Best of the Weekend: Investec and Autumn Internationals

France torn apart by rampant Australia

Without a doubt the shock result of the weekend, Australia produced the best second half performance in test rugby so far this season. Six tries in 31 minutes, including a hat-trick for Drew Mitchell, all came in an intense second half blitz on the French defence. It was a case of half Aussie domination, half French catastrophe. Captain Thierry Dusautoir’s analogy afterwards that France “did not even exist” in the second half was accurate, particularly as during the first half, and going into the break, they seemed on top. The Wallabies scrum was in its normal car crash state, with Ben Alexander sent to the bin and France being awarded a penalty try before half time. They also were trailing just after the break due to Morgan Parra’s boot, but Australia found another gear as they started to run the home team ragged.

All of Australia’s key backs kicked on after half time. Adam Ashley-Cooper was brilliant in running straight and breaking through some very flimsy tackling. Will Genia had one of those games where he seemed to be at the heart of all the Australian tries, creating the space and drawing the men for James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale (who has had such an impressive Autumn) and Drew Mitchell. What the Wallabies don’t have in power they more than possess over other sides with their raw pace. Sure there was a little bit of luck in some of the scores, but their ambition and entertaining brand of rugby more than earned it. France’s muscle in the first half looked like it might give them enough of an advantage, but as collapses go this was one of the most dramatic and humiliating. Their defence was atrocious, slacking off tackles and unable to cope with the Wallabies’ width.

Looking at the French backline, there were some obvious selection queries before the game even began. Jerome Porical has played well over the last few seasons for Perpignan, but a debut against Australia seemed like a big ask for an international debutant. Similarly, Yoann Huget’s debut on the wing was another crazy baptism of fire for a 19 year old. Aurelien Rougerie is not a natural outside centre, nor is Damien Traille an international fly-half. It brings into question Marc Lievremont’s selection policy and tactics, especially with less than a year to go till the World Cup.

For Australia, this was the perfect way to end what has been a long hard season. The Autumn Tour, even with the defeat to England, will be regarded as a positive step forward. The wins yesterday and against New Zealand in Hong Kong were huge not only in how they got the results, but beating the Tri-Nations and Six-Nations champions ahead of the World Cup will have given Robbie Deans’ young team a big confidence boost. France meanwhile, have a lot of thinking to do about where they go from here in terms of captaincy, selection, and more importantly, their coaching staff.

New Zealand complete their Grand Slam but Wales come close

Wales produced the best performance against New Zealand in the Autumn series from any side as they went down 25-37 in Cardiff. Dan Carter’s points record came as expected even though he had a rather shocking afternoon with the boot, but the All Blacks still ran in five tries, leaving little doubt that they are the best in the world.

Wales were almost unrecognisable from the team that played Fiji last Friday night in the 16-16 draw. With key players restored to the first team line-up like Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones at half back, confidence almost seemed to be reinstated. They were right in this game, and at 12-13 had a massive chance to do what no Northern Hemisphere side has done for so long. Wales didn’t bottle up their ambition and resort to a kicking game; they continued to run the ball back at New Zealand rather than feeding them with ball to counter-attack. At the set-piece though, much like England earlier in the day against the Boks, their lineout fell apart massively.

But they kept in touch through the boot of Jones, getting to 18-23 with seven minutes to go before the All Blacks broke away through tries from Isais Toeava and then John Afoa. It was a huge improvement after last week’s embarrassment, and whilst they still went down by 12 points, it will have given them confidence before facing England in the start of Six Nations in February. Crucially, they competed well with the All Blacks without superstar Shane Williams, who they have relied on a bit excessively over the last couple of years. His return to the national side for that opening game therefore will be a timely boost to the squad.

England stunned by Springboks power

England had to settle for two wins from four this Autumn as South Africa restored some pride and practically saved Peter de Villiers’ job by winning 11-21 at Twickenham. England couldn’t handle the Springboks’ power, particularly that of Pierre Spies, Juan Smith and Jean de Villiers. They undoubtedly suffered through losing Tom Croft and Toby Flood to injury early on, affecting their lineout and game management respectively, but just like when they played New Zealand in the first game this November, when the power came on, England did not have enough to fight back.

England simply couldn’t secure enough possession in the right areas of the pitch, and were relentlessly pummelled by South Africa’s big runners in the first half, when the Boks camped in the England 22, constantly pressing and sapping the pace out of the home side’s defence. This was a fired up South African side following their defeat to Scotland last weekend. They kept plugging away, and it’s a credit to England’s defence that it took till the 59th minute for super-sub/top class finisher Willem Alberts to crash over in the right-hand corner. Lwazi Mvovo’s crucial score however came from some slack English defence and effectively killed off the game, with Ben Foden’s interception coming too late to have an impact on the final score.

Where do England go from here? The facts are that against the more physical sides, New Zealand and South Africa, England have really come undone. They have been outmuscled at the breakdown too easily, but don’t possess players of the size and strength of the likes of Pierre Spies of Jerome Kaino, Courtney Lawes possibly aside. It means that their technique has to be better against the top sides to make sure good ball is secured, and too often on Saturday they were too slow to get to the rucks, leaving themselves dangerously open to turnovers. Against Australia this wasn’t such a problem as they possess fairly similar players in the back row, but Martin Johnson will be giving plenty of thought to how England are going to confront the All Blacks and Springboks if they come up against them in the World Cup.

Ireland secure record win in unconvincing style

A 29-9 win at the Aviva Stadium over Argentina may look impressive on paper, but Ireland again failed to hit the top form that won them the Grand Slam last year. In icy conditions, there were countless handling errors from both sides, and the scoreline should have been a lot closer if Felipe Contepomi hadn’t squandered several opportunities at goal. Argentina are no longer the force they were when they reached third place in the World three years ago. That side, with the likes of Pichot, Borges and Corleto in the backs, were a team at their peak, and unfortunately quality replacements have not emerged. Their forward play was again impressive, and they arguably should have had a penalty try in the first half, but with a pack rolling around on an average age of 35, replacements need to come through and fast.

Ireland however just don’t seem to have the conviction in attack that they did this time last year, and that is down to a couple of different factors. First of all, whilst Peter Stringer and Eoin Reddan are both more than capable scrum-halves, Tomas O’Leary’s superior service and threatening play around the fringes gives Ireland an attacking edge that they have lacked this Autumn. Also, Brian O’Driscoll no longer has the pace to cut through defences as he did so splendidly in years gone by. Therefore, the Irish threat in midfield has become massively diminished. Keith Earls on the other hand has that lightning burst that makes opposition defences second-guess, providing the fraction of a second necessary to cut through the line to open it up for the others.

Ireland’s back row is arguably still their best asset, as Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip continue to prove themselves as top rate international back row forwards. But the lineout has crumbled without Paul O’Connell and Jerry Flannery’s presence. Sean Cronin is a wonderful hooker in the loose and in the scrum, but his throwing was not good enough against Argentina and stopped Ireland from building towards putting more points on the board. In the end, this was a much needed win for Declan Kidney’s team after what has frankly been a very disappointing Autumn.

Scotland win again but only just

In fowl, freezing, horrendous condition up at Pittodrie, Scotland snatched victory away from Samoa, winning a penalty on 79 minutes and 20 seconds to leave the Islanders finishing their tour with no victory to build on ahead of their World Cup campaign. In a tense encounter, Samoa’s great physicality gave Scotland a few nervous moments. There were two excellent tries from Kahn Fotualii for Samoa and Nikki Walker from Scotland, in a game where you could argue Samoa deserved at least a draw.

As for Scotland, their Autumn International results have really been all over the place. From being thumped by the All Blacks to beating the World Champions South Africa, and then edging out Samoa right at the death through Ruaridh Jackson’s late kick, their results show a real inconsistency in their game, meaning it’s not easy to predict how they will get on in the Six Nations. There have been some great positives though; beating South Africa will have given them massive confidence, along with the emergence of Richie Gray and Richie Vernon, plus Rory Lawson showing that he is more than capable being captain at International level. So the future looks bright for Andy Robinson and his team, if a little blurred.

Try of the weekend goes to James O’Connor. Australia’s last and seventh try of their massacring of France summed up everything they do well. The move right from within their own half came from superb handling. Giteau’s loop round Cooper confused the French before passing through Lachie Turner and onto Kurtley Beale out on the wing. Beale’s rapid pace saw him accelerate away from the cover, and with options outside and inside, he slipped the ball to O’Connor who dived for the corner, bringing his points total for the match to 29.

This week’s hero is local boy Ruaridh Jackson. Long touted as Scotland’s future star at number 10, you could argue that he came of age with Dan Parks off the pitch, knocking over what was a relatively straight forward penalty but under huge pressure. Well done son.

Ahh, this week’s villain. Step forward Mike Tindall. Actually, never step forward again to take any type of kick. Especially drop goals. I thought England had maybe exorcised all of their kicking demons after Steve Thompson’s monster slice from within his own 22 against Samoa, but Tindall hitting the post from right in front is unforgiveable.

by Ben Coles

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