Best of the Weekend: Investec and Autumn Internationals

Woeful Wales embarrassed by Fiji

Without a win in this Autumn International series, a weakened Welsh side produced what was described as an “embarrassing” performance by coach Warren Gatland. Even with the second half reinforcements of Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones, Wales were completely toothless in attack. Their best threat was the talented but completely inexperienced George North on the right wing, and he was completely overused, as Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop in particular lacked any form of diversity in attack. Even with Tom Shanklin coming on in the centre to attempt to rectify the problem, Wales only score was a penalty try from their dominant scrum.

Fiji were brave and ambitious, but Wales had far too much quality in their ranks and this game should have never been a contest. Some will point to the intense physicality at the breakdown and in the tackle of the Fijians as being too much for Wales, but the truth is with the quality of the players they put out, a victory should have been never in doubt. The Welsh seem to have developed some Pacific Island complex, but given how the majority of Friday night’s fifteen come up against opposition of a much higher quality week in, week out in the Magners League and Heineken Cup, there should have been no problems in overcoming a side like Fiji.

Looking at their selection, there were two glaring examples of where Wales were going wrong. Firstly, there was no recognised openside flanker in the starting fifteen, with Dan Lydiate filling in at number 7. As a result of this, Fiji bossed the ruck area with ease. Wales needed a fetcher to do the dirty work on the ground, and the lack of this gave the Fijians real dominance. Secondly, and this has been a hushed secret for quite some time, Wales rely far too much on Shane Williams, and his absence, which could lead up to and into the Six Nations, leaves them without their ace in the pack. It was a case of rather than flinging the ball wide to one winger, Williams, they simply looked for another in the form of North. Their lack of imagination was simply frightening. In addition, why was James Hook selected at 13 after being so influential the week before at inside centre? Rotation is necessary during long international periods, but the picks mentioned above suggest a severe underestimation of how hard Fiji would test them, and therefore a lack of respect.

England stutter against brave Samoans

After the euphoria of the week before following the demolition of Australia, those who went to Twickenham expecting a 40 or 50 point hammering of Samoa will have come away disappointed. England couldn’t get going, and that is a testament to how hard Samoa worked at the breakdown and in defence. The hits were big as expected, and the frustration on the faces of Ben Youngs and Toby Flood was explicit. The lack of fluidity said a lot about how poor Australia’s containment of England’s half back pairing had been the week before.

Having said that, England’s ambition remained very much intact. Even when the attacking game wasn’t functioning, they kept plugging away, continuing to play with the width and purpose that has served them so well in recent games. Ben Foden’s disallowed try in the first half was their best move of the match; the inside pass from Flood to Ashton was inch perfect, the long miss pass out to Foden left Samoa scattered. Unfortunately, Tasesa Lavea did just about enough to force Foden’s legs into touch. Chris Ashton’s effort was also rejected after he burst onto Shontayne Hape’s  marginally forward offload. It meant going into half-time England’s lead was slender, just 6-3, and after Samoa scored seconds from the re-start, those who predicted a massacre were no doubt left a bit bemused. The way England responded was hugely encouraging though. Man of the match Shontayne Hape made the space out wide for Ashton to draw across the full-back, before flipping the ball to Matt Banahan for the score. And Banahan was there yet again for the interception later on which led to Tom Croft’s score. Did the experiment of playing him at 13 work? The case is still open.

As for Samoa, speaking to captain Mo Schwalger after the match, the disappointment in his voice showed how close Samoa felt they had been to a famous scalp. After Croft’s try, many would have predicted the scoreline to become embarrassing, but Samoa hit back. George Stowers nearly finished off an ambitious chip and chase move but had the ball dislodged from his hands as he dived for the line. The last word though did come from the Islanders, debutant Fautua Otto diving over after good work from flanker Ray Treviranus.

Could they have really beaten England? It didn’t seem realistic after Croft’s score. Their performances have been strong and encouraging so far, but without more exposure against the Tier One sides, how are they meant to realistically challenge them? This was Samoa’s first game against England outside of a World Cup since 2005. The big question is, when will England, France, or any of the Tri-Nations teams travel to Samoa? Their participation in International rugby, and that of Fiji and Tonga, if they are not allowed to progress by playing the top teams consistently home and away, is almost pointless.

Scotland shock the Boks

Without doubt one of the best turn-arounds in recent international rugby history. New Zealand ripped Scotland apart with chilling ease and efficiency last Saturday evening, so what should have been different when the World Champions came to town? In conditions that without a doubt benefited the home side hugely, they contained the Springboks attacking threat brilliantly. Dan Parks will obviously take the plaudits and rightly so. His performance was the perfect example of how crucial taking your opportunities are at Test level.

But two players who really left their mark on the match were a couple of Richies; Gray and Vernon. The former certainly had his hands full, starting his first game for his country against the best lock pairing in world rugby in Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, but his performance belied his inexperience. As for Richie Vernon, his second half break through a static South African defence was one of the great Murrayfield moments of recent times. A result like this really makes the New Zealand loss appear like a blip, and adds to what is an impressive record of results from recent times. They still lack a truly world class flyer in the backs, but their ability to edge out key matches is a great weapon to have in their armoury.

The All Blacks march on as Ireland fade

Comprehensive, simple, frighteningly effective. The way New Zealand have played so far this tour has been all of those, but one fact has emerged. Their play may look easy on the eye, yet it is the way everyone else plays, just with that extra strength and pace. So what would happen if someone happened to play against the All Blacks at the same level? Well firstly, no one can. New Zealand’s play isn’t revolutionary in its layout, but the execution of it is just so much more advanced. Secondly, the intensity of the All Blacks defence is too much for Northern Hemisphere teams to cope with. Add to this the fact that the World Cup is on their home turf next year, and the winner appears already decided.

As for Ireland, this week was better, yet they still went down by 20 points, and this was their best performance. A sublime pick up score from Brian O’Driscoll and Stephen Ferris’ try aside, Ireland looked short of ideas in attack, particularly late on when they were chasing the game. They have laboured through this Autumn series, the spark of the 2009 Grand Slam winning side seemingly lost. Admittedly the presence of Jerry Flannery and Paul O’Connell would have helped, but the harsh truth of all this is that pretty much Ireland’s first choice set of players have come embarrassingly unstuck against two teams who they aspire to be equals with on the world stage in South Africa and New Zealand. The start against the All Blacks was so positive, but by the start of the second half as Phillip Matthews commented, Ireland looked out on their feet trying to play at New Zealand’s tempo. The next 12 months leading up the World Cup are huge for Declan Kidney and his team.

Try of the weekend goes to Samuel Whitelock of New Zealand. His emergence over the last year has been remarkable, from breaking his way into the Crusaders team to the All Black set up. However for this try, he was on the end of a great piece of teamwork. Starting with Cory Jane bouncing David Wallace on the right hand side, the ball was shipped left almost effortlessly from Jane to Dan Carter, then through three sets of hands to the lighting Hosea Gear. His run in the 22 and offload to Richie McCaw (seriously, when is he ever not there in support?), led to the space out on the left wing for the giant Whitelock who collected, rampaged inside through Rob Kearney, crashing over the line.

This week’s hero is without a doubt, Dan Parks. Coming up against the best marksman (Morne Steyn) and the biggest boot (Frans Steyn) in world rugby may have taken the attention off Parks’ own ability with the boot. But six penalties and a scruffy drop goal rewarded Scotland for their phenomenal effort all afternoon long. World class composure and ability from the Cardiff Blues 10.

The villain for the week is the now former Wales captain, Ryan Jones. In what the number eight described as being the worst experience of his rugby career, his indiscipline, straying offside at the rock, gave the Fiji stand-off Seremaia Bai the chance to draw the game right at the death. It was more than Fiji deserved, but a huge embarrassment for Wales, and for such a good player and captain like Jones. No one will be more disappointed with what happened than himself.

by Ben Coles

One thought on “Best of the Weekend: Investec and Autumn Internationals

  1. Apologies for the lack of Premiership and Magners coverage, but felt there was too much to write about International wise.

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