Autumn internationals: The good, the bad and the ugly

England tackle three completely different outfits over the coming weeks starting next Saturday. Chris Hewett gives his view on this year's Twickenham visitors

The good New Zealand, 16 November, Twickenham

Statistics do not always go to the heart of a matter – it is not unknown for a bat-wielding egocentric to spend his summer scoring centuries for fun while reducing his team to a state of impotence – but the All Blacks' figures do not so much tell the true story as scream it: a numbers racket in the nicest possible sense of the phrase. Since they were beaten by the Wallabies in Brisbane in August 2011, they have lost just once in 31 outings, scored 30 points plus in well over 50 per cent of those games and conceded 20 or more on only five occasions.

The more bewilderingly complex the game becomes, the more obvious it is that the New Zealanders construct their success on foundations of simple virtue: a high level of fitness, a mastery of basic skills (yes, that includes the props, who can all give and take a pass) and an understanding of space – how to create it, how to maximise it and how to close it down on the rare occasions when their opponents threaten to use it better than them. Oh yes, one other thing. They also have Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith – far and away the most influential players to be found anywhere in the sport.

Twickenham regulars will recall that the sole defeat suffered by the world champions over the last 26 months was in London a little over a year ago – a day when a raw, inexperienced England side did pretty much everything right for 80 joyous minutes. It was Read, the magnificent No 8 and sometime silver-ferned captain, who offered the most honest appraisal of those startling events. "If you're going to lose," he told this newspaper shortly after the final whistle, "you want to lose to a side playing well. And Jeez, we ran into a side who played well out there. Tactically, they were spot on. Credit where credit's due: they understood what they needed to do to win that game."

England found the keys to the rugby universe by refusing to be suckered into playing the way the All Blacks like to play. Instead, they smashed the tourists around up front, attacked the breakdown in numbers, ran straight and hard in midfield and were ruthless in converting scoring opportunities into points. Are they equipped to do something similar in three weeks' time, without Manu Tuilagi in midfield? We shall see.

What they cannot hope to do is beat these New Zealanders, who are travelling with a complete cast of top-of-the-bill acts supported by a small company of promising understudies, the way the Springboks tried to beat them in Johannesburg at the start of the month. But then, the Boks' approach was dictated – some would say distorted – by the bonus-point culture that has seeped into tournament rugby. As the Wales coach Warren Gatland, an All Black of old, said this week: "You wouldn't have seen nine tries in that game if it had been a World Cup final. You'd have been lucky to see two."

To beat the world champions, it has to be a zero sum game or nothing. Otherwise, the sums tend not to add up.

Tevita Kuridrani is a talent, but he needs a good supply of ball to make it count Tevita Kuridrani is a talent, but he needs a good supply of ball to make it count (AFP/Getty)

The bad Australia, 2 November, Twickenham

Is this the weakest Wallaby side of the professional era? Damn it, let's go the whole hog: is this the worst Wallaby team in living memory?

If it seems just a little harsh to pose the question – after all, the Australians looked as though they might win last summer's series against the British & Irish Lions as late as the third quarter of the deciding Test – the facts and figures do not present the latest green-and-gold vintage in a favourable light.

Ewen McKenzie, the World Cup-winning prop who succeeded Robbie Deans as coach at the end of the Lions tour, is currently contemplating a 28.7 per cent win rate. True, he has overseen only seven matches: half a dozen Rugby Championship games and a Bledisloe Cup contest with the nearest and dearest from the far banks of the Tasman. But even so, two victories since June, both against Argentina, is a rotten return by Wallaby standards. When Rod Macqueen ran the show between 1997 and 2001, his success rate was close to 80 per cent.

Mind you, Macqueen had a half-decent operator or two at his disposal. John Eales, the greatest lock forward ever to play the game, was at least three players in one and possibly four; the outside-half Stephen Larkham was approximately 100 times better than some of his more vocal critics in these islands tried to make out; the coach even had a proper pair of scrummagers when Richard Harry and Andrew Blades were joined together in holy front-row fraternity.

While these Wallabies are not bereft of top-notch talent, can a team really expect to reap a full harvest from the likes of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Israel Folau if they cannot field a forward pack worthy of the international arena? Can a newcomer who offers as much as Tevita Kuridrani, the centre who contributed so strikingly to the ACT Brumbies' victory over the Lions in Canberra last June, hope to prosper at the top level on starvation rations of possession?

A year ago, the Australians out-thought England at Twickenham, taking the red rose coach Stuart Lancaster's bright idea of a footballing link between outside-half and full-back and slapping him in the face with it. But there is no Kurtley Beale on this trip, and no Berrick Barnes either. With James O'Connor, as much a pain in the rear end as he is gifted, undermining Wallaby unity at every turn and being thrown out on his ear as a consequence, there is a creativity deficit in the back division to set alongside the power vacuum up front.

They will be competitive, these Australians, but it is hard to see them being more than that. Should they emulate the 1984 side by completing a Grand Slam, it will be a terrible indictment of rugby in these islands. That seminal team of almost 30 years ago – the team of Farr-Jones and Ella, Lynagh and Campese – changed the way rugby was played. These successors cannot hope to achieve anything similar.

Patricio Albacete is said to be leader of a clique among the Pumas players Patricio Albacete is said to be leader of a clique among the Pumas players (AFP/Getty)

The ugly Argentina, 9 November, Twickenham

There is little beauty in the way the Pumas play their rugby, although there is an irresistible charm about them when they summon the unquenchable spirit of the spurned underdog and sink their fangs into some of international rugby's superior flesh, as they famously did at the 2007 World Cup in France. There are Argentine backs good enough to perform strongly at a high level – Bath and Saracens have not awarded Horacio Agulla and Marcelo Bosch lucrative contracts because they feel sorry for them – but by and large (very large, in most cases) it is the forwards who matter.

The gruesome sight of a Puma pack in full cry might be said to have a peculiar loveliness all its own, but unfortunately for the South Americans, who have slipped to 10th in the world rankings after a rough few weeks in the Rugby Championship, the ugliness off the field has no redeeming feature. Santiago Phelan quit as coach on Monday, together with three members of the squad's technical staff, and subsequently indicated that he felt betrayed by some senior members of his side.

There have since been rumours of rival cliques developing around two of the team's leading French-based players, the brilliant Toulon loose forward and current national captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe on the one hand, the equally influential Toulouse lock Patricio Albacete on the other.

Albacete ripped into Phelan. "He should take responsibility for his decision, which leaves us in a right mess," he remarked. "Nobody betrayed him. When you quit, it's easy to say it's the fault of others." This weekend's meeting between Toulon and Toulouse should be no end of fun.

Daniel Hourcade, the man charged with filling the Phelan-sized hole over the coming weeks, has a task and a half on his hands. The last time the Pumas played, they shipped 50-odd points to the Wallabies in front of their home supporters in Rosario… and this was a game they were expected to win. Some of the best Argentine players in history are in decline – Juan Martin Hernandez, "le Maradona du rugby" as the French call him, is not quite the master of all he surveys these days; Felipe Contepomi, the most influential Argentine midfielder since the great Hugo Porta and the bravest Puma of them all, is on his last legs – and thanks to turf war behind the scenes, spirits are low.

In eight games this year, their average points leakage is close to 40: unsustainable for a side with serious ambitions at World Cup level. They have surprised us before – no one was more profoundly shocked than Andy Robinson when his England team lost to Agustin Pichot's tourists at Twickenham in 2006 – but a repeat performance in their current state would be nothing short of stunning.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
Arts and Entertainment
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game