I’ve rather run out of things to say about England. Printable things anyway. It just feels very much like we’ve been here before. Just about every international window seems to begin with optimism and promise and the longer the team spends together the worse they seem to get.
The familiar sight of players strung flat and static across the pitch waiting for the ball to eventually emerge from a breakdown to which the opposition has only committed 2 players, thereby having plenty of defensive numbers, is getting more than a little wearing. Especially when it’s countered by a constant flow of quick ball for the opposition. Do you think the coaches have noticed that? If so, it’s not immediately obvious.
This has been a pretty dark few months for the Northern Hemisphere rugby nations. In the past month, they have failed to rack up a single victory against any of the Tri-Nations. Not one. And they have managed 3 tries in 8 games against 20 conceded. That is nothing short of humiliating.
Ireland and England have never looked at the races all autumn. France, Wales and Scotland both had a sniff but really didn’t look like they believed. They couldn’t live with their southern counterparts when they went up a gear exactly when it was needed. There is a clear inferiority complex when the Celtic nations play them and the list of blown opportunities is growing. Suddenly the Lions tour appears something of a bleak prospect, on the field anyway.
But let’s extend a tip of the cap to the Tri Nations teams. They have been fantastic. They have been light years ahead of the home unions technically, physically and intellectually at the end of a 10 month season which was closely preceded by the World Cup. Their basic skills have been on a different level and they have had the ability to up the intensity at exactly the right time.
More worrying though in the long-term is that they displayed a fundamentally superior understanding of the game. They appreciated what needed to be done at any given time and executed it efficiently. This includes realising where the space is and exploiting it as quick as a flash; appreciating what needs to be done at a breakdown and carrying it out with absolute conviction; producing quick ball at will just when they require it.
Most obviously, they have been much more physical and successful at the breakdown than their opponents, especially South Africa at Twickenham, and this too is a symptom of far sharper rugby brains. In defence, tacklers position themselves so as to slow opposition ball down; in attack they clear out past the ball with huge physicality so that the opposition cannot get a look in. They are streetwise to a degree which really puts our players to shame. England had the lions’ share of possession against both Australia and South Africa but it would be interesting to know just how much of it could be classified as good, smooth quick ball. And during the multiple phases, just how many men did they actually manage to suck in? Not many.
South Africa’s defence at Twickenham was magnificent, Australia’s the week before was not far behind. But in truth England really asked very few questions, there were no angles, there was no pace or imagination. And next up they are playing a team who are yet to concede a try in their 3 test matches so far. Oh dear.
New Zealand have really not progressed beyond 3rd gear on this tour. It’s a sad indictment on their 4 hosts that they appear to be on the brink of winning a Grand Slam at a canter while shorn of many of their best players. But it is also an enormous tribute to the All Blacks. Their strength in depth is extraordinary and each player slips seamlessly into the side, apparently without needing too much time to adapt to the demands of the international game.
What the Tri Nations have certainly achieved is the explosion of many of the myths about international rugby, myths which we up here have been using as excuses for some time. Granted, we play far more domestic rugby up here, but they have made a mockery of some of the attempts at summer tours from the home unions. Their players have been through hard seasons and have dragged themselves up to produce some extremely high quality rugby at the end of it all. Australia especially also have made England’s excuses about their’s being a new team who need time to acclimatise to international rugby look very dubious as they have seamlessly absorbed a raft of new players into their line-up this year.
The north-south divide is now bordering on the embarrassing. And frankly, given the superior understanding and approach displayed by the south to almost all key aspects of the game, it is difficult to see that gap being bridged any time soon. The home unions have one last chance to salvage some pride this weekend. Let’s see what they’re made of.
By Stuart Peel