So the autumn internationals are over for another year, and we've had a few days to pick our way through a mountain of information in the search for indicators as to who stands where in the great scheme of things. Two things are clear to me.
Firstly, the All Blacks are some distance ahead of the pack, even though they spent most of their Grand Slam trip in third gear. Those opposing coaches who blamed error counts and poor decision-making for their sides' failures against the tourists were deluding themselves. The New Zealanders, armed with a smart back-room staff and some very smart performers, are thinking differently about the game – and playing it differently – to everyone else.
Secondly, the November matches reminded us that teams who prepare for the hostile environment of Test rugby in a one-dimensional manner should not be in the least surprised if they are blown out of the water when the game fails to unfold in the way they predicted. There has been so much talk about the value of having a "Plan B" as a back-up when "Plan A" breaks down. I suppose one alternative is better than none, but "plan this" and "plan that" can only lead a team into a cul-de-sac.
I'm reminded of the phrase routinely used by one of our elite military organisations. They say: "No plan survives its first contact with the enemy." I'm also reminded of events some 36 years ago in the country then known as Zaire. I've spoken about the great Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight before, but I keep returning to it because I believe it went to the heart of high-level performance and should be adopted as a template for those serious about meeting that standard.
Foreman himself gave a fascinating insight into the nature of that famous contest in a 10-minute interview on television this week. In endeavouring to explain exactly what happened to him, he conceded, almost as if still in a dream, that during the fight he could not comprehend how his punches were failing to have any obvious effect, either physically or mentally, on Ali. And remember: Foreman was, by a very long way, the most terrifying puncher in world boxing.
In one memorable remark, he said his opponent seemed to have constructed a "mystical shield" around himself. More telling still was his acknowledgement that because Ali developed his plan of attack during the fight – not before – he could not react. Why did he find himself so paralysed? Because he had prepared for the fight in the complete certainty that he would knock Ali out.
There was no "Plan A" or "Plan B" about Ali's boxing that night, as his manager, Angelo Dundee conceded in saying that while the man himself knew precisely what he was doing, the men in the corner were completely in the dark.
What Ali brought to the fight was his depth of learning, his clarity of thought, a brilliantly conceived overview of the challenge confronting him and an innate confidence in his ability to identify and perform the skills required to deal with situations as they unfolded before him.
He brought to his work a mastery of the principle of adjustment. (And I should mention here that there is a difference between adjusting and merely reacting. The first suggests a properly calculated, thought-through response. The second is more knee-jerk.)
If we translate this to a team game like rugby, it is clear that the best preparation is based on the understanding that uncertainty and its consequences are the rule, not the exception. The "Plan A/B" approach assumes things will go one of two ways, and it has long been my opinion that, in top-level sport, assumption is a dangerous thing. The reality, particularly in Test rugby, is that once the whistle blows things can go in any number of directions.
The best sides – sides like the All Blacks, with all the flexibility and elasticity they have in their game – practise to play rugby in its widest possible sense rather than manacle themselves to a predetermined system. If, as we head into World Cup year, their rivals are serious about closing in on them, they will surely have to take a similarly broad approach.
Warm anticipation of the ultimate Test
One of the joys of falling victim to the big freeze at the start of the week was having a perfect excuse to watch the first Ashes Test in Brisbane, where the temperatures appeared to be just a little higher. The game had its twists and turns: I was impressed by the way Andrew Strauss, mortified at his third-ball dismissal on the opening morning, responded in the second innings, and I was gripped by the performances of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott as England not only saved the match, but made a statement to the whole of cricket-obsessed Australia in the process.
I'll be supporting England all the way, but I might add that the prospect of a tight, hard-fought series fills me with anticipation. Who will produce the decisive performance? Who will show the tactical inspiration to drive the match in an unexpected direction and wrong-foot the opposition? Yes, England finished strongly at The Gabba, but I'm not sure there are too many clues where things are heading. All I know is this: in an age apparently obsessed with cheap thrills and instant gratification, five-day Test cricket remains the definitive sporting contest. It has everything.
Win a mixed case of Sharp's beer!
Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a delicious case of beer? Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning 12 assorted bottles of Sharp's Brewery’s finest ales including its flagship beer Doom Bar.
Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?
Then, on December 9, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that case of Sharp's beer. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights. Entrants must be aged 18 years or older, and resident in the UK.Terms and conditions apply. If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to email@example.comReuse content