Expert Witness: November Tests

Date published: November 13 2013

Former England flank Peter Winterbottom assesses the latest November Test action.

With the November Tests in full swing, Planet Rugby's resident Expert Witness, former England flanker Peter Winterbottom, joins James While to cast an eye over the three big fixtures of the weekend.

It was business as usual for both Scotland and Australia as they romped home to robust wins against committed Japanese and Italian sides respectively, with Quade Cooper putting in one of his more convincing games for the Wallabies as he ignited their attacking ambitions, putting 50 points on the Azzurri while Ireland made light work of Samoa.

Meanwhile, England hosted the Pumas, France entertained the All Blacks and Wales welcomed the Springboks, in three fiercely contested games.

“As a game of rugby, the fixture of the week was undoubtedly the France v New Zealand game,” explained Winterbottom, a veteran of 58 England caps.

“It was a titanic and entertaining struggle. You never really are sure which French team are going to turn up, but the Gallic Planets seemed aligned on this occasion and the French put in a high-quality performance in defeat.

“New Zealand, however, rumble on with 12 wins from 12 and look a brilliantly organised rugby machine. They are indeed, a class apart.

“France went out and played hard, direct rugby. They caused New Zealand a lot of issues at scrum time, and Nicolas Mas absolutely destroyed Tony Woodcock.

“The new scrum laws seem to favour a more compact tighthead, as witnessed by the emergence of David Wilson over Dan Cole. Mas was able to wrap Woodcock up with a dominant right arm and shoulder, pinch his head and shoulders inwards and pull his backside out away from the hooker, thus disconnecting his drive.

“Quite frankly had the pitch been of a higher quality then I believe Mas would have dominated even further.

“However, when you look how New Zealand play rugby, you see sides beat them in one on one battles, but you rarely see superiority across any particular unit,” explained an admiring Winterbottom.

“The All Blacks are masters of controlling the breakdown. They have a saying: 'if you can't recycle the ball, recycle yourself.' By this they mean if the ball is lost in the ruck, get out and defend or win it at the next ruck.

“And, it's a matter of fact that they're happy to be patient and they commonly look to turn over at the second or third ruck, rarely at the first, where they look to commit as few as possible to create a numerical mismatch at the next breakdown.

“What is spectacular to watch is how quickly their players react to any given situation. They expect to turnover, and when they do, their options are varied and lethal. They also use the whole pitch, which is something that England, for example, struggle to do.

“The All Black centres are outstanding in using the ball; they will get it wide quickly, and with pace, passing into the space in front of the runner. If that's not on, then they know they'll have a big ball carrying forward coming on their inside shoulder to change the point of attack.

“Led by a barn-storming display from Brodie Rettalick and the outstanding Kieran Read, the AB's upped their physicality in the third quarter and pulled away from a good French team.

A shout out too for the young French full-back Brice Dulin, who was compelling in every aspect of his game and fully deserved his score.”

Over in Cardiff, a Tsunami of green and gold South Africans simply battered Wales into defeat. With key figures Adam Jones and Jonathan Davies injured in the first half, Wales never looked able to compete with the sheer muscularity of the Springboks.

“If you asked me the difference between the two sides, I'd say about ten kilos per player!” joked Winterbottom.

“Wales did well in many aspects; Jonathan Davies, emerging as a true world class performer, found holes to exploit in the midfield channels and threatened hard before going off. Bradley Davies, Alun-Wyn Jones and Toby Faletau put in performances of physicality and distinction, but in the final analysis, Wales were simply outmuscled.

“The Dragon ran out of puff. You can only defend against that type of power side for so long. When Davies was on the pitch, he attacked the space, not the man. Going back to the 2013 Lions, Warren Gatland favoured a Route One strategy versus Australia, but with many of the same players in his team this time around, he needed to recognise Route One is not going to work against SA.

“A more de-constructed approach is required, breaking the game up, moving the big Bokke forwards around and creating space to use the Welsh speedsters such as George North and Leigh Halfpenny when space emerges.”

At Twickenham, the only win against Rugby Championship opposition was recorded when an indifferent display by a predictable England side saw off the below par Argentinians.

Winterbottom feels that the need for results is getting in the way of the evolution of style for Stuart Lancaster's men.

“England were frustratingly inconsistent in both their ambition and their execution,” noted the former Lion.

“With Dylan Hartley making a big statement on his return, powerful displays by all of the forward eight, and a stand-out showing from Billy Vunipola, England have the making of a decent pack. However, after two seasons in tenure, Lancaster's back division is as shapeless as when he inherited it.

“I remarked last week about the lack of width in England's game plan. It is now close on being an issue of endemic proportions.

“The main failing I see is the sheer clutter of forward traffic in midfield. Contrast this with New Zealand, who know how to get their big boys out of the way when attacking wide, England were regularly launching a three-quarter line move with a tighthead and a lock in the centres!

“This causes Owen Farrell to crab, as he looks to pass around the forwards into the outside channel. The end result is as Farrell crabs seven paces, the opposition drift steps up the same seven paces, and the pass is absolutely ineffectual, as the receiver has no space to work in by the time he gets the ball.

“In the second half, the pivotal combination of Lee Dickson and Farrell were absolutely anonymous. They offered little leadership, threat or creativity, and we need to make changes in that area pretty quickly.

“Is this poor handling and shapelessness a cultural thing? Well, I recall training in New Zealand in 1984. I watched in a local school yard, with 14 year olds intuitively throwing spin passes 20 and 30 metres off either hand. New Zealanders are brought up handling a rugby ball, and it's no coincidence how well their players can use a ball.

“What does frustrate me is that Billy Twelvetrees shows great ability at club level to pass deep, at pace and with intelligence. Place him in this England side, and all of those qualities seem lost in the sea of handling mediocrity outside him. Lancaster needs to select a midfield trio to maximise the use of his