It’s December and therefore time for those interested in rugby union to analyse and draw their lessons from the Northern Hemisphere’s slew of autumn internationals – a task given added bite this year by the fact just ten months remain to the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
As with all team sports – and indeed some individual ones too – elite rugby XVs wrestle with an eternal conundrum – which is more important, winning or entertaining? Clearly, in an ideal world, the most entertaining team would also win, but sadly we don’t live in an ideal world and, when it comes to tournaments, let alone World Cups, winning is all that counts.
Inevitably, perhaps – after a period of three or four games in four weeks – national selectors, pundits and fans now studying the entrails can find evidence to support almost every conclusion from the extravagant to the mundane.
For these purposes, to lump Australia, New Zealand and South Africa together is not to dismiss their progress lightly. Coming to the end of their long Southern Hemisphere seasons, they largely performed as expected last month. They all play ‘open’ rugby but, referencing their respective national heritages and characters, with slightly different slants.
For me, the key difference between Australia and New Zealand lies in their sporting culture – in Oz, rugby union lies in third or fourth place in the public’s affection (behind Aussie Rules, rugby league, cricket and possibly now soccer) whereas, in Kiwi-land, rugby union will always be number one. The fascinating angle is that both countries have won the William Webb Ellis trophy twice, but whilst Australia have won it ‘away’, so far New Zealand have only ever managed to do so at home.
In short, come World Cup time next September, it is safe to predict that the Boks, Wallabies and All Blacks will be providing ‘more of the same, only [from their point of view] better’.
Before turning to England’s prospective 2015 fortunes, let us review the other home nations.
Last month Scotland seem to have turned a corner under tough New Zealander Vern Cotter, which is just as well because – in terms of playing resources – they have been struggling to maintain their world ranking for a while now. Sad to say, for me, in 2015 the best that Scots can hope for is ‘plucky loser’ status in both the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup.
Wales under Warren Gatland will always punch above their weight but they continue to suffer from a long-term inferiority complex against Tier 1 nations … that is, save when it comes to their favourite enemy England. Expect two titanic battles against the men in white in the Six Nations and the group stage of the Rugby World Cup.
Ireland are now in an intriguing position – one I cannot call with certainty. A lot of things have been coming together positively for the Emerald Isle. They have a fascinating blend of experience and new players coming through. Paul O’Connell in particular seems impervious to the march of time. Ireland could be a dark horse in 2015 – there’s a large irony in the fact this has happened the season after the greatest back of the global professional age (O’Driscoll) retired.
It’s a toss-up as to whether Ireland or Argentina will provide the biggest shocks of the Rugby World Cup next autumn.
Wither England? Regrettably, I sense that last weekend’s victory over Australia has papered over some cracks and prompted false hopes, contrary to what some journos and pundits have been suggesting.
The party line seems to be that now – after some not-altogether successful attempts to develop an all-court game – by reverting to type [forward-power and a well-executed tactical kicking game], England may at last have re-discovered the way to win the Rugby World Cup.
Make no mistake about it, had Australia prevailed last Saturday, Stuart Lancaster would have been forced to press the panic button by an inevitable media storm – that is, if he and his fellow coaches hadn’t instinctively pressed it of their own accord first.
Now, thanks to the heroic yeoman efforts of the pack, the die now seems to be cast.
In 2015 – unless something extraordinary happens in the meantime – England are going to ‘play to their strengths’ and grind out the wins. And, of course, winning is all that counts.
There’s still some soul-searching to be done about the midfield (centre) pairing, but in a sense a classy back-line is a ‘nice to have’, not an essential, if you’ve decided not to try and match the Southern Hemisphere at the open game. When you’ve opted for a strategy of playing simple, direct, limited, ten-man rugby, all you need in your back-line are fast, hard men who can chase and defend aggressively.
It’s how England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, after all.
From a romantic point of view, yes, maybe bringing Alex Goode in as a more creative 15 than Mike Brown … dropping Own Farrell and Manu Tuilagi altogether … and adding Luther Burrell, Kyle Eastmond and Henry Slade instead, might make for a back-line to slobber over, but, when it comes to World Cup tournaments, short-termism – i.e. effectiveness and results – is all that counts.
Goode is weak under pressure in defence and, whilst Burrell, Eastmond and Slade would undoubtedly add flair, they’d also bring danger and uncertainty. Who needs those when you’ve got a difficult group to escape from and the biggest trophy in your sport as your Holy Grail?
That said, let’s get it on the record – England are not going to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They’ll have done well if they get beyond the quarter-finals.