Southern raiders still making the running towards World Cup
There are two ways of looking at it. Unfortunately for those clinging to the hope that a British Isles team might make a worthwhile impression on next year's World Cup, they amount to the same thing and point to the same end – namely, an exercise in futility. England's second-half display against New Zealand at the start of the month, and the half-hour of Welsh superiority over the silver-ferned Grand Slammers either side of the interval on Saturday evening, might lead an optimist to proclaim: "Look, it can be done." Yet a pessimist will sift through this body of evidence and reach the opposite, more persuasive conclusion.
Graham Henry's All Blacks were far from flawless over the four weekends of the autumn international window: they did not so much blow hot and cold as blow lukewarm and freezing. Occasionally, they obtained quick possession from the ferociously contested tackle areas and gave Daniel Carter the the chance to create tries of spellbinding beauty. More often, their ball was geologically slow, and they kicked the leather off it. They had their struggles at the set-piece, they saw a once-brilliant wing in Joe Rokocoko fall to pieces in public... hell, they even lost a disciplinary case. Yet they won their games – all four of them, naturally – without ever looking in serious danger.
If they are to be beaten on home soil next year, it is infinitely more likely to be by a Quade Cooper-inspired Australia or a Juan Smith-driven South Africa than by one of the home nations, two of which took forward steps over the last month yet still find themselves slogging uphill. In fact, it is possible to argue that the team with most to celebrate is Samoa, the penniless orphans of world rugby who emerged from the poorhouse to scare the living daylights out of three infinitely better-heeled opponents in England, Ireland and Scotland.
All of which will alarm Wales, who find themselves in a World Cup group with both Samoa and Fiji, against whom they scraped a draw in Cardiff 10 days ago. Oh yes, almost forgot – they must play South Africa, too. Judging by the way a weakened herd of Springboks rampaged through, round and over England at the weekend, Welsh blood and tears will be shed in equal measure.
Whoever made the pool draw for the 2011 World Cup had a sense of humour; not only in terms of toying with the Welsh, but also in ensuring that the two British sides obviously on the up – the sides who, generally speaking, perform best in World Cup tournaments – will have to play each other and batter themselves to a standstill before taking on any of the major southern hemisphere teams. England and Scotland both had their moments during the autumn, the former against Australia and the latter against the Boks. Each found something important – energy and ambition in England's case, greater strength in depth up front in Scotland's. If they met tomorrow, either in London or in Edinburgh, the result could go either way.
It was about time Martin Johnson and his coaching team achieved something, for they could not have wished for a more propitious set of circumstances. Their employers at the Rugby Football Union promised to give them all the time they needed to make sense of the task confronting them and have been true to their word. They have had considerably more access to the elite players than any of their predecessors and they have been blessed with a group of gifted youngsters: Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs in the backs; Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft amongst the forwards.
The performance against the Wallabies was spectacular; Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach, overegged it yesterday when he described it as "flawless", but not by much, and if England can bring themselves to select a pair of centres in midfield rather than a pair of Luddites, they might actually get somewhere. But then, the Australians reacted to their numbing defeat at Twickenham by putting seven tries and a half-century of points past France. Now that's what you call a response.
Only the Sanzar sides – and, perversely, the French on one of their special days – have the dynamism to bounce back with such vengeance, to rediscover the best of themselves with such elan. Scotland are improving, but it will take them many years to improve sufficiently to stand tall against the New Zealanders, who humiliated them at Murrayfield. Wales? The teamsheet looks handy, but they have not won a game worth winning for ages, largely because they are such lightweights in defence. Ireland? They are going backwards almost as fast their economy and are in need of bailing out in the front row.
As for dear old England, they came up short once again, although not quite as short as usual. If three wins from four would have been an achievement, given their record under Johnson, the 50 per cent return they managed was no more than semi-satisfactory. Yes, they are better than this time last year, and they will probably be better again 12 months from now. But being better is not the same as being good enough.
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