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November 29, 2010

Posted on 11/29/2010

Ten things we learned this autumn

These two men should be celebrating a World Cup victory next year - but will they? © Getty Images

At the start of the November internationals we attempted to mark your card with a prediction of how things would pan out and as the dust settles it seems only right to sum up what we've learned over the course of the last few weeks.

All Blacks are a class apart
Graham Henry's side continue to play a different game to their rivals for next year's World Cup crown. The Springboks may be able to match them for muscle and the Wallabies may pose an equally dynamic attacking threat but neither can offer the all round excellence of the All Blacks. In an all too familiar scenario, the Webb Ellis Cup appears theirs to lose.

Player welfare takes a back seat
England's hopes against South Africa took a nosedive following a collision between winger Chris Ashton and Boks captain Victor Matfield. The blow clearly knocked Ashton senseless and referee George Clancy was unhappy and moved to comment, "He's nearly asleep, he's slurring his words", before urging the medics to make the "responsible decision". England were not prepared to lose one of their key attacking threats with barely a minute on the clock. "The medics said Chris was good to go, and they don't take risks," said England boss Martin Johnson after the game but those same medics did not look too convinced at the time. Ashton never looked right from that point on while Matfield, who broke a rib in the tackle, was not himself either. Risky business.

McCaw sets the standard
'Richie McCaw will stand like a colossus above everyone else' was our prediction a few weeks ago and he did not disappoint. Rather than his exceptional skill setting him apart, it was his temperament. Australia's Quade Cooper was the first to push his luck with a gloating shove in Hong Kong. England hooker Dylan Hartley also tried to get under his skin with a stray forearm at Twickenham while Wales' Andy Powell waded in with the cheapest of cheap shots in Cardiff. They all tried and failed to rattle McCaw, who just dusted himself down each time before returning to the task in hand. Add in another boring round of finger-pointing and accusations of cheating and it is amazing that McCaw did not boil over. He stands head and shoulders above his peers in more ways than one.

John Smit's international days look numbered
Many believe Springboks skipper John Smit should have called time on his international career following last year's series victory over the British & Irish Lions and Tri-Nations conquest but his quest for 100 Test caps and the support of coach Peter de Villiers ensured he was still a pivotal figure as they embarked on their 2010 campaign. Injury sidelined him for the end of year tour and Matfield was an able deputy as skipper while Bismarck du Plessis was outstanding in the hooker role. Reports suggest another flirtation with tight-head is unlikely next year, seemingly leaving Smit with the choice of being a back-up option or retirement.

Scrums are a blight on the game
There can be no denying that the general issue of the scrum is a mess right now. Despite the International Rugby Board's best efforts to improve things with the painfully long crouch-touch-pause-engage sequence it is an area of the game that needs urgent attention. I don't care if stats back up the claim that there are now less re-sets and collapsed scrums - it remains an ugly aspect of the game. Far too much time is wasted - can we not stop the clock somehow? - while the difference in interpretation from game to game and referee to referee is infuriating for those on the front line and those observing from afar. Sort it. Please.

England could win the World Cup...
...but probably won't. Martin Johnson's side are on an upward curve in terms of development despite the battering at the hands of the Springboks. They have shown an ability to produce breath-taking back play and stand toe-to-toe with the world's best up front but failed to do that with the kind of consistency that would have the southern hemisphere worried. The Six Nations may offer further improvement but do not expect the Tri-Nations giants to stand still in that time. England's young guns are going to have to do a fair bit of thinking on their feet if they plan to be in New Zealand beyond the quarter-finals next year.

France have lost their way
Just a few months ago Les Bleus were basking in the glory of a Six Nations Grand Slam but now they look a shadow of that side. The warning signs were there when both South Africa and Argentina swept them aside in the summer but they papered over the cracks with victories over Fiji and Argentina earlier this month. Australia were not so forgiving and heaped woe on France coach Marc Lievremont by hammering his charges in emphatic style at the weekend. OK - they may have been missing first-choice fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and he's good - but not that good. Far from setting the benchmark as they were earlier this year, they now appear to be going backwards while all their main rivals can boast some kind of improvement in recent weeks. There are plenty of questions to be answered between now and the Six Nations. Who in their right mind drops Imanol Harinordoquy?

Islanders are the sleeping giants of the game
Fiji's draw with Wales stands out as the best performance by a rugby minnow this month although Samoa deserve credit for more than holding their own against Ireland, England and Scotland. Both sides showed that there is more to their game than the crash-bang brand of rugby that made their name. As good as they are with limited preparation you wonder what they could do if granted the same kind of luxuries afforded their Tier 1 rivals.

An unstable scrum will derail the Wallabies' World Cup hopes
It can't be easy being Patricio Noriega. As Australia's scrum coach he has had the unenviable task of picking up the pieces of the Wallabies' set-piece time and time again. Such is the talent in the team's back division it is almost a crime that the forwards cannot provide a stable platform for them to do their stuff. It will be their undoing on the World Cup stage unless they can remedy the malaise. There were signs of hope in the victory over France with the re-shuffled front row of James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Benn Robinson proving a match-winning combo.

Dan Carter is the king
We know that you know this already but we could not let DC's ascent to the top of the all-time Test points standings go without some form of praise. Even operating at a generous 70% he still had too much class for the UK and Ireland's finest and we should consider ourselves lucky to be following the game when two of the all-time greats (along with McCaw) are at the height of their powers. The problem for the All Blacks is that he casts such a shadow that question marks remain about a worthy understudy. Carter is pivotal to the All Blacks' World Cup hopes - if he stays fit they win. Simple.



Posted Mark Stevens on 11/30/2010

How I'd like to see Samoa and Fiji playing with proper support and financing, and without the Kiwi clubs stealing all their best players and preventing them from playing for their countries. The All Blacks should more properly be called the Pacific Islands team.

Posted Haka_U_2 on 11/30/2010

Good points all round especially about McCaw. But calling the AB's cheats is nothing new and I say undeserved. I don't claim they are lilly white but they are nowhere near the worst.
I would claim the AB's biggest problem is inconsistent ref's. What happened to the penalty for Powells cheap shot right in front of the ref? Being top appears to bring with it tougher scrutiny than the opposition. I can't recall one Welsh line-out that went down the middle.
Look at the RWC2007 France v AB's. French media counted 24 penalties not given to the AB's in the second half alone.
I thought touch judges got renamed to get more involved, when will it happen? They are in the best position to call off-sides (like League) and take the pressure of the main ref. No-one is perfect so what about 2 refs on the field (again like league). Whats the problem here except another wage? What price for better officiating. Careers have been destroyed by poor refereeing.
I do like the recent law changes, go Paddy!!

Posted Eddy O on 11/30/2010

One win against a poor Aussie side that just seem to go to pieces against when they come up against England and suddenly a pretty poor English side have you saying they can win the World cup? Rubbish, utter rubbish. The six nations will show them up for what they are, a team with player resources that far outnumber every other country ans yet they depend on Kiwi rejects and league converts. Given their resources, England should be ashamed of their position in world rugby and as for winning the world cup in NZ? Yeah, right, Dream on.

Posted Goosoid on 12/06/2010

Mark, Mark, Mark...How many holes can I punch in your farcical reference to NZ "stealing" PI players? 1. We dont have clubs at the highest level, so it shows you know VERY little about NZ Rugby. 2. NZ had 4 players not born in NZ this Autumn, all of whom went to NZ as infants with no Rugby history. England had 4/5 players not born in England, 3 of whom left NZ/SA as adults. I am not sure about the others (1 Trinidadian?). NZ is a multicultural society. Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world. NZers of Pacific island descent are part of the fabric of NZ society, just as people of Caribbean, African or South Asian ancestry are part of Britain's. Are you of the opinion that only white (Pakeha) and Maori people are "real" NZers? If so, I can only assume you are also a member of the BNP, as their opinions would align closely with yours. Look up how many NZ born players were on the field in the last RWC but NOT for NZ, mostly for PI teams. Who is stealing players?

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Graham Jenkins joined Scrum in 1999 and took over the reins for a second time in 2006. His journalistic career has also seen him work for BBC Sport and IMG and he currently lives with his family in Farnham. Graham Jenkins

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