The recent autumn internationals revealed some harsh truths for the northern-hemisphere teams. Basking in a post-Lions glow, the expectation was that they would more than match their opponents from the other side of the globe. The reality was a marked contrast. Only England provided a glimmer of hope with an unconvincing 20-13 victory over a very under-par Australia. Wales, Scotland and Ireland all lost to the big three of South Africa, the Wallabies and New Zealand. Wales talked a good game, yet couldn’t quite walk the walk and whilst Ireland’s defeat to the Kiwis was heart-breaking, it was just so inevitable. What can the 6 Nations teams (especially Wales, Ireland and Scotland) do to break the monopoly the southern-hemisphere currently has on the game of rugby?
Firstly, the Lions: I am of the opinion that the Lions played almost to their top potential this summer (particularly in the finale in Sydney) whilst Australia underperformed considerably given the plethora of talent at their disposal. The home nations assumed that they were going to steam-roller the Aussies (who have played 15 matches this year) just as they had done on that glorious July day. Not so. A variety of factors, the main one being off-load king Quade Cooper’s sublime form in the past two tests but also a renewed steel in the forwards (Michael Hooper take a bow) and some clinical finishing has led to a resurgence in the Australian team characterised by some thrilling running rugby.
There is a reason why Wales can’t beat any of the big three, and Wallaby fly-half Cooper displayed it swathes: talent. Man for man, Wales simply aren’t as talented as Australia. No amount of defensive drills, set-piece practice and teamwork can make up for that fact. Over an 80 minute match, at one or two crucial points, this imbalance will manifest itself in an unstoppable attacking move – witness Christian Leialiifano’s try on Saturday. The key thing here is ability. Wales played supremely well on Saturday – probably the best they could have played – yet still they lost. Wales don’t have someone like Will Genia, Quade Cooper or Israel Folau – someone who has that X-factor, who can produce the unexpected – a maverick if you will (well they do – James Hook – but he was playing for Perpignan instead). They have a number of very good players, but no-one who can instinctively create something from nothing. You get the feeling with Wales that they are just a battering ram, and a very good one at that, but they never really seem to search out the gaps – instead they seem to relish contact which I find bizarre. Their players are wonderful physical specimens, but instinctive rugby footballers they are not. Australia matched Wales’ physicality and their superior natural talent was the very fine difference between the teams on Saturday and this will continue until Wales can somehow conjure up a Shane Williams/Gavin Henson clone.
Speaking of Henson, I must state how Cooper’s performance on Saturday reminded me of the once great Wales centre. During his prime (2004-08), Henson played as if he was having a Sunday afternoon stroll. When he got the ball it was as if time stood still and no-one could touch him. He made the game look easy whilst all around him players were straining every sinew to match his outrageous talent. The same is true of Cooper. In setting up the Wallabies’ opening try, under pressure from two defenders he nonchalantly flicked an offload to the waiting Joe Tomane who set up Lealiifano to score. The genius of this was that he drew George North in from the wing to create space for the waiting Tomane. Few players in the world game have that sort of vision, particularly in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Test match. Henson was similar in that defenders were drawn to him because they knew that he could create something in the blink of an eye. Once the defence was concentrated on him, he had the ability to create space for other runners around him and, crucially, deliver a pass from which they could take advantage. George North is a player who attracts defenders simply because of his immense physical strength, yet rarely does he use this to pass to a teammate in space. Instead he goes into contact and, because of his upright body position, often gets turned over. It is not enough to have a game-plan based around brute force. International defences are so good these days that teams need a touch of ingenuity to breach the try-line. Cooper was the difference between the two teams on Saturday and exemplified the importance of a running fly-half (step forward James Hook).
Ireland’s loss to New Zealand (it has to be described like that) was a bitter pill to swallow. In all honesty they should have never been beaten after leading 22-7 at half-time but, like Wales, Ireland don’t have that winning habit over the Southern Hemisphere. It must be said that to be leading by 15 points against the World Champions at the break is a herculean effort and they should be commended for putting up such a committed performance. New Zealand however, are a relentless juggernaut that play at 100% intensity for the full 80 minutes (82 in this case). Ireland showed a little naivety in not seeing out the match by playing territory and trying drop-goals but against the All Blacks (this year’s vintage are one of the greatest teams to ever play the game), they can be forgiven. The issue is that was Ireland’s best chance to beat New Zealand, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. It is telling that at the weekend, even when playing at almost 100%, the Northern Hemisphere teams still can’t beat the Southern Hemisphere when they’re not on top form. I don’t know whether it is better coaching, more commitment, better quality of opposition, physical strength, stronger mental strength that is the difference between the sides (probably a combination of everything), but one thing is for sure; they are more talented. Until this imbalance is rectified, the dominance of the Southern-Hemisphere over the rugby world looks set to continue.