With England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales now either in transit or back home, a long season that began last July with preparations for the Rugby World Cup has finally come to a close. With that in mind, here are the winners from the summer tours who will be headed for sandy beaches with a smile on their face, with the losers left kicking their heels set to be revealed later today:
Fellow Six Nations supporters will argue that Scotland’s tour was the easiest of all this summer, but by doing so they would appear to be devouring more than their fair share of sour grapes. For any team to battle through what initially looked to appear the apocalypse in Newcastle before seeing of both Fiji and then Samoa on their home turf deserves praise, especially when you’ve been torn to shreds by media and fans alike during the previous Six Nations.
The main positives have been the development of Greig Laidlaw at fly-half, Tim Visser grabbing a brace on debut and a brilliant defensive effort spearheaded by the back row of Strokosch, Rennie and Barclay. But arguably the most important factor has been that Scotland are a winning side again – their previous victory before defeating Australia was a 15-6 nightmare against Georgia at the Rugby World Cup – restoring their confidence in both Andy Robinson and themselves.
Given that Leigh Halfpenny only first started a game at full back for Wales 8 months ago, he has developed into the role beautifully. The tour of Australia marked the confirmation of Halfpenny as a world class goal kicker, notching up 41/44 possible points over the three tests and taking every high ball that came his way brilliantly. To see him kick so well around Australia bodes well for the Lions next year, but the problem will be where to accommodate him dependent on the form of British & Irish wingers over next season, not to mention Ben Foden and Rob Kearney. When he kicks like he has this summer however, Halfpenny becomes essential.
Few players are handed an international debut aged 29 but Tom Johnson has been a revelation for England on their tour of South Africa. From the opening minutes of the 1st Test when he pounced on a turnover to the dynamism of his runs at the end of the 3rd game in Port Elizabeth, he instantly stood out, his red scrum cap making him impossible to miss. His selection, much in the same way as with Alex Goode and Joe Marler, is proof that good form in the Aviva Premiership will be rewarded by the current national coaching team. By becoming the first player from Exeter to be selected for England since 1964, he may have opened a floodgate for talent from the Devon club to be picked for international rugby. An exceptional tour, one to be proud of.
With the William Webb Ellis Cup safely tucked away at NZRU headquarters, you would imagine the pressure would be off the All Blacks shoulders. How wrong. With a new coaching regime in place and a crop of exciting youngsters impressing in Super Rugby, the New Zealand public naturally expected a series whitewash over an Irish side who have never beaten them, ever. The 1st Test was comfortable enough as the All Blacks blew off the cobwebs, but it was in the 2nd when they were driven all the way to the wire that New Zealand proved that despite some new faces, they still had what it took to close out a nervy game where they failed to play at their best.
How much the 3rd Test is worth looking into is up for debate but sides don’t score 9 tries just like that, let alone 9 quality tries. In the process of three Tests they brought international rugby back to a previously beleaguered Christchurch, blooded promising stars in Aaron Smith, Julian Savea and Sam Cane, and re-confirmed for any that were hoping for a dip in form why they are the world’s greatest side.
June has been a busy month for the Waratahs and Wallaby pivot. Aside from finding some dearly absent form for the three Test series against Wales, Barnes also became a father for the first time in the week leading up the 2nd Test. In fact, it meant that Barnes had a frantic dash to Sydney and back from Melbourne, joining up with his team-mates just 90 minutes before kick-off. He promptly celebrated the birth of Archie Barnes by putting in a Man of the Match performance against the Welsh, excelling with the boot. He backed it up with another dominant display in the 3rd Test in Sydney with 15 points, including the winning penalty to cap a truly fine series. One that he certainly won’t forget.
Stay tuned later to find out who disappointed this summer…
by Ben Coles