With kick off just an hour away, it is up to England to salvage some Home Nations pride in the Test series’. Scotland have performed admirably in winning their three one off Tests against Australia, Fiji and Samoa, but in the three match series’ Wales and Ireland have been whitewashed while England are 2-0 down.
A three match series against any of the three Southern Hemisphere superpowers remains the ultimate challenge in Test match rugby. So far the Northern Hemisphere have failed to live up to that challenge.
Ireland were beaten this morning by New Zealand 60-0 to lose the series 3-0. It was a humiliating result and performance forÂ Ireland, particularly after running the All Blacks so close last week. The All Blacks made 6 changes from that side, including Dan Carter and Kieran Read – the best in the world in their respective positions. They were not weakened.
Richie McCaw showed once again that he is still one of the best players in the world. After serious criticism of his performance last week, and a shift to number 8 toÂ accommodateÂ Sam Cane, there were signs that he was under pressure but he produced a world class performance today, turning over ball seemingly at will. The breakdown was where the game was won and lost and McCaw was the big influence in that department.
For Ireland it is difficult to know where to turn now, many are saying that they need to start looking away from their experienced players and start looking towards youth, in theory that makes sense, but the reality when you look at it says that it is the wrong way to go. O’Driscoll may not have had his finest game, but he is still one of Ireland and Leinster’s most consistent performers and can change a game in an instant. Rory Best and Mike Ross are the best in their positions and it would be madness to try to replace them.
Declan Kidney has nailed his colours to the mast with Johnny Sexton now, and it makes sense to keep O’Gara’s experience on the bench, while Donncha O’Callaghan probably would not have been there if Paul O’Connell was fit, but he remains a great tourist.
The problem for Ireland probably lies in the management, they need to work out a way to get Ireland playing with the vigour and control of Leinster, and with the game management of Munster and tenacity of Ulster. They probably still need to find an out and out Seven too, their lack of competitiveness at the breakdown today really highlighted that. For too long have Ireland relied on O’Driscoll and D’Arcy bailing them out at the breakdown.
They must retain some perspective though, the All Blacks are playing at a sensational level and look like twice the side they were when winning the World Cup. On current form only South Africa could live with them in terms of physicality at the breakdown, but the All Black’s accuracy Â with the ball in hand is on a different level entirely. In 25 minutes Aaron Cruden did enough to prove that he is really putting Dan Carter under pressure, not many other fly half’s in the world could say that. He put in four try scoring passes in that time, and showed a great understanding with Smith at 9 and Sonny Bill Williams at 12.
For Wales on the other hand the problems are of an altogether different nature. Although whitewashed, they could and possibly should have won two of the games and have shown that they are on a level playing field with the top nations. The problem for Wales is converting these near misses into victories. They are getting close though, and this series will go a long way to developing this side. Every time they are in a winning position they will look back on these defeats and be determined never to experience this feeling again.
As Sir Clive Woodward said today ‘Forget the Wales score, they are a very serious team on and off the pitch, history will show this tour to be the last part of their learning process’. He should know, he led England to a series of near misses in the 6 Nations and against Southern Hemisphere nations which eventually laid the foundation for future successes and eventually World Cup glory.
Wales need to focus on their performance in the last 10 mins, where they have been giving away penalties and making the wrong decisions under pressure. This will come, the average age of this squad is very young, and more importantly the key players in the squad are among the youngest. Wales will get there.
So it falls to England to grab a win in these series’, whether they can do that or not is soon to be revealed.
For now, Scotland are the pride of the Home Nations, a scenario not many would have predicted following the Six Nations.