Q: Confusion! We thought we knew where we stood on the British mainland after defeats for England, Scotland and Wales in the third round of autumn matches, hard on the heels of defeats in the second round. Has it all changed – for England at least – or are we kidding ourselves up here in the frozen north?
A: We may not know the answer to that one for another 18 months. England’s performance against the All Blacks certainly had a strong whiff of the transformative about it: such was the control up front during the first half, it was almost as though Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio were back between the shafts. But that World Cup-winning vintage was forged in the fires of Test victories abroad – they won in South Africa in 2000, in Argentina in ’02 and in both New Zealand and Australia in ’03. As this is a Lions season, Stuart Lancaster will not cross the Equator with a full-strength side until the summer of 2014.
Q: Does that mean the Lions tour of Australia next June will be an inconvenience? Might it hinder Lancaster rather than help him?
A: Not necessarily, although England often suffer a downturn following a Lions series. At the start of this season, precious few members of the team could confidently look forward to playing a part in the Tests against the Wallabies: the prop Dan Cole and… er, that was it. Now, there are white-shirted candidates all over the place. Exposure to occasions of such magnitude – many dyed-in-the-wool rugby folk consider a Lions Test to be the equal of a World Cup final, or even bigger – will do them no harm, especially as a lot of the contenders are still inexperienced at international level.
Q: So England have come out ahead this autumn, despite losing 50 per cent of their games?
A: They will be a little frustrated, truth be told, although they will find the angst easier to bear having given the world champions the mother and father of a hurry-up. The target at the beginning of last month was three wins from four and on that basis, they came up short. The Wallabies out-thought them to an alarming degree – Berrick Barnes, Kurtley Beale, Ben Alexander and Michael Hooper were simply too smart – and there was a clarity deficiency against the Springboks. There again, Lancaster has identified some genuine “Test match animals” and will have power to add once Dylan Hartley, Tom Croft and Ben Foden return from injury.
Q: What about Scotland, who somehow managed not to beat Tonga? It seems the only power they have is the power to subtract.
A: It may not be as bad as all that, although Andy Robinson, now the ex-Scotland coach, may well be struggling to see the positives in life just at the moment. Before they ran into England, the All Blacks felt the Scots had asked them more questions with ball in hand than any opponents for some time. They have found themselves a natural finisher in Edinburgh winger Tim Visser, which will help them no end, and assuming that they can identify a top-gun replacement for the departed Robinson – if they have any sense, they will do their best to lure the former All Black coach Wayne Smith to Edinburgh – they should be able to climb several places in the world rankings over the next 18 months or so.
Q: And Wales? Seven defeats on the bounce tells its own story. That World Cup semi-final against the French seems like it was in 1911, not 2011.
A: They are in a bad place, agreed. Too many of their important players are based abroad and too many of those still at home have grown unused to winning rugby matches. Only the Ospreys, the team most at loggerheads with the governing body over fixture scheduling and central financing, look like being competitive at the top end and the feel-bad factor may grow worse as the Heineken Cup pool stage unfolds over the next couple of weekends. Add to that the fact that Warren Gatland, the national team’s philosopher king, will be wearing his Lions hat throughout the Six Nations and you have to wonder what the immediate future holds.
Q: At least Ireland won a couple of games. They had a low-key autumn campaign, apart from that first hurrah against the Springboks, but are we right in thinking that they took some forward steps? AThey certainly made a mess of a tired band of Argentines, and with some relatively unfamiliar names making a mark – the Ulster wing Craig Gilroy has had big mentions in dispatches, as has the no-nonsense Munster lock Donnacha Ryan – they are in a good position to challenge hard in the Six Nations. England’s visit to Dublin in early February has the word “humdinger” written all over it, especially as Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton will be looking to play themselves to the head of the Lions queue.
Q: A mixed bag, then? Does that mean the southern hemisphere is still laughing at us?
A: Smiling at us, but not laughing. South Africa will be happy enough and Australia will be relieved to have emerged in one piece, but New Zealand will be hurting like hell, the poor petals. The real winners in many ways are Samoa and Tonga, both of whom over-achieved this autumn. And that should put a smile on all our faces.