Southern visitors reign supreme but hectic year could prove undoing
Gruelling lead-up to World Cup could level the playing field, writes Peter Bills
Plus ca change and all that -- and a familiar clean sweep for the southern hemisphere countries.
In Cardiff yesterday, Australia's clever attacking capabilities again masked another deficient scrummaging performance. At Twickenham, England's traditional forward grunt and grind kept them within hailing distance of the best side in the world in 2010.
But none of this was enough to assail southern hemisphere supremacy. So can the macho forward power and predictable kicking of most of the northern hemisphere countries suffice at the World Cup next year? You're tempted to scoff and say, of course not. But then, hands up those who tipped England to reach the World Cup final last time, especially after they had lost a pool match to South Africa 36-0.
This year's Tri Nations suggested public humiliations all round for the countries of the northern hemisphere this month. Well, neither New Zealand nor Australia ran away with the opening games of their tours, yesterday.
But as for Ireland against a weakened South Africa, don't you actually have to turn up from the start to have a chance of winning a Test match? Some of the alignment and passing of the Irish backs was barely of schoolboys' level.
But how much should we read into these end-of-season tours to either hemisphere? Do we judge Ireland on their hapless first-half display against the All Blacks in New Plymouth last June? Yet you wonder, was last night's performance by Ireland for the first hour against a weakened South African side at the Aviva any better an arbiter of their likely fortunes next year in faraway New Zealand?
What is for sure is that by the time the All Blacks had finally seen off an obdurate England at Twickenham yesterday, they looked a pretty weary outfit. No surprise in that, because they have been hard at it since January.
Australia, too, may do well to reproduce throughout their whole tour the vibrant attacking play -- three tries to one -- which enabled them to beat Wales in Cardiff. But maybe the key factor here with regard to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, is the pre-tournament schedule of the leading countries.
What blights the picture is the expanded Super 15 tournament in the southern hemisphere next year. A side reaching the final is going to be playing top level, highly competitive, fast rugby from February to June. And when that slug-fest is finally over and the money men in the southern hemisphere nations have counted their winnings, the poor players will be sent out to play international rugby. The Tri Nations won't be a walk in the park, even though it will be condensed. And when that is finally finished, they'll be right into the warm-ups for the World Cup.
Leading sports conditioning experts in the southern hemisphere believe this is a potential minefield for their best players. Some insist it could cost New Zealand, Australia or South Africa the World Cup. For by contrast, the northern hemisphere players will have had a nice summer break and be rested, ready for the World Cup and its particular challenges.
So how valuable were the clues left on the fields in Cardiff, Twickenham and Dublin yesterday? Of limited use, I'd suggest. We already knew Australia still have scrummaging deficiencies, although the All Blacks too got plenty of hurry-up in that department from England. However, what was again revealed yesterday was the far superior clinical finishing of the Wallabies, All Blacks and, to a lesser degree, Springboks. But it is perfectly clear that the South Africans will not be changing their style of play under coach Peter de Villiers. Clearly, they are betting on Morne Steyn kicking them to the world crown.
The southern hemisphere teams have an altogether more ruthless philosophy when they reach the opposition 22. England, about as subtle as a sledgehammer, created two glorious opportunities for tries in the first half alone yesterday but their sheer clumsiness and lack of vision denied them both.
The All Blacks were far below their best and did not look world beaters. But they still had enough intrinsic rugby knowledge to take most of the few real openings they created, something England couldn't do and haven't done for several years.
It was hard to analyse the true worth of South Africa's win for Ireland were so dire, until their late rally. As for Australia, their sheer, native cunning, the clever angles they cut in attack and their unpredictability with ball in hand ensured they saw off the Welsh challenge.
And in a tight World Cup match it could come down to a single piece of opportunism, of creativity and attacking genius that proves decisive.