England come of age against the Wallabies
There was a sense of real unpredictability in the air ahead of kick-off on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham, with fans and pundits questioning who would emerge victorious, weighing up each side’s flaws and advantages. Yet what can safely be said is that no one predicted England to come out and win by such a convincing margin, and in such a powerful manner.
It was the best performance Twickenham has witnessed from an English side for years. So much was spoken before the match about the quality of Australia’s young guns, but it was England’s youthful exuberance that lit up the grey autumn skies. The final score of 35-18 in all honesty probably flattered Australia slightly, despite Kurtley Beale’s double, as they failed to cope with England’s aggressive defence. So much focus was placed before the match on the scrum that it acted as the perfect cover for England’s ambitious attacking game. Their two tries were so brilliant in terms of their flair and pace, that they would have been almost unimaginable 12 months ago. Their progression has been outstanding, and it was a joy to see evidence of how Martin Johnson has often proclaimed his side could play.
Whilst England functioned brilliantly as a unit, individually there were plenty of exceptional performances. Mike Tindall more than redeemed himself for a poor first half last weekend against New Zealand by showing the watching crowd that he is more than just a midfield battering ram. His soft hands in the build-up to Chris Ashton’s first try were reminiscent of Conrad Smith. The play in the loose of Andrew Sheridan, Tom Palmer and Courtney Lawes to name a few was just too much for the Australian defence as they battered away relentlessly. Ben Youngs pace at 9 gave Australia all sorts of problems, and he won comfortably his individual duel with Will Genia. The energy he brings is unlike that of any other number 9 in recent history in an England shirt. In an area of selection where England are blessed with strong candidates, he is leading the way.
But of all the standout performers for England on Saturday afternoon, one performance marked the return to form of a player whose place has been under threat, and his ability at international level called into question. Mark Cueto’s hit on James O’Connor in the first half was a crowd-pleaser, but his swerving, jinking runs in the second half that ripped the Wallaby defence apart were exhilarating. It was the perfect response for the critics, and if he continues in that manner, his barren run of international tries will soon come to an end.
From a personal perspective, Australia were incredibly disappointing. James O’Connor had a torrid afternoon, possibly mentally affected by the loss of a friend whose funeral he has now flown home for, but his composure to carry on kicking after three misses was admirable. Because Quade Cooper and Matt Giteau were constantly hounded by Lewis Moody, they were unable to play with their natural width and flair. The one player who did stand out was the uncontainable Beale. Two real chances; the first a wonderful chip and chase, the second on the end of a big overlap, were both taken brilliantly. One member of the media before the match stated that whatever happens, Australia will always at least score a couple of tries. It’s a measure of their quality that even in a game when they were completely outclassed, the tries still came.
North shines on debut as Boks fight back
The latest young Welsh winger of the production line is Llanelli flyer Gareth North, and what a debut he had on Saturday afternoon. More on him later, but once again the Welsh public witnessed another loss against a southern hemisphere side, and remain on only one win in 104 years against the Springboks. This is made worse by the fact that the Welsh had a wonderful opportunity at 20-9 to get that important win, yet they couldn’t contain South Africa’s power around the fringes when they got into the red zone. Willem Alberts and record-breaking Victor Matfield smashed their way over as the Boks launched a rather remarkable comeback to lead the game 25-29 with 15 minutes to go. Their victory was however well-earned following some intense defence right up until the 84th minute, but Wales squandered chances, notably when Shanklin burst through but failed to spot Lee Byrne on his outside.
And that really so far has been the story of Wales performances this autumn. They had a huge amount of possession against Australia and a dominant scrum, yet didn’t convert it into points, and with 15 minutes left against South Africa on Saturday they had time and opportunities. There were plenty of positives to take from the game; North’s debut, Hook’s thrilling play at 12 (without doubt his best position), and the emergence of Richie Rees as an international number 9 behind Mike Phillips. But how Wales need a Southern Hemisphere scalp under their belts. Next week against Fiji offers the chance to exorcise some demons from the 2007 World Cup, but the New Zealand game is now of huge importance ahead of next year’s tournament.
Sonny Bill gives an offloading masterclass as Scotland are destroyed
Seven tries, four in the first 30 minutes and a record defeat at Murrayfield for Scotland spelt out a horrible afternoon at the office for Andy Robinson’s team as New Zealand made attacking rugby look very easy. Mils Muliaina spoke in the build-up how he was looking forward to playing his first game at Murrayfield, and made the most of the occasion, scoring two tries as part of a sensational performance. But the credit should go to one man who whilst not scoring left his name stuck in the mind of every Scottish supporter come the final whistle, the unstoppable Sonny Bill Williams. His strength and offloading in the tackle created two tries for the All Blacks, and he looked far more comfortable in the number 12 shirt with Conrad Smith outside him than he did the week before when partnered by Ma’a Nonu at Twickenham. New Zealand’s strong line-up was selected in anticipation of an intense encounter, but this was simply a one-sided masterclass. The best thing for Scotland to do is merely see it as a blip, and focus on their recent success against Austalia, Ireland and Argentina moving forward.
Ireland stutter and struggle to unconvincing win
After four defeats in a row dating back to last year’s Six Nation’s defeat to Scotland, this was a chance for Ireland to produce not only a clinical but hugely dominant performance against a team who arguably a year ago they would have swept aside with ease. Yet something is not right with Ireland. The personnel were slightly changed for the visit of Samoa, Devin Toner rightfully given his debut in the second row, but it was at scrum-time where they particularly struggled yet again. Samoa dominated long passages of play, and their try was wonderful to watch, Seilala Mapusua’s cutting line followed by an offland to the charging Alesana Tuilagi giving Ireland some concern defensively. Ronan O’Gara’s late try eased some nerves, but these are worrying times for Irish rugby; something coach Declan Kidney seemed to dismiss in the post-match press conference, but is there for all to see in the form of poor displays, and empty seats.
Try of the weekend only had winner; take a bow Chris Ashton. With Australia pressing hard on the England five metre line, Will Genia got isolated as he ran left and was tackled by Tom Palmer. With the ball turned over, Youngs burst to the right, before sending the ball onto Lawes. The lock’s sucking in of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor was crucial for providing the space for Ashton on the outside, and after a brilliant offload in the tackle, Ashton raced down the touchline, before brilliant cutting inside and beating Mitchell on the swerve to dive under the posts. Some remarked it was the greatest try Twickenham had ever seen. It is without doubt, a serious contender.
This week’s hero is the aforementioned George North. To make your debut aged 18 opposite one the greatest winger’s of the last decade in Bryan Habana seemed a massive task for such a young player. But North showed he has the potential to become one of the great Welsh wingers. His line inside Stephen Jones for his first try was brilliantly timed. The second, latching onto a scorching cross-field kick again from Jones and remaining calm ahead of the on-rushing Habana and Francois Steyn, was that of a seasoned veteran. Superb stuff.
As for the villain, there weren’t as many obvious candidates this week as usual. But the team with the most defensive training over the next few days will no doubt be Scotland. The seven tries they conceded were far too easy against an impressive New Zealand attack, and after so many good performances in recent times, this will be a huge disappointment to everyone starting to believe in Scottish rugby again. There is hard work to be done ahead of the visit of South Africa.
That’s all for this week. Let us know if we missed anything and keep checking back for more reaction to last weekend, and previews of the games to come.
by Ben Coles