With the 2015 Rugby World Cup fewer than twelve months away, this year’s Autumn Internationals undoubtedly take on a greater significance for both the home nations and the visiting southern hemisphere teams. As players look to catch the eye and coaches aim to perfect their starting line-ups, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all found themselves in action over the weekend.
Reigning Six Nations champions Ireland kept their impressive form going, as an understrength side managed to defeat South Africa 29-15 in Dublin. After a low scoring first half, which saw Irish fly-half Jonny Sexton slot over two penalties to the Springbok’s one, Ireland started the second half in ideal fashion. Flanker Rhys Ruddock crossed the try line to increase Ireland’s lead.
Although South Africa struck back, they were never able to gain an advantage over the determined Irish. The score line could have been even more lopsided had the Springboks not scored a consolation try in the dying minutes. A sterling defensive effort and a masterful display from Sexton ensured a deserved victory over the southern hemisphere giants, for a second time in five years.
The same result was not experienced by England however, as they lost out to the high-flying All Blacks, 24-21. Following an imperious run of form that has seen them lose only two matches in the last two years, New Zealand went into the match as outright favourites, while England were looking for a repeat of their upset victory in 2012.
It was not to be however. England started brightly, with winger Jonny May scoring a wonderful first international try in the corner, and went into the half time interval with a 14-11 lead. As is so often the case with the All Blacks though, after the break New Zealand found an extra gear and began to dominate the match.
The greater strength in depth for New Zealand was obvious as their substitutes were able to sustain the high tempo, while England’s struggled to keep pace. A late penalty try when the game was already beyond reach gave the scoreboard a look of closeness, but it was ultimately a decisive All Black’s victory.
England, and head coach Stuart Lancaster, should take some positives from the game however, as they aren’t the first team to come up short against the World Champions, and they certainly won’t be the last.
A great number of positives should also be taken from Scotland’s 41-31 win over Argentina at Murrayfield. In new head coach Vern Cotter’s home debut, the home team conceded and unlucky early try in the opening ninety seconds, but bounced back well to earn an impressive victory over a tough Pumas side.
Scoring tries, or failure to do so, has been a common problem for Scotland in recent years, but on the basis of this performance, fans may well have something to cheer about. Crossing the try line five times, Scotland led comfortably by fourteen points at half time, largely thanks to the efforts of brothers Richie and Jonny Gray who both got on the score sheet.
It was not a perfect performance however, as ill-discipline and sloppy defensive work began to creep into Scotland’s play during the closing stages, when victory was all but assured. The result was the main focus though, and Cotter will be relishing facing the All Blacks next week.
Wales again suffered an agonising defeat at the hands of Australia in Cardiff, as they lost 33-28, in what was their tenth defeat in a row to the Wallabies. In a breathless first half, both teams found the try line three times, and went into the break all tied up and 21 a-piece.
Australia’s fly-half Bernard Foley was instrumental in orchestrating his team’s victory as he contributed 18 points and controlled the game from the middle of the park. While the second half was a much tighter affair, it was no less exciting, with the men in gold just finding that extra class to seal the win.
Although there were chances for the Welsh in a determined display, it once again ended in familiar fashion as Australia scored a late drop-goal to put the game just out of reach. It is important now for Wales to put the loss behind them as they prepare for Fiji.
A year removed from rugby’s biggest stage and there are still as many questions for the home nations as there are answers: can anyone stop the All Blacks? Can Wales break their southern hemisphere jinx? Can Ireland and Scotland build off these impressive opening displays?
As the clock clicks down to 2015, the pressure to deliver is on, more so now than ever, for players and coaches alike.