This week we will mostly be running the rule over the first round of November internationals…
European teams rarely start November well, coming as it does on the back of a brace of Champions Cup weekends at the usual disjointing early injury rashes. With the obvious exception of Ireland, this November was no different.
Your correspondent switched off 60 minutes into England’s torpid win over Argentina, partly to pander to the pleas of a six-year-old daughter, but in no small part also to the unbearable slow pace, error-ridden attack and lifeless nature of the match itself. Another win is about all you can say, but it’s tough to disregard the nagging feeling that England have gone backwards since that glorious whitewash of the Wallabies a year and a half ago.
Various combinations and hopes come and go, but rarely – aside from the fleeting glimpses of Jonathan Joseph and a couple of other individual performances – have England looked settled and in top gear, indeed, it often requires an injection of something or other from the bench to get them going.
Injuries haven’t helped, neither has the Lions tour which robbed Eddie Jones of a potential second June series apocalypse and further development time. Yet the more we hear about England’s new regime the more we get a feeling that sometimes it’s a little too radical – such as the live scrumming and line-out session with Wales – with not enough emphasis on the nuances of their own gameplan.
Central to Jones’ philosophy is to make sense out of the chaos that is a rugby match, to enable decision-makers and to turn every facet of the game into a competition. None of this is misplaced belief, but at times on Saturday the game was screaming out for England to calm down and be cool and find a system, rather than reacting frenziedly to a chaos that simply wasn’t there.
“How f***ing stupid are we,” screamed Jones at one point, as one of the flankers conceded a thoroughly unnecessary penalty. But would a calmer head have done that? Perhaps England need to step back from chaos theory a little too.
Elsewhere, Sam Warburton’s assertion: “that was the biggest change I’ve seen” in Wales’ approach to rugby rang true, but it did not seem to make a difference upstairs to the Welsh. Their recent record against the southern hemisphere trio reads played 37, won 3 over the past few years. The pleas that there is nothing mental contributing to this record smacks of a first-class case of denial.
At least three clear Welsh opportunities went begging as a result of inexplicable ball drops, including one by Taulupe Faletau that he’ll likely never be allowed to forget. Tackles were missed at key moments which shouldn’t have been, while Wales looked edgy every time Australia moved into their red zone. Australia, on the other hand, rarely looked like they felt the game slipping away – perhaps only during the spell until Kurtley Beale’s freakish try did the Wallabies look vulnerable.
Still, next up for the Welsh after Georgia are the All Blacks, who did look vulnerable, as well as rattled, uncertain and out of shape during the second half against the French.
This is all easy to say. In the first half they looked anything but. The substitution of Kieran Read early in the second half, especially after the removal of Dane Coles with his dicky knee and with France in the ascendancy gave the unnerving impression that Steve Hansen might have been indulging in a bout of scenario planning. But it’s rare to see New Zealand look so rattled and even rarer for them not to find a way of taking the game back quicker. Had France managed to score a third try with the scores at 18-31 we’d have seen a fascinating finale. Wales will have taken note that murderous pace and physicality can unsettle the All Blacks after all.
We’ll see about both France and South Africa this coming weekend. The Boks were absolutely awful on Saturday, regardless of Ireland’s excellence. Change cannot come fast enough at the top for them. But France’s old failings remained at times before they were apparently urged at half-time to ‘go and win half a game of rugby’ by Guy Noves.
There are some good young players emerging for the French, but whether it lasts is a moot point. A fascinating article in the Midi Olympique this week, entitled ‘Qui a saborde le rugby Francais?’ (who scuppered French rugby) laid the blame very much at the feet of the naked ambition of some club presidents who imported with scant regard for domestic production. How the young emerging players will fare against the competition domestically is still dictating the ability of France to regenerate.
Still, the French can be grateful to the serial importers in part for many of their team now – including Daniel Kotze, whose laboured English in a heavy Afrikaans accent during the post-match interview was comical for its lack of Frenchness.
So we’ll see. If France are able to tear the Boks apart we’ll know both that there is life in L’Ovalie yet and that South African rugby is deep in the mire.
Rounding up the others: Scotland are still a work in progress, Samoa played like a team with nothing to lose, Italy conjured up a good performance to beat Fiji, fully five places in the World Rugby rankings above them, Georgia continue to progress and Canada are still not anywhere near as good as they were under Kieran Crowley.
Seconds out, round two!
Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Danny Stephens