After sitting in Murrayfield for autumn international rugby union matches that differed tremendously, and having witnessed each of the Six Nations and Tri-Nations sides in action in the past month, the time has come, as ever, to draw some conclusions from the matches we have witnessed, and try to see where they point in terms of next year’s international competitions, and also the World Cup which is looming ever nearer in 2011.
Ireland, quite clearly, are enjoying a real boom this year: the Grand Slam winning RBS 6 Nations winners are now officially unbeaten in 2009, after clawing Australia back to 20-20 in what was arguably their weakest performance this year. So it is perhaps no surprise that their odds were this week cut to 4/1 to lift the Grand Slam once more next year, and just 5/2 to win the 6 Nations. France are favourites, and few can argue with that, but do they have what it takes to cope with the Irish forwards? We’ll have to wait a few months to answer that: the fact that the match takes place in Paris this time around is perhaps the reason why France are favourites; home advantage is seen as the only decisive factor between these closely matched sides.
Scotland, whom I had the pleasure of watching at their finest hour for 27 years when beating Australia in a nail-biting climax at Murrayfield showed how to create a hostile environment for a rugby match. Indeed, everything about the Scots under Robinson screams “professionalism” – in defence particularly the Scots are supremely well organised. However, with ball in hand, they don’t have anyone at present who looks in danger of breaking the line. They lack raw pace and imagination, and this was well demonstrated when they failed to finish a fine move in either half against Argentina before eventually running out of ideas and succumbing to a fairly limp defeat in their final autumn match against the South Americans.
Scotland, however, were immensely impressive in the front 8, and their scrummage caused problems for Australia – who have worked harder than any in this department over the past couple of years after England steam-rollered their pack in the World Cup – as well as the heavy Argentinian pack, whom they shifted with relative ease. This has the hallmarks of a solid base from which to develop good back play, so Scotland may well claim more large scalps in 2010 providing they can work on their finishing or find someone with a little more gas who can get over the try line from time-to-time.
England, for their part, seem to be taking a long time to refresh themselves following World Cup over-achievement. True enough, they have had to try to replace many seasoned internationals very quickly, and it is also true that they did not have the best of luck where front row injuries were concerned in the autumn matches, however, Johnson has yet to prove as effective a coach as he was captain. As Robinson and his friend Mr Woodward have shown, it takes a little while to develop and control a full squad of players; both Johnson and his men are, on the whole, inexperienced so it looks likely that the 6 Nations will be beyond England this time around.
Of the Southern Hemisphere sides, we have seen South Africa and New Zealand lose their air of invincibility this year as well as seeing the usually irrepressible Australians humbled in Edinburgh; we’ve also seen the now official Tri-Nations newcomers Argentina display just why they are perfectly capable of mixing it at international level once more. Argentina may not have enough to win a match if they went into the Tri-Nations right now, but, by the time they enter the competition in 2012, with a continuation of their current form, one would not bet against them winning at least one match.
This time around, it looks once more as though Australia are the weaker of the three who currently compete in that competition, though they are showing signs – not least against Ireland – that this is a fine margin rather than anything approaching gulf-like proportions. The Tri-Nations will be gripping as ever when the tournament begins next July, and injuries will once more play a key role: all three teams have a very strong first 15.
But what of the big prize: World Cup 2011. The tournament that New Zealand would dearly love to win in their own back yard. Are they there yet? Not quite, but few would argue that New Zealand aren’t developing a squad with huge potential. Of the “away” teams, obviously Ireland and France must be considered real contenders, though the Irish are already approaching a point where their squad might be considered “aging” – in two and a half years, it is difficult to imagine that the talismanic and incredibly talented pair Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara will still be influencing international rugby union in the way they have for the best part of the past decade.
Already O’Gara looks like he has lost favour, and it is widely anticipated that he will lose his starting position to Jonathan Sexton who, while a good stand-off, has yet to prove he can cut it in high-pressure moments as well as his predecessor.
O’Driscoll is key, and replacing this man will be Ireland’s most difficult task of the next couple of years, if they make it to New Zealand with a fit O’Driscoll or a man displaying anything near to his talent, they will surely be one of the favourites to lift the World Cup.
France, on the other hand, have thrown their hat into the ring as potential contenders by convincingly beating the current champs, South Africa, a fortnight ago. However, they let themselves down against the All Blacks and, when compared with Ireland’s Autumn performances, must be considered the weaker of the two over three games. That said, France have a younger and arguably more promising squad when one considers how the teams will match up in two years time.
The next competition will mean a lot, and there is one game that fans of rugby union must surely be itching to witness: that match in Paris on Saturday 13th February 2010 between France and Ireland. We may well see the 6 Nations decided there and, at least for the Northern Hemisphere, the winner will head towards New Zealand 2011 with the title “World Cup favourites”.
The Southern Hemisphere has a similarly mouthwatering prospect in store for July, August and September: for we will come out of the Tri-Nations knowing who is most likely to lift the Webb-Ellis from the south side of the world.
As a curtain raiser for all of this, the Autumn Internationals have been wonderful, and we’ve even got some green shoots within the Welsh, English and Scottish games which mean that the 6 Nations is far from a done deal too: the competition next year will likely be as close as any in living memory. The odds, it would seem, are against anyone in either competition lifting a Grand Slam.
There’s only a couple of months to wait for the first matches in early February and, if these Autumn games are anything to go by, we fans of rugby union have a major treat in store.