England’s defeat of Australia on Saturday brought to a close this year’s autumn internationals test series; it was the last opportunity for northern hemisphere teams to test themselves against a host of southern hemisphere countries before the World Cup in England next year. Fortunes were mixed: England generally struggled, Ireland proved dominant, Scotland began to prove themselves and Wales capped a largely disappointing campaign by defeating South Africa, only the second time they have ever won in that encounter. New Zealand confirmed themselves as the best team in the world with victories over England, Scotland and Wales. Frailties were exposed for South Africa as they lost to both Wales and Ireland, whilst Australia limped through defeats to England, Ireland and France.
England’s autumn campaign eventually levelled out as an overall draw, yet most fans will be left disappointed. Close defeats to both New Zealand and South Africa confirmed that England are still not able to execute their game plan against the best teams in the world, despite encouraging displays and growing optimism over the past two years. Stuart Lancaster’s side is cementing itself as a force to be reckoned with in world rugby, but is still some way from contending for the All Black’s heavyweight title. Both affairs were close-run defeats, settled by only a three point margin at each fixture. The attacking potential and earnest heart of English rugby is undeniable, but the team lacking the finishing finesse of their southern hemisphere rivals.
Close defeats to both New Zealand and South Africa confirmed that England are still not able to execute their game plan against the best teams in the world, despite encouraging displays
The major concern for Lancaster’s coaching team is the back line; most pertinently, the choices to be made at fly-half and in the centres. Doggedly sticking to Owen Farrell proved to be ineffective in the first two tests, and the long-awaited inclusion of George Ford for the encounters against Samoa and Australia was a welcome breath of fresh air. Yet England started a different centre partnership for each of the four games and the lack of clarity in Lancaster’s decision making clouds the issue further. England cannot seem to make up their mind as to what kind of game they want to play. Barritt and Twelvetrees provide solid defensive options, Eastmond’s lightning feet will open gaps, and Farrell gifts another kicking option. This is all without considering the return of Manu Tuilagi, and the prophesised arrival of rugby league-convert Sam Burgess, the behemoth of Bath.
In stark contrast, England’s pack is now a true world class set of forwards. They annihilated Australia up front on Saturday, driving the scrum more than twenty metres and setting the platform for Ben Morgan to barrel over for two tries. The line-out functions like clockwork, and the strength in depth in the forwards is astounding. England forwards coach Graham Rowntree deserves an accolade for his achievements.
Looking ahead to the arrival of world rugby to Twickenham in September, England will need to learn their mistakes rapidly and rectify the problematic backs. Little time is left to experiment with new combinations, so Lancaster will need to decide upon a first XV and give it time to gel as a cohesive unit. Defeating Australia was a huge bonus as they also feature in Pool A of the World Cup; interestingly, Wales lost to Australia, and they also feature in the aptly named ‘pool of death’. All that is left is for England to face Wales in the Six Nations for the stage to be set for this gruelling series of matches.
Under Joe Schmidt’s tutelage, Ireland have progressed into an almighty team capable of toppling any nation they encounter, given their day
Despite being an England fan, any comment on the autumn internationals would be redundant if Ireland were not mentioned. Under Joe Schmidt’s tutelage, they have progressed into an almighty team capable of toppling any nation they encounter, given their day. A hat trick of victories will boost already swollen Irish confidence, despite one of these being a fairly predictable result against Georgia. Paul O’Connell proved himself to remain a force in world rugby; elsewhere in the field, Johnny Sexton is one the best fly-halves in the world, if not the best, and Tommy Bowe proved to still be a dangerous finisher on the wing. It seems that the retirement of the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll has not killed any hopes of Irish dominance.
International coaches will now turn their eyes to the Six Nations; northern hemisphere leaders with a glint in their eye, southern hemisphere counterparts with great interest. Ireland are on the rise and will seek to retain their European crown, whilst England arguably should have won this year and seek to do so in the next. If Lancaster can resolve his crisis in the midfield, then England should fare well in the coming tournament. It is one of the final opportunities to lay down a marker, and to transform Twickenham into a fortress. English fans will be expectant after a frustrating autumn and, with any hope, the team themselves can materialise that into a trophy.
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Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk