This year’s autumn internationals saw the Home Nations yet again fail to assert their dominance over the Southern Hemisphere’s big three of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Whilst managing only one win out of eight against the former Tri-Nations – that win being England’s somewhat scratchy performance against Australia – there are some promising signs for the Home Nations, yet all will recognise that there is a lot to be done before the World Cup in 2015.
England’s 20-13 victory over Australia marked the only victory against one of the Southern Hemisphere giants, yet it was by no means the best performance by England, let alone by one of the Home Nations. More promising for England in fact was the rough improvement of their performances throughout the series. Despite a patchy and error strewn second-half against Argentina offsetting what had been a confident and dominant first half, England’s performance against New Zealand showed real improvement as they dominated possession and territory with 62% and 60% respectively. They were physical at the breakdown and played parts of the game with real pace.
However, with regard to New Zealand, it was Ireland who produced arguably the best rugby by any Home Nation. Leading 22-17 right until the last play, it was Ryan Crotty’s converted try in the last minute of the game that left Ireland despairing. Yet they proved that New Zealand, despite winning every single test this year, are not untouchable and indeed they were clearly rattled by the Irish, as they were at times during their victory over England.
This match also demonstrated the potential that Ireland can realise when all of their players perform and combine at their best, as they do so regularly for their provincial sides. In particular O’Brien’s supremacy over McCaw at the breakdown is momentous for world rugby and gives the indication that perhaps New Zealand’s golden pair of Carter and McCaw are beginning to fade. Nevertheless, whilst New Zealand may now be seen as not wholly invincible, the fact that they scored 17 unanswered points in the second half to secure victory confirms the fact that they remain by far the best side in world rugby.
The biggest disappointment of the autumn lies with the Welsh team and their continuing inadequacy against southern hemisphere opposition. At this point in time the Welsh side are the best in the Northern Hemisphere, demonstrated not least by the instrumental role of Welsh players in the Lions tour this year. The team is settled and the likes of Adam Jones, Sam Warburton and George North are world class, such as that even at this relatively early stage the Welsh are in good shape for the World Cup in 2015. However, they suffer from a chronic inability to beat the big southern hemisphere teams and under Gatland they have lost 22 out of 23 fixtures against the former tri-nations sides. The performance against Australia was inspired in defeat and a fantastic attacking display, yet in order to push on they need to be able to quash the quick flowing attacking play that the likes of Quade Cooper will bring in 2015.
At this point in time it is only England that have the confidence and grit to grind out a win against one of the southern hemisphere giants and perhaps Wales should follow their example and have more arrogance in their ability. England have the bones of a good team with young players such as Joe Launchbury, who scored two tries in the series, asserting themselves in the side. However, what this series has highlighted is that the persistent problem concerning England’s midfield is still ongoing. Losing to New Zealand despite dominating both territory and possession is indicative of a chronic lack of attacking flair. Joel Tomkins was not able to prove himself as a clear-cut choice at centre and whilst the return of Manu Tuilagi from injury next year will help matters, England need to develop a certain and threatening centre pairing.
If they cannot score tries then they will not threaten the likes of New Zealand, or even more pertinently they will fail to defeat the Welsh, who know their attritional style of play all too well and who will be in the same group come 2015. Owen Farrell also needs to stand flatter, in order to give the English backs more go-forward. Whilst his kicking game is very strong, some appearances for more attacking fly halves such as Freddie Burns may see the English backline become more of a threat.
All in all, the Autumn Internationals have seen the Irish play atrociously against Australia and at their very best against New Zealand. If they turn out as they did against the All Blacks then they may finally be able to realise the potential of a strong squad of players. England will have found signs of encouragement in their performances but they did not at any point match the quality shown in beating New Zealand last year and the attacking inadequacy of their backline needs addressing. Wales on the other hand, despite currently being the best Home Nations side, desperately need to remedy their bad form against southern hemisphere teams in order to be truly world class. A World Cup win for the home nations in 2015 is by no means impossible, but on the evidence of the most recent Autumn internationals it remains an improbability.