It remains nothing more than a dot on the rugby horizon – the 2015 World Cup, that is – and pretty much anything could happen in the 664 days between here and there. The club-versus-union conflict could send the whole of the European game into meltdown (perfectly possible); New Zealand could hit a bad patch (it has to happen sometime, surely); the Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie could decide that his predecessor was right all along and chuck Quade Cooper out on his ear (barely conceivable on latest evidence, admittedly).
This much is certain: both Wales and England need to start thinking seriously about the forthcoming global tournament. “There’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before the World Cup,” said the Red Dragon boss Warren Gatland with a dismissive wave of the hand before an exhilarating finale to the autumn programme, in which Australia triumphed over Wales in Cardiff. Indeed there is, but sadly for the two leading Test nations in the British Isles, it is the kind of water more associated with the Southern Ocean than the Bristol Channel.
The Wallabies washed over Wales in a 29-minute spell either side of the interval, playing a brand of rugby bordering on the sublime before resisting a late surge to win 30-26. Cooper was at the heart of it – some of the obliquely-angled passes thrown by the outside-half rewrote the laws of geometry – and if Australia continue to push back the boundaries of the attacking game in this fashion, their place in the global gathering’s knock-out stage will be assured. Which would leave England and Wales the dubious pleasure of scrapping for second place in the pool and spending the rest of the tournament in the same half of the draw as the Springboks and the All Blacks. Oh dear.
It is as well to remember that as recently as September, the Wallabies were somewhere close to rock bottom: indeed, it was legitimate to wonder whether they had ever been so weak. Suddenly, they look more threatening than at any point in the last decade, with Cooper, Will Genia, Israel Folau, Christian Leali’ifano and Michael Hooper hitting a very high level of performance and some alarmingly talented outsiders – David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham up front, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale behind – to be reintegrated at the right moment.
“We don’t play now for seven months, so people will have plenty of time to sum up the year,” McKenzie said, with meaning. “Will they look back to where we were, or forward to where we’re going? The performance here was outstanding from our perspective. We have confidence in the style of rugby we want to play; we want to go about things in our own way and we did.”
And Quade? What about the resident genius in midfield? McKenzie did not spend active rugby lifetime at the sharp end of the scrum learning to butter up some Fancy Dan No 10 in public. “We could have been more judicious – a little more patient,” he remarked, with just the hint of a smirk. “Rugby is a risk-reward balance and we pushed the risk at times. But then, I don’t want to tell people not to do these things.” It was left to the captain, Ben Mowen, to wax lyrical. “What Quade does is take the skills he learnt playing touch footy in the back yard and execute them in Test rugby,” he said.
Wales, a far better attacking side than England, hit a high level of their own on Saturday and had the outside centre Jonathan Davies not been missing from midfield through injury, they might have pushed the Wallabies closer still – and maybe over the edge. But for all the potency of George North on the left wing – the man can play a bit – they have some way to go to match the Wallabies for artistry.
When it comes to playing Australia, they are England writ small: that is to say, their best chance is to take a tight, ultra-physical approach through the forwards, establish superiority at the set-piece and generally grab their opponents by the balls, secure in the knowledge that hearts and minds will follow soon enough. As Shaun Edwards, their defence coach, said: “That was a fantastic game to watch, but there were times when we should have slowed things down, kicked the ball off the pitch and given ourselves some respite.”
Remarkably, the first half passed without a single scrum, which helped the Wallabies no end. Had Wales been really clever, they would have made some deliberate errors of the minor variety – a knock-on here, a forward pass there – as a means of bringing the set-piece game into play and allowing their front row to lay into James Slipper and Sekope Kepu and wear them down. But then, the home side had the “wrong Jones” on the tight-head side. Adam, the world’s best No 3, had been ruled out well in advance of the match, and whatever Rhodri turns out to be in the future, he is no destroyer at close quarters.
All things considered, Gatland seemed happy enough with his side’s performance, which boded well for Welsh chances of winning a third successive Six Nations title in the new year. But Six Nations rugby is entirely different from the brand of union on show at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t have a place for Quade Cooper.
Offload of the century? Cooper’s touch of class
Australia’s opening try is a triumph of vision, timing and execution. Quade Cooper appears late on Adam Ashley-Cooper’s right shoulder and runs a dangerous line towards the corner, drawing in Owen Williams and George North before flipping a one-handed pass to Joe Tomane “out of the back door”. Tomane takes the ball high and flips it inside to Christian Leali’ifano, leaving Williams and Leigh Halfpenny in such confusion that the two defenders collide with each other.