In what has effectively become an annual arm wrestle with the Southern hemisphere nations for some form of respectability, it was a huge relief for everyone north of the equator when England beat New Zealand last weekend to salvage some dented pride ahead of the Lions summer tour next year. Of all the autumn’s visitors it will be our commonwealth partners Australia who leave these shores the most reassured. The source of their new found confidence will stem from not only beating Wales, England and Scotland but also from the sheer fact that French players aren’t selected for the Lions. France absolutely went through their pack at scrum-time and didn’t stop marching until they’d comfortably dispatched Argentina and Tonga too. They look a good bet for the Six Nations but what of the Home Nations? My end of Autumn Test report looks like this:
First let’s start with the positive- and what a huge positive it is too. Beating the All Blacks in the manner in which they did was an immense performance and a very encouraging result for all involved and beyond. That was a very good New Zealand side they rumbled and to score 24 unanswered second-half points against them was simply astonishing. However, it did put the gloss on what was at times a very shaky Autumn series for Stuart Lancaster’s men. A win over an awful Fiji team followed by losses to Australia and South Africa had the wheels of the England bandwagon very firmly in the Kwik-Fit forecourt. Chris Robshaw took the blame but England lacked attacking ideas and individual leadership all over the park in those games. It is a test series that will forever be remembered for that win but let’s hope it doesn’t blind the management team and the England fans to the overall failings of the squad and the reams of work that still needs doing.
Quietly and without too many expectations Ireland had a largely very positive Autumn Test series. They thumped the aforementioned awful Fiji side, beat a tired looking Argentina and lost narrowly to South Africa whilst blooding some exciting new players. Craig Gilroy looks small but exciting and Donnacha Ryan continues to impress, yet if there is an area of concern it will be in the front row where they still look a bit soft and lacking depth. Still, faced with the relentless bullying of the gargantuan South Africa side the Irish showed a fighting spirit that will stand them in good stead for the Six Nations and they can be satisfied with their recent progress under a now less scrutinised Declan Kidney.
If proof were ever needed that the whole Warren Gatland-British & Irish Lions-Rob Howley triangle of uncertainty isn’t working then the results served up by a largely capable Wales squad was there for all to see. A team who won perhaps the most underwhelming Grand Slam in history back in the spring have failed to win since and look rudderless and exhausted of ideas. There is a myth that this Welsh generation play an expansive game. The truth is they mostly grind down their opponents and have been very successful at it until now. The loss of players abroad has shaken their once strong regions and having Gatland playing away with his Lions mistress has left them as an underperforming shadow of their former selves. They need to get the home fires burning again, the rest will follow.
Many of Shakespeare’s leading characters were blighted with a fatal flaw, Macbeth had his blind ambition, Hamlet his oedipal jealousy and Andy Robinson was fatally flawed by his own unrealistic expectations. A summer sweep of Australia, Fiji and Samoa had led the former Scotland coach to genuinely believe his squad were on the brink of beating global rugby giants on a daily basis. What followed were two encouraging performances in losses to South Africa and the All Blacks then a depressing loss to Tonga. It was at that point that Robinson took his final bow, looking every inch the man who hung himself by his own petard. Tonga by the way only lost by five points in Italy and looked very fresh compared to the bruised Scots but it is a results-based business and Scotland and ultimately Robinson too delivered three losses out of three.