SO a fascinating five weeks of international rugby is finally at an end. We were treated to a magnificent contest between the Wallabies and Wales on Saturday to fittingly finish a compelling November’s autumn series. Sadly the New Zealand rugby league team could not lift their game to compete with the Kangaroos, who were deserved winners of the Rugby League World Cup.
As the scribes get ready to deliver their end of term reports there seems to be a case of ‘groundhog day’ in both codes. Every year we hope to see a genuine results swing away from the southern hemisphere, and only England have triumphed over the big three nations with their win over the Wallabies at the beginning of November. For sure, there have been some epic clashes, none more so than Ireland’s agonising loss to New Zealand. Saturday’s Cardiff encounter was equally gripping but ultimately the Australia and New Zealand return to the southern hemisphere for their summer holidays with a progressive smile rather than a backwards frown with the 2015 World Cup fast approaching.
The same problems bedevil the northern hemisphere sides. Not since 2003 have we seen an England backline fire without taking anything away from the forwards who continue to dominate matches. Wales are as ever exciting, inventive and yet lack the starch to truly convert opportunities into wins. Nine successive losses to the Wallabies and most of these have been within 5 points tells the story. Ireland continue to frustrate with their inconsistency, awful one week, nearly world beaters the next. With father time catching up on their legends, their near future is uncertain. Scotland are always willing but a class fly-half and centre partnership is desperately needed to utilise the talents of Sean Maitland at the back. Why Castres’ Max Evans is not in their plans remains a mystery. Dear old France have had a dreadful 2013 and industrious performances against the All Blacks and South Africa will not mask over their problems. The influx of foreigners continuing to invade the cash rich Top 14 French competition is stalling French talent coming through the age-groups.
I said four out of five wins would constitute a successful tour for the Wallabies and they return to Australia in better health from whence they left. Ben Mowen has proven to be an astute leader and was excellent at the much vaunted breakdown battle against Sam Warburton on Saturday. He along with Michael Hooper are now the first names on the team sheet. Quade Cooper has shown that he belongs on the biggest stage going through his full repertoire of tricks in Cardiff with delightful execution. Israel Folau is my ‘man of the tour’ and this guy has it all. Folau has the skills of a Christian Cullen, the strength and running of Greg Inglis and more importantly he is only going to get better. With Cooper and Folau in tandem, Australia has a genuine chance of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.
The only blight are the off field disturbances which continue to undermine Australian rugby. Ewen McKenzie should be applauded for taking the actions he did in the mid-week before the Scotland match and for getting his remaining squad players focused. It does remain a worry with revenues and crowds at an all-time low down under, discipline remains a significant problem.
The Rugby League World Cup has been a big success. The key objective was to get funding into the emerging countries and the estimated £5 million profit made through the impressive crowd attendances will go a long way into achieving growth in the sport. In the pub on Saturday, a conversation arose on getting South Africa involved in league. The code needs to spread their wings into these countries so in years to come we will see competitive matches and more countries involved. The NRL supplied many players to the USA, Italy and Ireland and the way those nations played you could never question any player, judging by their commitment to the jersey. But, how good would it be to see a few more Americans like $10-an-hour dog handler Taylor Welch running out against Greg Inglis and co?
Ultimately it was always going to come down to whether England could wrestle the crown away from Australia and New Zealand in the semi-finals. Somewhat harshly it could be viewed but Australia appeared to be on holiday for five weeks whilst awaiting the victors between England and New Zealand. From a neutral perspective a 64-0 rout against Fiji was not what the code needed in a World Cup semi-final. That is not to take away anything from Fiji who did magnificently well to reach the final four.
A week has not changed my opinion of the semi-final clash at Wembley which has to be one of the great international rugby matches — in both codes. Everyone was hoping for a repeat in the final but it was always going to be a big ask for New Zealand to raise their game again, emotionally and physically. Unfortunately they looked spent particularly the Kiwi forwards who we thought could prove to be the difference between the two sides. All the plaudits must go to Australia; they were outstanding for 80 minutes and never looked like losing from the opening whistle. The golden era of Queensland talent made up from Messrs’, Thurston, Smith, Slater, Inglis and Cronk shows no sign of abating. There is also an abundance of quality coming through from England and New Zealand. The Burgesses’, James Graham and soon to be Sam Tomkins are gracing the NRL and New Zealand have the likes of Jared Warea Hargreaves, Shaun Johnson and Isaac Luke (only in their early to mid-20’s), who will be around for many years to come.
The southern hemisphere are once again leading the way in both codes but with the kind of excitement we have seen over the last five weeks the northern hemisphere will be champing at the bit to close the gap.