deal of doubt that they were going to beat Samoa, but I doubt that many people imagined they would do it this way round. Scotland of old would have been working on keeping a defensive line that was tighter than two coats of paint and whilst they didn’t make a bad fist of their defence, it was the attack that really shone! Facing down the AB’s this week will be completely different game, but with nothing to lose and a refreshed attacking verve on their side, they might not go down in the fashion people expect them to.
I’d like to touch more on the France Vs NZ game, but let’s be honest, this was a game that the All Blacks were always going to win but few probably expected France to put 18 points on their opposition. If this game tells us anything moving forwards, it probably isn’t about the strength of the French national squad, and more to do with these various gaps showing up in the NZ armour. They’ve been run close by South Africa, beaten by the Aussies and had a couple of games against “lesser” sides that previous iterations of the All Blacks would have put a cricket score on. They’re no long invincible and many sides on their best day will be able to do the business.