We look at the last two internationals of a thrilling November, as England and Australia took part in an epic battle at Twickenham, while Wales finally managed to claim a Southern Hemisphere scalp in Cardiff as a badly misfiring South Africa cracked under Wales’ physical pressure.
England vs Australia
Final Score – Eng 26/Aus 18
England had fallen to South Africa and New Zealand in November, albeit not by huge margins, but an unconvincing win over Samoa the weekend prior to this match had left England with the need to come out and show that they are a side to be reckoned with and a serious contender for next year’s World Cup. To say the pressure on them was enormous would be an understatement.
Australia on the other hand, were also looking to make a point. After starting their November series with a convincing win over Wales the wheels had then fallen off in Paris and Dublin. However, as many in the international press pointed out in some ways despite the importance of ending their tour with a win, a loss would not have been as catastrophic for them as it would have been for England. Australia were on this tour with a new coach and although they were reeling from an unexpected loss in Paris and a tough battle in Dublin, coach Michael Cheika’s efforts were showing some fruit as Australia were certainly an exciting team to watch and seemed to be settling quickly.
England, had to win this game though as a third straight loss to one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three at home would have been inexcusable and apart from the damage to the side’s confidence going into next year’s World Cup as hosts, serious questions would have been raised as to whether England could even make it past their pool stages, with at best a quarter-final finish. On the basis of this performance, while there is still a huge amount of work to do particularly amongst the back line, it would seem that England have finally got positions 1-10 right, and their forward pack alone can win them big games.
To be honest Australia didn’t play badly, it was just that England were so overwhelmingly physical up front that Australia’s back line were denied the space to really work their magic. There were some impressive breaks through the English line by Australia’s back line who all had a good game with an excellent centerfield pairing between Matt Toomua and Adam Ashley-Cooper, along with Rob Horne and Henry Speight who always threatened on the wing, particularly Rob Horne. Although Australia matched England for tries scored it was the accuracy of George Ford’s kicking game matched to Australia giving away too many penalties at the breakdown that allowed England to pull away. As was exposed in Dublin the week before, although electric with ball in hand Australian fullback Israel Folau has a poor defensive game particularly with the boot when under pressure and Ford, like Ireland’s Johnny Sexton the week before, was relentless in exposing this vulnerability.
Australia may have had the more impressive back line interplay, but ultimately it would be England’s day based on a monumental forward performance. The English scrum was truly impressive and the white juggernaut continually rolled over Australia. England’s line-out play was equally impressive, and this coupled with solid work at the base of the scrum by scrum half Ben Youngs and a brilliant kicking game by George Ford at fly half – this was England’s day. If England’s back line had managed to click as well as Australia’s the score line would have been much more in England’s favour.
What was obvious to me from this game and the previous week’s effort against Samoa is that England surely must have resolved the fly half debate in the form of George Ford vs Owen Farrell. George Ford’s composure against Australia and some of the biggest pressure a player is likely to face in his career was exemplary. He was asked to put in a massive performance under enormous pressure, especially given his lack of experience at Test level, and he delivered well and above the call of duty. I cannot say that Farrell manages to keep the same level of composure and solid decision-making under similar pressure. Therefore if English coach Stuart Lancaster has any sense, then for the Six Nations as preparation for next year’s World Cup, Ford should be England’s starting fly half to continue to develop his skills particularly in big pressure matches.
There were many outstanding performances from England’s forward pack, but without a doubt Ben Morgan left the crowd enthralled. Morgan’s black scrum cap was everywhere on the park – he was quick, fast and accurate in everything he did and under huge pressure his discipline was superb. His two tries were a master class display of superb finishing from a committed and impressive forward performance.
Ultimately in this match Australia were out muscled by England and despite Australia bringing on a complete set of fresh legs for the last quarter of the match, fatigue in the rest of the Australian line up and growing confidence from a fired up England, left Australia without answers. It was a great contest and a fitting end to the November Internationals but England dug deep, very deep and walked away deserved and comfortable winners. England still need to figure out how to get their back line working as well as their forward pack, as without this in the months between now and the Six Nations teams will figure out to get behind England’s forwards and open up their defences. However, for England there is much to build on from this performance and there is now definite light at the end of what could have been a very dark and gloomy November. For Australia, there is plenty to work with and this is an exceptionally talented team, and with some key forwards coming back for next year such as Stephen Moore and Scott Fardy, many of Australia’s forward problems should become a thing of the past. Australia are still building and on present form are likely to peak just before the World Cup as England are likely to do, depending on their form in the Six Nations, making these two teams two potentially serious contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy next October. For both teams a fascinating year awaits with everything to prove.
Wales vs South Africa
Final Score – Wal 12/ SA 6
Let’s be honest this was not an attractive game as the sheer bone crunching physicality of it, at times almost painful to watch, made for less of a spectacle than the England/Australia game as an end to the November Internationals. Instead, we watched a committed Wales take on a faltering and exhausted looking Springbok side, who to be honest didn’t really show up on the day. Wales maintained their composure throughout and by putting enormous physical pressure on South Africa ultimately wore them down and caused them by the end of the game to play like ragtag schoolboys. Perhaps worst of all was the gut wrenching injury to Springbok captain Jean de Villiers which puts him out of rugby for at least the next 8 months and in doubt for the World Cup. As a result South Africa end the year with a poor tour and injury to one of their key players and sources of inspiration to the rest of the side. Wales on the other hand gave coach Warren Gatland a little bit of breathing space heading into next year’s Six Nations and something to work with for the future.
For both sides as in the England/Australia match up a win was critical. Wales had an awful November being put to the sword by both Australia and New Zealand, with the likelihood of them ever beating a major Southern Hemisphere side starting to look like the stuff of fantasy. South Africa on the other hand, after being comprehensively beaten by an Irish team on the rise, managed to put in a big performance against England the following weekend, to then struggle to get past Italy. In short, it wasn’t looking good for the Springboks and a trend was starting to emerge, they can play brilliantly at home but can’t get the big wins away from home.
As mentioned this was not a pretty game to watch, and when the sounds of the collisions between players are being picked up by the referee’s microphone it gives you an idea of how intensely physical this game was. Wales played the more determined and committed game and it was this combined with some ferocious tackling by all fifteen red shirts even against players twice their size, recall the try saving tackle by Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny on the towering form of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, that ultimately carried the day for Wales. It was the sheer dedication to making tackles at all cost that impressed me most about Wales, as well as all 15 players throwing themselves with abandon at the South African line with no seeming regard to their physical well-being. Leigh Halfpenny was spot on with his kicking game, while Captain Sam Warburton was immense in defence and attack as well as showing some truly spectacular passing skills for Wales. Dan Biggar at fly half for Wales showed why he is a player coming into the peak of his game and played some smart rugby at times even though several obvious drop goal opportunities went begging which would have given Wales a much more comfortable lead.
In a try less match, Wales played the more accurate kicking game and their relentless physical pressure caused South Africa to crack and give away penalties providing the Welsh with more shots at goal. South Africa had moments of brilliance but nothing seemed to really fire for them. Their forward pack looked tired, raising concerns for next year, and the back line simply made too many errors. Willie le Roux at fullback had a truly woeful game with numerous knock-ons and kicks failing to find touch. In the last ten minutes of the game, Francois Hougaard was brought on to replace Cobus Reinach which to me was a huge mistake especially as Reinach was one of the few players having a good game. I have written enough about my view that Hougaard has little or no value added to any Springbok side and this was borne out by several knock-ons and him kicking the ball away aimlessly after taking a quick tap when South Africa, having been given a penalty, could have kicked for territory and had one last charge at an exhausted Welsh line. Hopefully, this will end the Reinach/Hougaard debate and we will see Reinach as first choice scrum half for the World Cup. Although the sending off of Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks for ten minutes at the sixty-five minute mark was questionable for an alleged aerial challenge against his Welsh counterpart, I doubt this would have made much of a difference. Despite Hendricks being one South Africa’s star players this year, even he seemed oddly quiet on the wing for much of the match.
As the final whistle blew the Welsh deserved the celebration, it wasn’t a spectacular or exciting display of rugby for much of the match, but what Wales did for the full eighty minutes was devastatingly effective against an off-form Springbok side. Wales still have an enormous amount of work to do if they are to be Six Nations contenders let alone for the World Cup, but this win proved that the will is there and Wales have some impressive individual talents. If Wales can couple their strong defensive skills to a an attacking game that consistently gets them across their opponents’ whitewash then they will be back in the hunt next year, as well as doing what they did in this match playing a full eighty minutes and not running out of steam at the 70 minute mark.
As for South Africa, as a good friend of mine from South Africa said recently, South Africa seem to have fallen into a rut this year of only playing up to the standard they perceive their opponents are at, and then find themselves trapped into only playing as much as the opposition allows and not really playing their own game. The Welsh game also showed South Africa starting to kick away perfectly good possession which many hoped had been put to bed once and for all by the end of this year’s Rugby Championship. The injury to talismanic figure Jean de Villiers will also leave a scar. In short, it has been a very bleak November for South Africa which showed the alarming tendency borne out for most of the year, that they only really impress when playing at home. Going into a World Cup year where 7 critical matches will be played away from home, this is a serious concern. South Africa must in the course of next year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship win all their away games convincingly. If this can’t be done then they could well be on their way home by the quarter finals. This is a talented and world-class team – find out how to win well and consistently away from home and the rest should be history – a tall ask. Let’s hope for the sake of a fabulous tournament next year South Africa figure out how to do this and be the great competitors we all know they can be!