All Blacks looked tired, but England win still makes north less grim
ON RUGBY:And in an hour and a half or so in a little corner of south west London, the world changed on its axis. The world champions were put to the sword, the Chariot swung low and not alone have England been installed as the new favourites for the Six Nations but come the next World Cup and the rest of us will merely be a sideshow, à la the Olympics, when England conquer the globe on home soil.
The Six Nations managed just four wins and 10 defeats in their meetings with their Rugby Championship counterparts (and just two from 10 by the four Home Unions in a Lions year), yet all has changed. It’s all so fickle, really, and if one swallow doesn’t make a summer then the first day of winter hardly makes an autumn.
Nevertheless, as much as Ireland or France, England will harbour a significant feel-good factor from the events of last Saturday. Given they host currently coach-less Scotland first up at Twickenham, when they arrive in Dublin for their second game they’ll be as confident as they’ve ever been.
In any event, suddenly the Northern Hemisphere teams don’t look so anaemic compared to their Southern Hemisphere counterparts, and the prospect of the Six Nations in the New Year does not have such a grim, and even lightweight feel to it.
It was undoubtedly England’s best ever front-foot win over the All Blacks, but better than winning in Wellington in 2003 when holding their line intact for the best part of 10 minutes with 13 men?
A bridge too far
Like Argentina the week before in Dublin, Saturday’s game at Twickenham looked a bridge too far for the All Blacks, perhaps even more so given the debilitating virus that swept through their ranks earlier in the week.
Only the wingers, Corey Jane and Julien Savea, seemed to have consistent power in their legs. Richie McCaw looked to have marshmallow in his whenever he hit a breakdown, and in this he was far from alone.
The way the All Blacks played in spurts, peaking with a brace of tries early in the second half only to seemingly empty themselves, bore all the hallmarks of a side drained of energy.
That said, England’s response to that two-try salvo demonstrated a new-found ambition and cutting edge in midfield and out wide. Admittedly, Manu Tuilagi has always been a special running talent, and Chris Ashton knows how to run trailers. (Imagine though, if he knocked on while enacting his splash? How we’d laugh.)
The emergence of Gloucester outhalf Freddie Burns – possibly the most stylish and creative player in the Premiership – could give another dimension to their game.
Reintegrate Ben Foden into that mix and it could be quite something, for the power up front is shaping up as well as ever with the emergence of Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood and, for his work-rate from the front, Chris Robshaw. They pulverised the Boks pack in a way Ireland couldn’t and could and should have beaten the Wallabies.
Yet if England scaled the greatest heights on a one-off basis, then France had the most complete European month in beating Australia (by a record margin), Argentina and Samoa. There had been signs of a new French team emerging in the summer in their rout of the Pumas in Tucuman, albeit a second-string Pumas, and clearly much of the building blocks were put in place then.
The first half against Australia was impressive defensively, the second even more so offensively. This was carried on in a brilliant first half against Argentina, recovering from 13-3 down with three tries by half-time. So accurate was their performance the first scrum was in the 39th minute.
Pascal Pape has emerged as a good captain, Maxime Macheraud looks like a scrumhalf who is here to stay in Test rugby, Brice Dulin had a very polished month at fullback and some of the older guard, such as Yannick Nyanga and Florian Fritz, have been reborn, though to nothing like the scale of Frederic Michalak. Scorer of 58 points in three games, Michalak is now also, apparently, a role model for the younger players.
However, if we’re going to cut both Argentina and New Zealand some slack for being apparently drained at the end of a long year, then the same has to be true in spades of Ireland at the end of a World Cup season when playing a third successive Test in New Zealand without a host of injured first-choice players last June.
The infusion of youth having regenerated the Ireland squad, the dilemma for Declan Kidney and co will be in reintroducing the missing front-liners. If back to their best, for example, how on earth can he overlook Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Seán O’Brien?
At least Ireland feel a good deal better about themselves than Wales, after a fourth winnable loss to Australia this year extended their losing run to seven.
Yet they were always likely to struggle without Warren Gatland for the first couple of games and without Adam Jones for the month. Jones will return in the new year, but this was not a good month for Robert Howley, while having so many players based in France cannot be good for their famed fitness programmes.
They will improve come the Six Nations, and so too might Scotland under a new coach, while Italy were competitive with the All Blacks for an hour and nearly beat the Australian team that beat England and Wales. In any event, even if those two again occupy the bottom two places, it’s worth remembering that one of the four of Wales, England, Ireland and France will have to finish at least as low as fourth. Nothing changes there.