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British & Irish Lions 2013I am always nervous of drawing too many conclusions from the annual burst of Autumn Internationals, especially because it’s the final round of games for all the Southern Hemisphere sides at the end of a long season. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating observations to make as many sides rebuild towards the next World Cup.

Simon Halliday, The Rugby Site

A severely depleted Australia and South Africa found ways to win to round off their seasons with a smile. The lack of power in the Australian forwards will be a worry, but they have the two of the best open-sides in the world, which will enhance the wit and intelligence of their three quarters, boosted by the return of Genia, Cooper and O’Connor. Their lack of a midfield creator will hurt them though – is there really no way back for Giteau?

The Springboks look solid but very beatable and I see no discernible back play which will win them big games . Steyn in the centre reminds me of a non-passing Tuilagi – very powerful but one tracked. He has the talent, it’s a question of mindset and tactical decision making, which may not be a particular strength of the current Springbok management. With Nick Mallett lost to England, they have a ready-made replacement if Meyer cannot develop that flexibility.

As for the World Champions New Zealand, I think we were guilty of forgetting their travails in the latter part of the tournament when France could have edged them in the Final. Without a fully functioning Carter, they are more competent than world class. It was so clear that he wasn’t fit – admittedly the Scottish defensive backs made him look unbeatable in their first match but even so he creates such a midfield threat that the limitations of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith are often overlooked. However, their desire to maintain a high standard post the World Cup win has been impressive. Let’s remember how quickly the 2003 World Champions, England, unraveled their own web of success. It was the very first game v Ireland at Twickenham which sparked an immediate decline. So all credit to the All Blacks, who took their defeat against England with good grace and possibly a wry smile. But I suspect when the return match takes place in Auckland there will be a score to settle.

Running a critical eye across the Northern Hemisphere teams, I sense a steeliness about the French squad, unsurprising given the thoroughly English conservatism of Saint-Andre. Luckily they have to travel to Twickenham, and England will definitely have the beating of them there in the Six Nations. However, they have Fofana, the prodigiously talented centre, as well as the Toulouse sensation, so watch out for fireworks.

The cutting edge for Ireland and Scotland remain sadly lacking where it matters, and the fading lights of O’Driscoll and D’Arcy will be very impactful, as well as Tommy Bowe’s injury, a man I rate very highly.

I suppose that the Scots will remain in denial that DeLuca can ever step up as an International centre, and meantime the feisty forwards will cry into their pints of heavy as their ball winning and carrying capabilities are terminally wasted by the men outside them, Visser excepted. If any side needed Wayne Smith, this is it although I am unsure whether the talent exists to point in the right direction. Their arrival at Twickenham for the first match of the Six Nations will hold no fears for England – I predict a thumping win, and thats simply logical.

Wales have really confused me. Perhaps someone doctored the cryogenic facility in Poland they use in preparation for big games, as ever since that visit they have left form and fitness at the bottom of the RIver Taff. However, they are the reigning Six Nations Champions, and with a potent back-row and midfield could still be a tough nut to crack, especially at Cardiff where England have to travel. The key is in the core of their team, who collectively have to rally the others, because its not talent that is lacking, but their heart and soul. It doesn’t help when the squad seem to spend a chunk of time working out the Euro exchange rate as they swap Cardiff Bay for the Cote D’Azur… an easy call when you throw in the big premiums available in France, but it can’t do much for team spirit. Good business though for the agents who are gleefully making the most of the windfall at the expense of their national teams performance.

Finally, saving the best till last, I turn to England now that the dust has settled after their epic win. Many people had written them off after the dullest of dull campaigns, but suddenly they got rid of the redundant forwards in the middle of the field and the interminable phase rugby. I can’t help thinking that Mike Catt finally got a chance to have his say – after all a Farrell/ Lancaster/ Rowntree tactical plan was always a recipe for a worthy but limited outcome. The two heavily criticised centres Tuilagi and Barritt finally showed us some star quality and it was intoxicating for sure. It’s been an age since the long suffering English supporters could punch the air with such conviction.

Of course, nobody will be taken in by 30 minutes of magical play, as many stern challenges remain, not least two 6 Nations away matches in Wales and Ireland. However, it shows that if England seize the opportunities they can operate successfully at the highest level. In a professional era where almost every minute of the game is pre-planned, the important lesson for England to take forward is that there is no substitute for flair and off the cuff decision-making which can turn a game. Those moments in the second half against the All Blacks arguably rescued England from accusations of mediocrity.

However I do buy into the Lancaster argument that this team has it in them to produce such a performance consistently – of course he is right. He is echoing a well rehearsed refrain over the years – there’s a good England team around every corner. The law of averages and weight of money/resources should enable us to dominate world rugby, year in year out. As David Brailsford, Head of British Cycling said, our success in the Olympics was planned meticulously and was in no way unsurprising. In the same way that New Zealand has done, and the great sides of the past, England must set out their stall from the off, frighten teams, develop winning margins in the first 60 minutes and lay the pathway for 2015 success. As we sit here, there are six countries which could make a Final, we need to see that number come down.

So a hopeful New Year, and for the first time in many years an England team as genuine favourites for the Six Nation title and a possible Grand Slam, our last one in 2003 is a long time ago so I think it’s a sense of English optimism, but born of 9 years of underperformance. Why not?

6 Responses to A very English perspective

  • 1

    The news that England rugby had appointed Matt Parker as head of athletic performance has led to a great deal of scepticism in some quarters. “How does science help players not butcher a scoring pass?” was asked by one flat worlder. Well, not to get too technical about this – it all depends.

    Science may not be able to do too much to reform a tunnel visionary in the first minute of the match, although even then there are perhaps some space perception exercises that may help. But it can certainly help a player who butchers an overlap in the 75th minute of a match.

    There is no doubt that the quality of decision making deteriorates as athletes get increasingly tired. I once saw Darren Clarke butcher a round at the Masters, when in contention, because wet weather had forced him to play an unusual amount of holes in a day.

    Clarke’s lack of fitness told against him (just as superb fitness always gave Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods an edge over the hills of Augusta) although he only admitted it subsequently. Golf is not the most physically tiring sport, but it does require a very high level of mental acuity for very precise short spells. Weary golfers make bad decisions, or have to second guess themselves when their caddies try to talk them out of it.

    Parker is the former director of marginal gains for British Cycling and his appointment is aimed at improving both England’s athletic performance and their mental performance. This is the man who changed Bradley Wiggins’s body shape from an also-pedalled into the athlete who came fourth at the 2009 Tour de France.

    This is the man who helped British Cycling sweep so many golds at the Olympics through attention to small detail. The athletes are reported to have consumed fish oil and montmorency cherries because anti oxidants help muscles recover quicker. It sounds like sorcery to me, but only because I am ignorant of bio chemistry.

    Parker said: “A unique thing about the 2012 Olympics, we noticed a year ago there was an hour between the semi-finals and finals [in the pursuit] so one of the projects has been: how do we maximise recovery in that time? And if you look at all the teams’ data, we’re the only ones that went faster in the final of the women’s team pursuit than in the semi-finals.”

    There were a number of details that went into that improvement, including heated shorts to prevent the cyclists’ muscles from cooling. Maybe England’s rugby players will wear heated shorts at half-time. They looked as if they could have done with them after shipping two tries to the All Blacks straight after the break.

    Indeed New Zealand powered past many nations in the second half of matches this season and much of that performance edge was induced by science. Indeed it still amazes me that no one In Britain has approached Ken Quarrie, the statistical guru who has had a considerable influence on both New Zealand’s and the Chiefs’ success.

    But maybe it’s all still fish oil to some people. There is much to be said for some of the traditional methods as I can attest after throwing up 200 bales of hay the other day. But science can give teams an edge. The recent World Cup winners have each found that 1% point of difference. It is only right that Stuart Lancaster, like any good coach, should want to do the same.
    By Mark Reason

  • 2

    Six Nations Fixtures
    Round 1 Sat 2 Feb 16:00
    Wales v Ireland Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
    England v Scotland Twickenham Stadium, London
    Italy v France Stadio Olimpico, Rome

    Round 2 Sat 9 Feb
    Scotland v Italy Murrayfield, Edinburgh
    France v Wales Stade de France, Paris
    Ireland v England Aviva Stadium, Dublin

    Round 3 Sat 23 Feb
    Italy v Wales Stadio Olimpico, Rome
    England v France Twickenham Stadium, London
    Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield, Edinburgh

    Round 4 Sat 9 Mar
    Scotland v Wales Murrayfield, Edinburgh
    Ireland v France Aviva Stadium, Dublin
    England v Italy Twickenham Stadium, London

    Round 5 Sat 16 Mar
    Italy v Ireland Stadio Olimpico, Rome
    Wales v England Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
    France v Scotland Stade de France, Paris

  • 3

    Hello superBul an ‘interesting’ article you have placed here, good to read some balance by the author regarding England’s win over New Zealand in not wanting to hype it up and merely describing it as bascially a very good 30 minutes of rugby from England. It was probably a tired New Zealand team that lost that day but it was still a good result from England to inflict New Zealand’s first loss in a long time, one wonders come World 2015 with many games at Twickenham if that loss will just serve to fire the All Blacks up even more to win or whether it will put some doubt into their minds as to their own invincibility.

  • 4

    Will agree that England certainly look to be in a good place regarding players coaches etc. In fact I was surprised at how poorly they fared at last World Cup because I thought that they had a lot of depth of players and having done so well at junior level for a while they would be strong but of course didn’t reckon into it the affect of very poor head coach on them.

  • 5

    Don’t know though why the author is confused by Wales as think they did have quite a few injuries but more importantly were without Gatland who I think has done so much to get them where they were for last World Cup and 6 nations. Also think that he is not rating Ireland highly enough, this time last year I did not think much of them as I thought many of their players were maybe past their sell by date, the 3 back line players he mentioned may be a big loss as I also rate Tommy Bowe but Darcy is still playing well and one can’t write O’Driscoll off even if not in his prime, then Ulster have stepped up in a big way and are producing players that can match Bowe and better with Zebo and Gilroy, also up front they have O’Brian back from injury this season to add steel to their back row and in front row have added Strauss at hooker and then fast tracked the impressive Kiwi Irishman Michael Bent.

  • 6

    This is a period of change and the Autumn internationals were disapointing for Scotland BUT I don’t share the author’s view that England will gain a “thumping” win in the first 6 nations game as he states its logical, to me thats just disrespectful brashness, for all the ‘logic’ in the world when last did England thump Scotland, somehow we just seem to lift our game against them and last year at Murrayfield England came away with a very lucky win based on Scotland’s mistakes of the basics. Granted since then England seemed to have stepped up and have the benefit of a whole season with coach Lancaster and Scotland have new head coach but still wouldn’t write that game off as a foregone conclusion of big win for England already.


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