independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Autumn the perfect time to test the waters

With the pressure off, November series will be about performances more than results, writes Eddie Butler

The rugby season is about to enter its third phase, the autumn internationals. In these increasingly fractious days, with trouble brewing in Europe no matter how many soothing missives come out of European club rugby, the governing body of the Heineken and Amlin cups, we are more likely to hear club coaches growling about injuries to -- and subsequent treatment of -- certain players while on Test duty than we are to admire the progress of, say, Mako Vunipola in the England squad.

It would appear to be part of the natural cycle of the game to thrash out issues and settle conflicts of interest in the first year after a World Cup. There is space for a row when the pressure is still relatively light on new regimes.

Stuart Lancaster can still say that after a period of quelling the civil and serial disobedience of the England team, he is only now able to start addressing the issue of flow and rhythm on the field. On the other hand, the obsessive harvesters of statistics will be counting the passes out of contact attempted by England, the signs of a game going from the stolid to the fluent.

On that front, Ben Morgan, who is still raw and malleable, may have been slightly disturbed to hear the head coach point out his inconsistency rather than the passes the No 8 delivers out of contact. With Chris Robshaw confirmed as captain, England are going for abrasion in the back row: direct runners who, as they say, take the ball up. There is nothing wrong at all in maximising the attributes of your impressive physical specimens, but the routine is pretty basic and the emphasis may shift now to what happens to the ball after it has been taken up so many times.

The role of Danny Care at scrum-half as a purveyor of instructions to his running forwards and as a support runner on their shoulder will be revealing. If he spends November and the first Saturday of December scooping ruck ball off the floor, England will have had a drab month.

That is a debriefing yet to happen. For the moment, Lancaster can concentrate on the next stage of strategic development, mindful of the risks of playing a little more daringly against Fiji. The Fijians will be vulnerable on many fronts, but being unable to run and pass is not one of them. England are bound to be rusty at first, a little disconnected, but if they are to take a scalp of the opponents that follow Fiji to Twickenham -- Australia, South Africa and New Zealand -- they have to attack the advantage line with variety in their movement and unpredictability in their passes.

Manu Tuilagi has the chance to show that he can do more than the obvious -- which, obviously, he does very well. Bash, wallop . . . and a flicked pass out of the back of his hand. That would be something.

Of course, Lancaster's insistence on a less cautious approach may be tempered by the list of England injuries. Even before the Test stage has knocked a few more bodies out of shape, the demands thus far have left him without a clutch of senior players, especially Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley.

If the coaches are still relatively unstressed, this is still the season at the end of which there will be a Lions tour for the players and since the Australians are at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium, there will be much too for Warren Gatland to digest in the coming weeks.

Having had his feet up -- purely on medicinal grounds -- now he can start Lions work in earnest, stretching his appreciation of players across England, Scotland and Ireland. No longer are they opponents of the Wales team he has had to stop coaching for a season, but recruits for the cause. At this point, it is possibly more interesting for Gatland than stressful, but he will want to finish the month with a longer list of Lions candidates than he has now. It is by no means a given, since November is not an easy time to skip without a hitch into that third phase in just the third month of the season: from domestic to European to international.

If England want to test the waters of expansion in their first game, Wales are similarly about to enter an experimental situation against dangerous opponents, namely facing Argentina without Adam Jones. In all the debates that rage in Wales about the survival of the professional game there, there is none that frightens the nation quite as much as the prospect of playing against a half-tidy international side without their hairy tighthead prop. He is the wounded proof that however much a heart yearns for the beautiful game, nothing is possible without a sound knee at the corner of the ugly old scrum.

England want some poetry; Wales need their prop. As English and French deal-makers and ball-breakers try to shape European rugby to suit their single vision, the case studies of Wales and England reveal instead a world of difference between the way the game is played in one country and another. It all depends on whether you want to celebrate difference.

Now that Jones cannot play, the chances of Wales winning two out of their four games, against Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, appear to be slim. The form of the four Welsh regions has been more maddening than engagingly eccentric.

On the other hand, Wales have been made into the local side to follow. The future of the professional game in Wales has been entrusted to one institution alone: the national team. And their response, with three Grand Slams in eight seasons, has been positive. Wales disappear to Poland as underachieving regionalists and emerge from their ice chambers as internationalists to be reckoned with. But to do it without Jones may be shock-treatment too far.

There was a time when the prospect of Ireland facing South Africa, Fiji and Argentina without Brian O'Driscoll would have caused hearts to sink.

But Leinster managed without their master centre for most of their victorious Heineken Cup campaign last season and the truth is that he cannot go on for ever and this day has been a long time coming. It's not as if he's a real specialist, like a prop.

But even if Ireland manage without him, there is an Irish inversion at work here. Wales have no core solidity beneath international rugby, whereas Ireland have Ulster, Leinster and Munster. But to turn those three provinces, under their New Zealand coaches, into one team under Declan Kidney seems tricky in the extreme. Wales prosper at one level, Ireland at another. It appears Celtic rugby cannot do both at the same time. Perhaps we should not be greedy. Any of three Irish provinces could win the Heineken Cup this season; Ireland may not be the force they were when O'Driscoll was fully fit, young and a genius.

No Irish-Welsh contrariness compares with the great Scottish paradox. Scotland are as bad as Wales in having no district strength to prop up the international game. They are as bad as Ireland at falling apart when much is expected of them. And then they go and beat South Africa at Murrayfield or Australia away. Scotland are the most wackily extraordinary of all the home nations and must be a health risk to their supporters. Quite what they will do against New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga is anyone's guess, but if it is raining -- never so very far out of the question in November -- then we should be braced for more glorious Scottish folly. Perhaps we should be readier to accept an unprofitable month for all.

Nothing is happening on the rugby fields of Europe to quicken the pulse at the moment. As Steve Hansen, the coach of the marvellous All Blacks, said when he was coach of a Welsh team that could not win a thing: "Sometimes the performance is more important than the result."

As we enter the third phase in three choppy months, we may have to settle for signs of investment in projects that will prosper only further down the line.

Observer

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