As I suspected in my preview last week it was not a great weekend for the Northern Hemisphere – but there was one ray of light that seemed to be poking through from the end of the tunnel – as I’ll explain later in this report.
It started quite well with Wales finally getting a win in the autumn internationals – although it was at the twelfth time of asking!
The Dragons at last got that elusive victory and did it in style by putting the Pumas away 40 – 6 and condemning them to an 8th successive defeat.
After losing to the Springboks last week Warren Gatland will be pleased to have got the ‘losing run’ monkey off his back and will be plotting to get a second scalp when they face the Wallabies in a fortnight – but first he will have to negotiate a tricky night on Friday against the abrasive Tongans. He will be hoping that his injury list is not extended come Saturday morning.
Wales scored four tries, the first coming from the currently club less Mike Phillips who made a run from his own half to get the touchdown. George North, Toby Faletau and Ken Owens also crossed the line with the immaculate Leigh Halfpenny converting all 4 and adding 4 penalties as well.
Scott Williams pushed Faletau for man of the match and when Jonathan Davies returns the Welsh will have a midfield that is not far short of the one that serves the All Blacks so well. What Stuart Lancaster would give to have such riches in the centre.
Which brings us to the All Blacks visit to Twickenham.
The first quarter was the stuff of nightmares for the men in white and I, for one, was expecting a total disaster. I even tweeted that Kieran Read was the best number 8 (possibly ever) and that the ABs looked like scoring every time they went wide (which they did).
But then it all changed – suddenly the English pack started to make the New Zealand 8 look like mere mortals. Led by the Northampton triumvirate of Lawes, Hartley and Wood they forced New Zealand onto the back foot and from 17 – 3 down they gradually worked their way back into the game. The other forwards joined in and Billy Vunipola showed exactly why Saracens were so keen to pry him away from Wasps. They only scored the one try (Joe Launchbury) but the pressure built and the All Blacks began to concede kickable penalties – well, kickable for someone of Owen Farrell’s class anyway.
Just on the hour the unthinkable happened – England went into a narrow lead of 22 – 20.
But New Zealand aren’t the number one team in the world for nothing they don’t panic like they used to (remember the World Cup defeats of past years) – they took back control in the final quarter and Julian Savea crossed for his second try gifted to him by an exquisite off loaded pass from Ma’a Nonu that was every bit the equal of the one that Read gave him for his first try in the first minute of the first half!
They were helped by the English forward substitutions which saw them lose three successive lineouts – the last one leading directly to the all- important try.
New Zealand fully deserved the win and will head to Dublin full of confidence that they can be the first team to go unbeaten in a calendar year. They have seen off determined challenges in successive weeks from France and England and are the stronger for that.
Their only real disappointment (mirrored by the crowd) was the sad sight of Dan Carter having to leave the field early in his 100th cap match.
As for England – they played 4 good quarters in the autumn internationals – unfortunately these were spread over three matches.
But they are now starting to look like a very decent pack – even without some first choices. Outside there are a lot of questions to be answered and Lancaster will be hoping that Yarde, Wade and Tuilagi recover quickly. Mike Brown looks the part every time he pulls on the number 15 and whilst Owen Farrell isn’t yet quite as reliable as Johnny – he’s getting there.
The 6 Nations is going to be very interesting – especially when Wales arrive at Twickenham.
There will be less optimism in Ireland – the Wallabies took control of the game from the start and finished with 4 tries to just 5 penalties.
The muscular Irish forwards must have hoped – maybe expected – to dominate the supposedly vulnerable Australian 8 – it was not to be and Ewen McKenzie will be delighted to have followed up the good win in Turin last week with a performance of this stature.
Nick Cummins scored a lovely try when Stephen Moore broke free and off loaded for him to beat two defenders at will and score untouched near the posts. Israel Folatau looks better every week and will give any team – including the All Blacks – pause before they kick to him.
Hooper (2) and the mercurial Cooper crossed for the others with Ireland looking increasingly short of ideas in attack. Even with Michael Hooper in the bin for 10 minutes Ireland were unable to capitalise.
The only concern for the Wallabies was the red card picked up by Tevita Kuridrani for a tip tackle on O’Mahoney late in the game – and he is probably going to miss the rest of the autumn matches.
Ireland’s misery was compounded by seeing Johnny Sexton limp off with a pulled hamstring that is likely to keep him out of the clash with the All Blacks next weekend.
The Springboks turned up at Murrayfield on the back of a good win over Wales and were expected to continue against the Scots. They didn’t disappoint – although Scotland certainly did.
Apart from a brief flurry in the first half the Jocks were always second best – and were (to be honest) lucky to come second against a South African side that took their foot off the gas once the win was secured.
I lost count of the number of unforced errors from Scotland and Scott Johnson will have to count sheep to stop losing sleep as he anticipates the arrival of the Wallabies next week – although the management imposed ban on the Aussie drinkers in Dublin will give him a crumb of comfort.
Two other games were played at the weekend – France put away the tough Tongans 38 – 18 and they were helped by the Islanders butchering two simple attempts in the first half when they should have been in with men over.
There were also two red cards in a bad tempered game that saw a number of fights break out as both sides tried to gain the upper hand.
The other match was the visit to Italy by Fiji – if the French game was ill tempered this one was a prize fight. Italy finally came out on top by 37 – 31 but it was other happenings on the field that made the Monday headlines.
Abrasive is a word that is often attributed to the Fijians – but this was an understatement as at one point the Island side were down to 11 men for 10 minutes with four players sent to the sin bin.
It was not an auspicious advert for the game and hardly did justice to the two men who should have been celebrating on their 100th appearance for their country – Sergio Parisse and Martin Castriogiavanni.
There was also sad news for Italian Centre Luca Morisi was flattened by a crunching hit from Tikoirotuma early in the game – he was soon forced off and last night had his spleen removed as it was badly damaged.
Fortunately it was a success and he is stable in hospital.
The Fijians are a magnificent side when they play (legal) aggressive attractive rugby – if they could channel that aggression and keep their heads they would win a lot more games and become a side that we all love to watch.
There’s another round of internationals next weekend and I’ll preview them later in the week – along with a view on the Aviva Premiership which also returns.