Autumn Internationals Report: Must try harder

Can the home nations learn from mistakes made during the autumn internationals? Chris Hewett turns schoolmaster to deliver an end-of-year report – and asks how little Jonny W and big Jonno can do better
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The Independent Online

England scored only a single try in three mind-numbingly dull performances, Wales lost the only matches that mattered and Scotland turned out to be infinitely better without the ball than they were in possession. Is there really only one strong rugby nation in the British Isles?

Ireland are certainly ahead of the field in this part of the world, by quite some distance. They were deeply fortunate to find their way out of the Wallaby Test with a draw, but their tenacious effort against South Africa spoke volumes for their progress under Declan Kidney, a technically accomplished and strategically astute career coach armed with all the qualifications for the job. (Twickenham, please note). Unbeaten in the calendar year, the Irish are busily introducing fresh players – the outside-half Jonathan Sexton, the prop Cian Healy – in good time for the next World Cup. This is in stark contrast to England's approach, but then, the opposite of Englishness seems to be the way forward.

Does this mean Ireland will achieve a second successive Grand Slam in the Six Nations, after drawing a blank for more than 50 years?

Not necessarily. They will have the advantage of a three-match programme in Dublin, and the trip to London is unlikely to scare them any more than it scared the Wallabies or the All Blacks last month. But they must travel to France in round two, and if Marc Lièvremont's players produce something resembling the best of themselves, they will be terribly difficult to beat. It has the overused word "classic" stamped all over it and may even live up to the billing, just as the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield has every chance of living down to expectations.

Do we really have to mention the anti-rugby brigade? Scotland's victory over Australia was remarkable in its own peculiarly claustrophobic way, but they will never win like that again. As for England... is there anything new to say?

England were indeed desperate, but don't expect anyone in authority to admit it. Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union and a principal force behind the establishment of the current regime, predictably threw his weight behind Martin Johnson's management after the defeat by New Zealand. "Martin is a winner," he said. Well, he might have been a winner once. These days, he loses games for fun. England are at their lowest point for 20 years: featureless, clueless and, more often than not, hopeless.

So what is to be done?

The RFU will not move against Johnson, that's for sure: were it to do so, certain very influential people would have to admit they made a balls of things – that they sacked the wrong man at the wrong moment in their infantile desperation to install a "big name" at the top of the England operation. These men would rather eat their own children than make such an acknowledgment in public. Ahead of the Six Nations, we can expect only some tinkerings round the edges as experienced hands return from injury. The question is this: will the increasingly hangdog Twickenham crowd welcome back the likes of Mike Tindall, Harry Ellis or Julian White with open arms? Johnson would be given more credit if he shed his Leicester skin, used the Six Nations as a testing ground and gave Danny Cipriani, Tom Varndell, Shane Geraghty, Mathew Tait and Courtney Lawes the chance to fling a little attacking bling around the place.

What of the Scots – and also the Welsh, who suffered their disappointments over the autumn?

Andy Robinson is a brilliant forwards coach; indeed, the England pack was at its best when the Somerset man was in charge at the sharp end and Johnson was buried in the second row, with his head trapped somewhere unpleasant. Under Robinson, the Scots have potential up front: their back-row unit looks useful – the two Johns, Barclay and Beattie, certainly get around – and with the powerhouse scrummager Euan Murray nearing full fitness, things should improve in the tight. The problem, as ever, is the midfield. What midfield, you ask? Yes, that's the one. Wales, meanwhile, have a midfield that generally works. What doesn't work is their forward unit when it is shorn of two or three first-choice players. If Adam Jones returns quickly and they find themselves a second row worthy of playing alongside the excellent Alun Wyn Jones, they will be dangerous come Six Nations time.

Unfortunately, there is the kind of danger posed by British teams and the entirely different magnitude of danger associated with New Zealand and Australia. Why is the gap never closed?

Much of this boils down to the outside-half position. New Zealand have Dan Carter, the Wallabies have Matt Giteau and the Welsh, the most expansive of the British Isles teams, have the likes of Stephen Jones, James Hook and the young Dan Biggar available to them. The common denominator? They are natural footballers. England? They have Jonny Wilkinson, and at the risk of being struck down by a thunderbolt, let us say again that Wilkinson is not a Carter or a Giteau – and never has been. The last time England ran rings round the opposition, against Ireland in 2008, someone by the name of Cipriani did most of the running. Without a No 10 who brings flashes of vision to the role – a man for whom possibilities are more seductive than percentages – the best of rugby will always be out of reach.

This, then, is the southern hemisphere's time. Again. Can any of the European sides hope to challenge seriously at the 2011 World Cup?

It looks grim. Ireland are farthest along the road in terms of team development and they are blessed with a handful of players – Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip – capable of matching the impact of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell at Test level. Unfortunately, they have been drawn in a group with the Wallabies who, provided they sort out their act in the lock-forward department, could easily win the thing.

Wales must mix it with South Africa, the reigning champions, and while the current Springbok side peaked in winning this year's Tri-Nations and are now on the downward slope of the mountain, they are always difficult to subdue in a tournament environment. England and Scotland? Quarter-finalists, at best.

So there's no hope, then. The future is as black as pitch.

Not quite, For those Europhiles among us, the French might emulate their achievement the last time the tournament was played in New Zealand and reach the final. Yes, they fell off the pace set by the All Black backs in Marseilles at the weekend, but they were missing two of their form players in Maxime Mermoz and Imanol Harinordoquy and left Provence with a clear understanding of where they went wrong. The astute Lièvremont has solved some of his more pressing selectorial problems in the pack and has scrum-halves, centres, wings and full-backs coming out of his ears.

There again, they might lose four of their next five games and finish bottom of the Six Nations. Unlike England and Scotland, the French are wholly unpredictable.