All the Six Nations sides say they crave more contact with the Tri-Nations, but that attitude bordered on the masochistic this autumn. The twisted rugby maxim that you get your retaliation in first was turned on its head by Wales yesterday with their final-day defeat of the Wallabies, but it was a troublesome wait before the Celtic unions got one over the big three from down south at the sixth attempt.
The anxiety was highest, along with expectation, for Wales's Grand Slam side. They had a facile win over Canada (also enjoyed by Scotland and Ireland) which did not mask their failure to score a try against South Africa and New Zealand: a blank reality check for the free-running Welsh. No wonder Shane Williams was a relieved man when he crossed the Wallaby line to end that sequence, and so too was Warren Gatland. The head coach is not the first man – or even the first New Zealander – to be sidetracked by the parochial nonsense of Welsh rugby politics. Perhaps now, with a welcome victory to sign off the autumn, the war with the regions can wait, and Williams and Ryan Jones, who had both been a smidgen off form, can march on to the Six Nations' Championship and the other great challenge looming at the end of the season: the Lions tour.
On the plus side for Wales they have a page-turner of a success story in Lee Byrne at full-back, and the youngsters Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar emerged as viable options for the Six Nations. They will not forget, though, the two late lost line-outs which cost them victory against the Springboks.
One of the highlights of the Irish autumn was the mini-haka performed by Munster's four New Zealanders before the commemorative midweek match against the All Blacks. But when the Saturday Test was played, Ireland's riverdance sank without trace. The Munster forwards, led by Paul O'Connell, know what it takes to win the Heineken Cup, but the Irish collective captained by a reappointedBrian O'Driscoll keep on coming up short on the biggest occasions.
Still, Ireland will pray that 2009 will be their Six Nations year at last. Their coach, Declan Kidney, boldly promoted scrum-half Tomas O'Leary above Peter Stringer and Eoin Reddan for the 17-3 win over bêtes noires Argentina last week. With Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney gaining confidence behind that Munster-dominated pack, Ireland should start the Six Nations in better fettle than they finished the last one, losing 33-10 to England.
Scotland's baleful bleat that they rank among the game's paupers was a by-product of a mixed bag of results. The 14-10 defeat by South Africa suggested a squad of promise. It might have been a first-ever win over the Boks if Hugo Southwell had not muffed his corner-flag tackle on Jaque Fourie.
But the running sore over training time with Scottish players employed by English and French clubs became a full-blown boil last week when the IRB unveiled the long-awaited revamp of Regulation Nine, governing compulsory release. Scottish Rugby's chief executive, Gordon McKie, lumped his men in with Argentina, Italy, Georgia, Fiji and Samoa when he said: "In essence [it] means only the rich unions which can buy extra days and those unions that have all their players centrally contracted will have access to their players when they want them."
The early-season promise shown by the tighthead prop Euan Murray – at Northampton – was carried on to the Test stage. But Scotland's search for a fly-half goes on. Maybe they can turn to coach Frank Hadden's son, Scott, at table-topping London Scottish – in England's National Division Three.Reuse content