1 Dec 2010

Lessons on the international rugby scene

The series of test matches played in Europe in November, against the major European nations, by teams from the southern hemisphere have just ended. At almost exactly one year from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, to be held in New Zealand, this series of games confirmed a number of impressions held from previous international games as to the favourites for this coming World Cup, and also revealed a couple of surprises.

One certainty is the domination of New Zealand on the international scene. They won all their games, and in convincing manner. They are able to adapt their tactics to each opponent and yet always play their spectacular game of total movement, with speed, power and skill. When they accelerate (and they seem able to do this almost at will), they make rugby look so easy! I don't see any team able to beat them when they are at home, with the possible exception of Australia on a very good day (and a very poor one for the All Blacks). If England and Wales came within 10 points of them on their games, neither of these sides looked like beating them. The last game they have lost was to Australia, and it was only by a couple of points and with not a lot to play for as they had already won the Tri-Nations.


Adam Ashley-Cooper, the Wallaby center, playing havoc with the French defense last Saturday in Paris

Australia must rate as second in world ratings, although their performance on this tour was unequal. They thrashed France in a spectacular and convincing manner (59-16), but were in turn comprehensively beaten by England (18-34). Their other games were variable. They are capable of playing a game of movement that is at times as good, if not better, than that of New Zealand. But their scrum is a weakness, although this did not seem to handicap them much against France. The old adage of "no scrum, no win" looked pretty dated in the light of that game!


Ben Robinson, the Australian prop forward, showing that forwards can and do run with the ball in modern rugby. His back-up is the excellent flanker, David Pocock.


South Africa, the current world champions, looked a bit tired at times but put in a very solid performance against England, whom they clearly dominated. The main question-mark for this team is their lack of speed and creativity in attack. Their defense, scrum and line-out are exemplary, but is this enough to win games against the speed and skill of execution shown by both Australia and New Zealand?

England surprised a lot of people by their comprehensive victory over Australia. They did not appear ridiculous against New Zealand but the Blacks were never in real danger of losing this game. They played a solid game against the tenacious Samoans. What has been gradually improved over the past couple of years is their play from the back line. In fact they sometimes even forget to kick the ball (as in the game against South Africa), which used to be their main weapon. In  a way they are playing a bit like France used to, with electrons like Ben Foden, Mark Cueto and Chris Ashton constant dangers to the opposing defense. Still strong physically, with one of the best scrums, they are inconsistent in the line-ups, despite the excellent performance (all round) of Courtney Lawes, the lock forward. Encouraging, but not yet constant enough.

France was the big disappointment of the series, with two weak wins (Fidji and Argentina) and one total shipwreck against Australia. What on earth has happened to the legendary French flair? They seem to be obsessed by their scrum, which is indeed very good, but the back row is a mess and they have no fly-half at the moment. I cannot see them getting far in the World Cup without a major turn-around.

The other teams played at their current levels (Wales losing all but one game, which was a draw, and Ireland beating only Argentina). The one surprise was Scotland's close win over South Africa, for which they deserve all congratulations. Together with Italy, Scotland is currently the poorest of the major European rugby nations, (financially and in terms of manpower) and this was quite an achievement.

We shall see what the European 6-nations contest shows as to lessons retained from these matchs and the kind of teams these countries plan to send to the World Cup. England look to be favourites this year, on the strength of this past series of test matches. But I won't make predictions!