Former England flank Peter Winterbottom assesses the latest November Test action.
With New Zealand chasing a record equalling 14th successive victory, Scotland playing for pride and both France and Australia looking to measure their progress, the last full weekend of November internationals looked full of promise and delivered beyond expectations.
Planet Rugby joins former England flanker Peter Winterbottom to examine the events in greater detail in the last of this year's Expert Witness columns, starting with the monumental game between Ireland and the All Blacks at Landsdowne Road.
“Those Kiwis simply do not know when they're beaten, do they?” grinned the Lions back row.
“Ireland defined their own phrase 'giving it the craic', and produced a performance of immense quality, but somehow, yet again, New Zealand unlocked the jail door. An amazing end to an incredible season for them.
“In the final analysis, a width of a rugby ball sealed the result; Johnny Sexton missed pretty much a sitter by his standards with nine minutes to go, whereas Cruden (rightly) had a couple of shots to convert and take the win. But that's being a bit unfair on both teams, who provided a crackerjack fixture.”
Indeed, Ireland went into half-time with a scoreline beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic of Irishmen. Led by a rumbustious display of back-row skill from Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, underpinned by the direct lines of Rob Kearney at full-back and the guile of veteran Gordon D'Arcy at inside centre, the Irish threw everything at New Zealand, and the great men teetered on the brink of a national disaster before summoning every ounce of energy they had to go the length of the field and score in the dying embers of full time.
“That last passage of play really summed up the All Blacks. You wonder what makes this side so good? It's their ability to find a way to win. Even under duress, they do not panic. They trust themselves, they know their retention is superb and, once they have the ball they'll attack space, not the man.
“In Dublin, I think it's fair to say that as at Twickenham they were shaded for long periods in the contact area. However, when that happens and they lose a micro-battle on the pitch, they just look for other areas to win,' explained an admiring Winterbottom.
“In the Northern Hemisphere, we're told to create phases and keep continuity. Their attitude is to create space, not phases, and once they have the ball, every single player reacts the same way; with attacking intent and a great understanding of opposition weaknesses.
“Once they had the ball in those last two minutes, it was absolutely inevitable that they would score!
“What is also impressive is how relative newcomers to the side absorb those ambitions. In the centre, Conrad Smith has shown over the past four years that he's the best 13 in the world. Yet Ben Smith turns up and New Zealand lose nothing. Ben has been outstanding in his attacking vision, and has regularly taken out three or four defenders with inside passes and angle changes in the wider channels.”
Ireland, who started off like a steam train, looked a different side from that previously seen in this year's Test series and Winterbottom believes there's a South African influence behind the scenes:
“Ireland have now developed a lot more width and intent than we've seen for a few years. Yes, that was a performance based upon the coalface work of Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell, O'Brien and the outstanding Heaslip. But once they had the ball, they opened the All Black defence far more clinically and imaginatively than England did, despite the forward performance of Stuart Lancaster's men.
“D'Arcy put in a display that people believed had long gone out of his legs, as did the warrior Brian O'Driscoll and also Rob Kearney.
“There was a lot of Joe Schmidt in that showing, and the width and ambition was very reminiscent of Leinster's style.
“If Ireland can capture the essence of this display and take the attitude that they can replicate the skill and commitment shown on Sunday, then they'll go far. They have a great line out, a competitive scrum, powerful contact skills, but importantly, are playing a style of rugby that has width, variation and ambition,” noted Winterbottom.
“However, you cannot really do anything but applaud the New Zealanders, who show their supreme fitness levels in the last ten minutes of every game, and their commitment to expansive rugby in everything they do.
“Simply put, they are head and shoulders above any team in world rugby right now, and we should absolutely acknowledge their immense achievements.”
In the other weekend fixtures, France and South Africa had a brutal clash at tje Stade de France and Scotland put in a much-improved display, losing narrowly to a Michael Hooper inspired Australia in Edinburgh. Winterbottom is a big fan of the Australian openside flanker.
“Hooper is a real pest,” he joked.
“It is wonderful to see what a classic seven can do in the modern game. His best asset is his ability to get between the ruck and the ball on the opposition side. He's a relatively small guy and once he's jackaling over the ball he's darned hard to shift.
“Ewen McKenzie has talked about Northern Hemisphere sides sealing off their own ball, and how his team react to that. Well, Hooper showed the way!
“Couple that with Quade Cooper's ability to take the ball right into the faces of contact before executing his sublime inside passes and offloads, and you're going to unlock and wrong foot a lot of defences. Then of course you have Israel Folau menacing at the back, capable of destroying a team with one break,” observed Winterbottom.
“But don't denude Scotland. With Jim Hamilton leading the way again, they were much more competitive. They learned a lot from that South African game, which was evident in their line out work, where they'd clearly cribbed a couple of Springbok plays!
“Scotland can play good rugby when they can compete up front and on Saturday, they did that. But Australia are not the physical threat that South Africa are; they're a team that win through dogged rugby intelligence, and in the final analysis, that was the difference.
“Australia will travel to Wales next week knowing they were in a contest, and I believe that Wales, who rested a few players for the physical test against Tonga, can really make it hard for the Aussies. It'll be a very interesting Test match.”
Over in Paris, an immense effort from Pascal Pape and his pack gave South Africa a lot of problems, but the Springboks, with an early opportunistic score from JP Pietersen emerged victorious. It was a disappointing match, influenced by poor conditions underfoot, but as in previous weeks, the Springbok physicality saw the visitors home.
“It's not rocket science is it?” mused Winterbottom.
“Huge forwards, massive retention, tie players in, use the space created. Simple route one rugby, and they're very, very good at it. And let