A Brilliant Tournament and a Scared Northern Hemisphere

14 09 2010

Round Up of the Tri Nations

What a tournament that was! We are of course referring to the Tri Nations (a few days late we know – and apologise!) which this year has lit up the rugby world in a way that has totally reinvigorated it. With tries coming regularly and mostly at pace, this has been proper ‘running rugby’, the like of which we haven’t seen for quite some time.

Take a step back to this time last year when you only had to open any paper or rugby website to find a piece bemoaning the state of the game and putting forward any number of remedies to save it from the kick fest it had become. Fortunately the solution hit upon, i.e. instructing the referees to give the attacking side the benefit of the doubt and being strict on tacklers at the breakdown, was not a change that bit at the very fabric of the game like the ill fated ELV’s (Experimental Law Variations) and consequently this wonderful game is still the same one we know and love.

Probably entirely predictably it has been the All Blacks that have taken this game to a new level and demonstrated both an extraordinary level of talent and what is an unparalleled ability to finish off attacking moves in the modern game. Justifiably as the best side in the world (by quite some margin we might add) they have been installed as comfortable favourites for the world cup next year in New Zealand and one feels it will only the weight of expectation that trips them up rather than any actual rugby issues.

Australia will have mixed feelings about their campaign. As an Australian friend of the Compulsive Hooker said to us yesterday ‘if a game of rugby was only 40 minutes long we might have won this tournament!’ To an extent this is true as on several occasions, both against the Springboks and the All Blacks, the Wallabies found themselves up at half time – only to be blown away in the second half. Rugby though is a game of 80 minutes (or two halves if you prefer old clichés) and this is undoubtedly something they need to work on in time for next years World Cup. Indeed it is a  strange trait for an Australian side to have, usually, as they are, renowned for their fighting spirit. On the plus side however there is enough there to work with and once a number of automatic choices come back, particularly in the front row area, the Australians should be an altogether tougher prospect. Along with the Kiwi’s they do possess some of the most electric runners with the ball we have seen – Giteau has continued to be a threat with ball in hand and the (mostly) sublime Quade Cooper has been a joy to watch. Coupled with some good runners in the shape of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale etc out wide they are always likely to be, at the very least, an entertaining side.

Moving onto South Africa it is hard to see where they go from here. You have to go back to 2004 and look at the England side post 2003 world cup to see a side fall comparably far and fast. To us at the Compulsive Hooker; there is not much mystery about this turn of events and almost everything can be laid at the door of coach Pieter De Villiers. As our columnist Dingo succinctly put it during his rant; whilst he is able to ‘enliven any press conference’ his weaknesses as a coach are now more apparent than ever. Indeed it is possible that (and indeed is our argument) that the Springboks have been successful despite him rather than because of him and now, when what is needed is a careful guiding hand and inspired selection, he has been found wanting. The South African team is getting older and several of the truly world class players are not perhaps as dynamic as they once were. Tactically too the South Africans have been found wanting and still attempting to play the ‘kick and chase’ game that they so recently excelled at. Rugby has moved on and if you want to kick the ball away to sides as dynamic as the Kiwi’s and the Wallabies – well then you have to take the consequences, which, in this case, has been bottom of the Tri Nations table.

Favourite Player: A tie this one between Quade Cooper and Isaac Dagg. Cooper has been outstanding and for the most part has kept Australia in contention throughout. Dagg however, despite only being a bit part player for the AB’s, has excited us more than any player we have seen for some time. An unbelievable runner on the ball his try against the Springboks earlier in the tournament was one of the best individual efforts we have ever seen.

What Does This Mean For The Northern Hemisphere?

Ignoring the frankly pointless Bledisloe Cup match scheduled in Hong Kong on the 30th October, the next set of internationals are of course the Autumn Internationals. Over the past five years or so the results have been heavily in favour of the Southern Hemisphere sides and, call us morbid and pessimistic, but we can’t see anything particularly changing this year.

In fact we wouldn’t be surprised if we see some frankly embarrassing scores visited on the Home Nations by the touring Tri Nations sides. New Zealand and South Africa are both going for the Grand Slam and, with the All Blacks in particular, we would be very surprised if they could not find it within themselves to comfortably achieve this. We do believe that the South African’s will be beaten by at least one side – possibly England or Ireland – but other than that it could be yet another disappointing and barren Autumn for the Northern Hemisphere ‘powers’.

The change in refereeing interpretations have also taken effect up here with games becoming more open and more tries generally being scored. What appears to be different however is the skill levels. Watching a handful of the opening games of the Aviva Premiership in particular (and in mitigation it is still very early season so it could simply be Summer rust) it has been apparent that when faced with an overlap or a try scoring opportunity – as often as not the chance is fluffed. In essence – exciting rugby but hardly clinical. By comparison down south – even at Provincial level – these chances are usually taken with alacrity and so it is no surprise perhaps that when this is translated to the national sides the Northern Hemisphere struggle by comparison.

English supporters buoyed by our most recent test in Australia may well take issue with my arguments but we feel this is likely to be a false dawn once more and the folly of keeping Martin Johnson on will be exposed. Ireland may scrape a win or two (against the Boks and the Argies) but they, like the Springboks, are an ageing side with seemingly intractable problems at scrum time. Wales and Scotland will again prove to have lots of fight and not a bit of skill but will ultimately be too lightweight. The only side truly capable of challenging the southern hemisphere superiority may well be the French although, as always with them, you never know which side will turn up.

We would of course love to be proved wrong and we know there are arguments that perhaps the gap will have closed – yet we have a sad and sneaking suspicion that once again this will not be so. What do you think? Can we up north have more reason to hope than we have given?

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