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Autumn report – Could do better

What a day Saturday was, England – yes, England – completely outplayed the All Blacks having been stagnant in their previous two performances, while Wales fell heartbreakingly once again to a last minute defeat to Australia.

All of which leaves me in a whirlwind of mixed thoughts, where does this leave Home Nations rugby? Have England turned a corner? Was it just a one off? What has happened to Wales? Why have they an inability to close out these games? Were we wrong about England over the previous two weeks?

Finding answers to these questions is a tough job. Certainly until England beat the All Blacks this had been a disaster of an Autumn series for British and Irish rugby and, in all honesty, as the emotion of Saturday slowly ebbs away it must still be seen as fairly disastrous, albeit less so.

So let’s get the negatives out of the way nice and early so that we can move onto brighter things.

In losing to Tonga, Scotland sunk to one of their lowest troughs in recent memory. Along with defeat they lost their coach, Andy Robinson, a loss which some think is good and others, including me, think is worse for Scottish rugby than defeat to Tonga.

Scotland’s problems are fairly simple though, they need to find a 10,12,13 axis of genuine test match quality, they need to be more composed when they break the line, and they need to have a bit more self belief, admittedly these are not the easiest things to fix though.

Wales had an Autumn to forget quite frankly. Four defeats from four would have been a ridiculous statement to make about Wales’ fortunes a month ago, yet it happened and even worse, it was deserved.

It took them until half time against the All Blacks to show any signs of the ‘true’ Wales, and by then the game was already over. Against Argentina and Samoa they looked simply bereft of all creativity, this the side that has been praised non stop for the last four years for their creativity.

Injuries and unavailability left the squad short admittedly but also highlighted a worrying lack of depth in the Welsh squad. While the exodus of players to France is clearly having a poor impact on the squad, reports of Mike Phillips being too unfit began to come out, while Gethin Jenkins’ lack of game time was clearly an issue.

Another last minute defeat to Australia was in many ways the worst part though. To have continually come so close to capturing the big scalp, and inability to convert strong positions into wins means that questions need to be asked about their mental fragility under pressure.

I feel confident in saying that when they do eventually get over the hurdle it will open the floodgates to a succession of big victories, but the longer they continue to fall at the last, the harder it will get.

England were good, if a little wasteful, against Fiji, poor against Australia, solid but devoid of any imagination against South Africa and brilliant against New Zealand.

The overall worry for them was that they had a general lack of midfield creativity and a lack of a real fetcher at the breakdown. There was a general feeling that power was all they could offer when trying to cross the gainline, a theory that was disproved to an extent against the All Blacks, but still floats out there as a possibility.

Ireland meanwhile were not bad, brilliant against Argentina and slightly stagnant against South Africa they probably represented the best of the bunch but were far from perfect.

So to the positives, and despite a generally poor Autumn, there are many.

Scotland have finally found a finisher, Tim Visser, of genuine quality and actually performed well as a team despite inevitable defeats to South Africa and New Zealand. Their pack remains highly competitive, while in Henry Pyrgos they may have found a scrum half capable of stepping in as Blair, Cusiter and Lawson creep into their 30’s.

Wales showed that when they play at their fluent best they are as good as anyone as they showed in the second half against the All Blacks, while in Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies they have two of the outstanding backs in world rugby at the moment.

Dropping Sam Warburton seemed to have the desired effect as his form picked up with his reintroduction to the side, while injury may have hurt them this Autumn but has given valuable experience to several fringe players.

Ireland can be thankful that in Craig Gilroy they have found a gem of a winger, who almost single handedly transformed the backline from being static and stagnant into a fluent and exciting one.

Chris Henry was also a revelation, or at least a revelation to those who have not been watching Ulster in recent times. His performances were excellent, to the point that he must now be Ireland’s number one number seven. Sean O’Brien may well find himself now fighting for the 6 or 8 shirt instead.

That leaves us with England who at this time last week were pretty low on positives, how one performance can change one’s outlook though.

It is not sensationalist to say, that the performance against the All Blacks was certainly the greatest England performance at Twickenham in recent memory.

First of all it was entirely unexpected, second of all it was against a side who are world number one and were unbeaten in 20 matches, and third – they simply played really, really well.

In Launchbury, Parling and Lawes they have a trio of second rows that should dominate the position for years to come, and in Dan Cole they have a truly standout prop.

They finally showed some creativity, Tuilagi demonstrated what he could do against a world class defence, Brad Barritt showed a side to his game that nobody had seen previously. While Owen Farrell again showed that he has a calm head on those inexperienced shoulders.

They must be careful though, one exceptional performance does not change the issues, it simply buys them more time to make sure that they are permenantly fixed. Many of them looked to be fixed on Saturday, time will tell if that is truly the case, or if it was simply a day where everything just fell into place.

So all in all it was not a good Autumn for British and Irish rugby, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing to be excited about, and certainly there will be very few England fans feeling negative about their side now.

Bring on the 6 Nations!

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