Did all that Rugby really just happen?
Maybe greatness is the wrong word, what about eventful or extraordinary? The collapse of the Welsh and Scottish, the rise of the Pacific Islanders, the unexpected hammerings of the Argentineans and Australians at the hands of the Irish and French, and then to top it all off the mesmerising finish at Twickenham. Oh yes this was a more eventful and extraordinary autumn series than usual and yes that all really did just happen.
What we can be sure about as we settle back into the week in week out of the domestic season is that the autumn of 2012 was the season of the underdog. The gap between 1 and 12 is clearly closing and those teams that were classed as “tier two” nations have upset the hierarchy and good on them for doing so.
It all started on a mild Saturday in November. The English unsurprisingly put away the disorganised and bewildered Fijians and with the Irish putting up a good fight against the Spingboks there was something in the air in Europe. Then the news filtered across the channel of the French Resistance and the depleted Wallabies being put to the sword in Paris.
Wales were looking to learn from their summer “near-misses” in the autumn to overcome a supposedly tired Argentinean outfit. However, someone forgot to tell Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and his flying wingers Camacho and Imhoff and they cut the dragon down in remarkable fashion.
Suddenly people start to sit up and take notice. Australia go down in Paris, Wales go down in Cardiff. Energy and enthusiasm started to build north of the border, what of a historic victory from Scotland to match Celtic’s dismissal of Barcelona earlier in the week? A sold out crowd, Chris Hoy presenting the match ball, the Scots marching on the Haka, Tim McVisser scoring the opening try to cause noises that were heard forty-five minutes’ walk away in Inverleith Row! But then order is restored, Dan Carter wakes up and the All Blacks run in four tries before half time and the Scots crumble back down to Earth.
On to the next weekend and how about a pleasant Friday night in Cardiff to watch Wales dismiss all these claims that they were starting to fall apart? Maybe not. But don’t forget this is an impressive Samoan side – they were unlucky to lose to South Africa in the World Cup and boast a brutal pack and an extremely talented backline with one of the best scrum-halves in the world. People talk about how it’s a privilege to watch the All Black, but I felt privileged to watch the Samoans that night.
Onwards to Saturday and it would have been difficult for any team to match the Samoan scalp of Friday night. England disappointingly failed to beat a weakened Australian side, New Zealand maintained order in the bubbling cauldron that is the Olimpico Stadium in Rome, Scotland dominate possession and stats for most of the game but South Africa run away with it (how many times have Scottish fans heard that), and France dispose of a stubborn Argentinean side in Paris, maybe the legs really are getting tired by now or are we experiencing a great French revival?
The second to last weekend is when things really did start to heat up. 15-man line outs, coaches resigning, the emergence of young talent, and disgraceful play of the top order. This weekend had it all.
Firstly the near misses. Italy formulated a comeback to amaze anyone against Australia, trailing 3-22 and a man down after just half an hour they crawl their way back to 19-22. It’s also worth noting that this was Australia’s strongest available 15 as well. Then it was Samoa’s turn and they continued to upset the top tier, establishing themselves in the top eight among the elite of world in the world, despite a narrow loss in Paris.
Then it was D-Day at Twickenham, that “D” incidentally standing for decisions. Robshaw made the wrong decision but he should not be slated the way he was. His team quite rightly gathered around him and boy did he learn from his mistakes to come out a stronger captain and player in the following week…more of that later.
The Wales game was a brutal affair with a strong second half from the home team. However, it wasn’t enough and the scenes at the beginning of the game from Andrew Hore brought up memories of the appalling actions of All Blacks hard man Keith Murdoch among the long term Welsh fans. No one expected the demolition of Argentina by Ireland and the emergence of young Craig Gilroy will hopefully finally persuade the conservative Declan Kidney to start blooding more youngsters.
And then the moment of the weekend happened and not necessarily a good moment. The collapse of Scotland at a cold Pittodrie, described by Andy Nicol as “the worst defeat in Scottish rugby history” was a dark, dark moment for Scotland. Credit to Tonga for causing another enormous upset to add to their list but with Andy Robinson gone, Scotland dropping to twelfth in the World Rankings, the potential revival north of the border that was brewing for a while has fallen apart and the men in blue need to find themselves once again in order to be accepted back at the big boys table.
With only England v New Zealand and Australia v Wales left, some teams waved farewell and headed for the beach whilst the European sides got back to domestic duties until the Six Nations. However, work wasn’t done at the English and Cardiff headquarters.
The Wales defeat was heart-wrenching to watch, Welshman or not. Close but no cigar should be Wales’ motto when playing Australia. They have come so close over the last few matches but don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes. It was a shame to see, but improvement from the Welsh.
The Welsh game was overshadowed by what happened in London and not surprisingly. What was also unsurprising was the way England were written off. They should have beaten South Africa and Australia and the fact that they hadn’t seemingly gave them no chance against the mighty Kiwis. Also there was no indication of the All Blacks letting up, the only thing being able to tackle them was a bug that swept the camp midweek.
However, England pressurised and disrupted in the first half. They were patient and took their points when the Welsh should have done the week before. They were calm and collected when conceding early in the second half and they kept pushing and pushing until the mighty, invincible, indestructible men in black cracked. And crack they did, the England midfield pouring through with Manu Tuilagi brushing off Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Aaron Smith.
When Brad Barritt tore through the New Zealand defence it suddenly seemed as though there was hope for the Northern Hemisphere teams to compete with the Big three, capping off an unforgettable month of rugby.
By Finlay MacLeod
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images