Expert Witness: November Tests

Date published: November 27 2014

With another thrilling round of November Tests behind us, this week’s Expert Witness is World Cup winning scrum-half Kyran Bracken.

With another thrilling round of November Tests behind us, this week’s Expert Witness is England’s World Cup winning scrum-half Kyran Bracken, who casts his critical eye over events in Dublin, Twickenham, Paris and Cardiff.

Overall, it was a weekend of mixed fortunes for the Northern Hemisphere with wins for Ireland, continuing their run of form under Joe Schmidt, and England stuttering and spluttering to overcome Samoa despite an assured performance from George Ford.

Elsewhere, Wales took their sequence of losses against the All Blacks into their 60th year and France, sublime last week, produced a forgettable display losing once again to Argentina in Paris.

Kyran Bracken, a world-class scrum half, believes a lot of the Irish excellence is coming from their in-form number nine, Conor Murray.

“The Dublin Test was one of the best games of rugby I’ve seen in a long while.” he mused.

“Not wishing to denude the brilliance of Brian O’Driscoll, but his retirement seems to have empowered the half-backs in a way that few expected. They’re absolutely running the show for Joe Schmidt and if there’s a better scrum-half in the world than Murray right now I’ve yet to see him.

“Ireland’s execution is accurate, dynamic and telling. They look a wonderfully organised outfit and a lot of credit must go to the coaching team.

“However, they also have several world-class players right at the top of their game and they benefit from being able to take tight units formed at club level into the international arena. They have their method and they stick with it and their defence, led by Peter O’Mahoney at the breakdown, was crucially effective.

“Beating South Africa is always about that collision area. Ireland’s choke tackle and their ability to get the second man in to restrict the offload killed the Springbok power game. Then factor in the pinpoint kicking of Sexton and Murray and you have a side that will test the best.

“The Boks will be rueing some of their decisions. They also perhaps failed to adapt to Romain Poite’s interpretation of the rolling maul, something which cost them dearly,” explained Bracken.

“Nevertheless, Ireland are rightly ranked at third in the world right now and on the evidence of November, they are easily the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.”

At Twickenham, a changed English side gave fly-half George Ford his first Test start at home. Despite the Samoan physicality, England’s assurance at the set-piece saw them home, but Bracken was delighted with the showing of the Bath youngster.

“Ford looked really assured,” he commented.

“He made four clean line breaks and looked very dangerous. I particularly enjoyed the pinpoint accuracy of his cross-field kick; that was absolute genius and the flat trajectory of the kick showed you just how aware he was.

“However, as a whole yet again England flattered to deceive. The set-piece was perfect, yet we manage to beat a Tier Two side by only 20 points? There were some big questions about a few of those players before the game and they simply were not answered,” noted Bracken.

“The glimpses of light aren’t coming from the regulars either. May and Watson both had moments of real penetration, yet save for one loop move in midfield, Owen Farrell was totally anonymous.

“That 12 shirt is becoming a conundrum for England. You need a supreme athlete in that channel; a Will Greenwood or Jean de Villiers, capable of making decisions, leading the defence and assisting the fly-half in game management.

“I suspect Billy Twelvetrees will come back into the fold next week as he offers a little bit more footballing ability than others and offloads into space superbly. However his form of late has been somewhat indifferent and I’m sure that England have sent Kyle Eastmond back to Bath primarily as they’re reticent to play two small players in the 10/12 rather than Twelvetrees’ form.

“Looking at the last few games, some interesting themes emerge and I confess to have been doing a little studying of the Try Tracker! England need roughly 65 percent posession to win a Test. For England to increase their chances of winning against Australia, statistically the team need to win a penalty once in every four incursions into the opponent’s half, force over 16 turnovers and average over 5.8m per carry. Very achievable.

“But Australia only need to beat 14 players, have seven shots at goal and win 90 percent of their set plays. Those stats predict that unless we can stop their line breaks without giving away penalties and interrupt their scrum or lineout, it is going to be another near miss for England, as we know their opponents Australia regularly win games with 35 to 40 percent possession.

“Put that into match perspective; England had two golden opportunities to put the game out of reach on Saturday; Yarde blew a simple two-on-one pass and Attwood dropped a pass from a superb Ford break with the line beckoning. These are key moments in a test and if England continue to blow them, they’ll lose the big matches for sure.

“England cannot lose on Saturday. If they do, it’s fair to say we are in crisis. We need no more soundbites from Lancaster that they’re developing talent. The message needs to be go big and win big or go home! It’s as simple as that.

“In short, it’s one of the biggest games for England since 2003, and to fail would be an unmitigated disaster,” explained Bracken.

In Cardiff, Wales again capitulated to the All Black tidal wave of rugby in the last 20 minutes. With Richie McCaw celebrating his 100th Test as skipper, Beauden Barrett and Kieran Read saw the visitors home in style.

“Yet again a Kiwi side breaks free in the last 15 minutes,” laughed Bracken.

“It’s getting predictable but one can glean from this that their fitness levels are some way ahead of other teams. I also believe they have a great ability to work out how to unlock their opponents on the pitch, not in the team meeting room. If you compare their methods to say England, the All Blacks are playing what’s in front of them and looking to adapt to an evolving game.

“They’re not pre-determined, they’re reactive and adaptive. Factor in too that their bench, unlike England’s, make a massive difference and you see why they are were they are.

“For all that, Wales were very good for 60 minutes, but despite the brilliance of their backs, they’re short of world-class forwards who can compete for a full 80,” he observed.

“We often talk about ‘Warrenball’, but that’s being unfair to the Welsh backline, which is a world-class unit. What they’re lacking is possession in the last 20 or 30 minutes of the game. They’ve lost several Tests in close finishes and that has become a pattern. I can only conclude that it’s an inability to compete up front for a full 80 minutes. You then couple that with the All Blacks ability to play for the full period and blossom towards the end and you’ll see that that