Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of torrential downpours, murky drizzles and the rest of November Test weekend weather.
Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of torrential downpours, murky drizzles, breezy sprinklings, and everything else that passes for November Test weekend weather in northern Europe. This weekend we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a shower of talking points from week one…
England: Time to point the finger squarely at Owen Farrell and ask whether he is up to the task of beating the best. There were many obvious single moments you could cite as turning points – Mike Brown dropping the ball with nothing but the line in his way was one – but for general trends in the game, Owen Farrell’s game management, especially the territorial kicking and mixing up of the attacking options, just was not enough to unlock the best. The upswing in England’s dynamism when George Ford entered the fray was palpable.
Farrell might justifiably point to the fact that Danny Care did not have a good game either, or to the continued presence of unwanted forwards in the 9-10 channel, but the best fly-halves – think Carter, think Larkham – do know how to steer a game away from trouble when it is facing them. Farrell simply sticks to the plan. An excellent fly-half when things are running smoothly, Farrell must now become that fly-half who can make things run smoothly. And in the meantime, it would be worth seeing what George Ford can do from minute one rather than minute 60 at least one time this month.
Here’s one other thing: stop the England players showboating before they have actually scored. It’s those kinds of adjustment in attitude that turns arrogance into knowing self-conviction, and it might make them think better under pressure.
New Zealand: Yet again a victory born out of superior game management and mental toughness, but the world standard is closing in on the AB benchmark. The pack was pressured if not bullied, the line-out suffered especially after the loss of Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden couldn’t leave his imprint on the game, Julian Savea hardly saw the ball unless it was coming to him out of the clouds. Still, given all that and the weather, they did a marvellous job of switching up the game while keeping to their strengths as the rain closed in, in the toughest game of their tour. Here is why New Zealand win: in the 70 minutes they have played through combined yellow cards this year, they are yet to concede a try.
Wales: Another superlative performance, another chance gone begging. There’s only so many times you can hear the phrase: it’s not mental before you are forced to admit there is denial going on. Despite the huge improvement in Wales’ general play since their insipid Six Nations campaign and the first of the June Tests, the mistakes that others don’t make just keep happening. However much of an upgrade Dan Biggar was on many of those before him, the missed tackle on Michael Hooper and restart that failed to go ten were indicative of the sorts of things that undermined the Welsh. Similarly, the decision to go for territory against a team loaded with deep threats in the final fraught minutes seemed an odd one when the Welsh pack had controlled the contact with such steel for so long in the second half.
Nevertheless, we will say this: the near misses in the past have felt a lot more inevitable than this one did. The Welsh invention has improved substantially. Get them a mental toughness developer and get them over that final hurdle.
Australia: If this is a team in crisis, you can bet your life Michael Cheika will be asking headhunters to go and find some random office girl with a beefed-up CV before sending pictures of her around the team WhatsApp group. They attacked with speed and purpose, played with plenty of poise and patience when needed and once again got themselves out of a fix. It does get tougher from here, with France, Ireland, England up in that order, but these Wallabies are not falling apart as some would have you believe. BUT… still the Achilles heel of sustainable forward power needs treatment.
Ireland: How much do the Irish want to play New Zealand now? This was performance of the weekend from a team decimated by injury. All-action, steam-headed and accurately steered by Jonathan Sexton who, as experienced by Stephen Jones a few years ago, looks to have had his game significantly polished up by his time in France. It’s a pity the Oirish don’t get their shot at redemption for last year’s heartbreaker against the ABs, but there’s few people betting on Australia at the Aviva right now. Maybe at the World Cup… but baby steps. Let’s see Ireland back this up against the Wallabies.
South Africa: Heyneke Meyer has apparently been working feverishly to ensure his team has essentially been in camp since the start of the Rugby Championship. His intent has always been to ensure that the Boks are not one-trick ponies – perhaps one-trick bullies is more accurate – but rather a team that thrives on the physical yet possesses the finesse to open a game up if need be. Given that the prevailing rugby culture in the country is rather less sophisticated, his desire to maintain a near five-month international camp is understandable, but Saturday’s team looked uninspired and tired. Moreover, the same problems that have dogged them for a while now were apparent: few inspirational young players emerging, a tighthead who concedes far too many infringements and, despite Handre Pollard’s very best efforts, a back line with narrow vision. The culture change for the Boks is the right way to go, but time is running out fast.
Scotland: Ooohhh, this was good. How long have the Scots been missing a cutting edge? How long have we lamented how they so rarely seem to be able to capitalise on possession? Finally there is a sharpness to the team with ball in hand.
On the other hand, this was not an 80-minute performance by any stretch. Slipping off the pace after going 34-10 ahead, the Scots would have had a lot more to worry about had Tommy Seymour not scored the killer intercept. Work in progress in Edinburgh, but the initial signs are good. We’ll know more after New Zealand have been and gone.
Argentina: A bad, bad day at the office. Maybe just an off-day. While their ability to fight back into the game was commendable, the Pumas cannot expect to leak points in this way and remain competitive. A lot of work without the ball looms in training this week.
Other talking points: France’s renaissance-style win against Fiji must also be chalked to the ‘nice win, but what about when you play someone really good’ column, as Fiji were pretty poor. The Fijians face Wales next in a rehearsal of a World Cup Pool of Death match-up – it’ll be interesting to see what kind of team the Welsh put out. Italy’s win over Samoa showed a spirit that has been lacking in recent times while Samoa’s manner of defeat showed how little they have worked