Saturday`s rugby game between Australia and England was a desperate affair, and not in terms of excitement.
What should have been a stirring finale to a disappointing winter from both teams turned out to be a nervous, error strewn 80 minutes in which neither side convinced the rugby public that they will be genuine contenders for the World Cup next year.
It is easy to bang on about the significance of this month with the World Cup approaching but the reality is that there is much more rugby to be played and these November internationals will not have a significant say on who wins the tournament.
However, there is no getting away from what has been a disastrous few weeks for the Wallabies in Europe. There are an alarming amount of problems for poor old Michael Cheika and his team, and with not a huge amount of time to fix them. Familiar weaknesses in the front row, the team`s fitness, particularly in second halves, and their defence have got worse, not better. The Wallabies are conceding nearly 30 points a game at the moment which raises questions about the team`s conditioning and ability to close out games.
We learnt very little from Saturday`s game except that it will be Wales who will take more from their campaign than England or Australia. It was Groundhog Day all over again with England`s forwards slowly strangling their counterparts into the ground. The England backs could not catch a cold let alone a ball and the Wallaby backs – apart from Adam Ashley Cooper, whose enduring excellence was a shining beacon amidst the mediocrity – were not much better.
Australia did show one piece of class with Bernard Foley`s try coming from clever interplay with Rob Horne.
The lack of intensity and snarl up front is a major concern for Australia. This was an England team shorn of six British Lions and yet their pack barely had to get out of second gear to dismantle the Wallaby scrum. It begs the question why the likes of Benn Robinson, James Horwill and Ben Alexander are not starting with their experience, particularly in European conditions.
Michael Hooper should not receive any criticism; he has been outstanding this season as a leader and openside. One can excuse him one quiet game against a superior Chris Robshaw, and he was still one of Australia`s best.
So where do the Wallabies go from here? Cheika is a fine coach and must have time and support from the troublesome ARU to be allowed to make changes, however radical they may be. Perhaps the Wallabies should take heed of Kieran Read, the best number eight in the world by some distance, who personally puts in an exhaustible training regime to go with what he does in the All Blacks set-up.
The results speak for themselves. Cheika should reaffirm and emphasize to his squad the importance of doing everything they can to be in the best possible mental and physical state going into a World Cup. One cannot question the players’ commitment but with the Australians conceding plenty of points and struggling in the last quarter of games, there has to be question marks around fitness and conditioning.
The endless stream of poor behavior and scandals off the pitch is not helping either. On a social front, take mobiles phones out of the dressing room and having a restrained approach to the beers could be a recommendation as well.
It is not all doom and gloom. The Wallabies will always be a major threat out wide if they can get enough quality ball to the exceptional talent they have at their disposal. Israel Folau, the ageless Adam Ashley Cooper, Quade Cooper and Tevita Kuridrani are devastating when on form and we have not even mentioned the reformed bad boys like James O`Connor and Kurtley Beale. Sean McMahon has a great future alongside Michael Hooper in the back row, thus continuing Australia`s production line of talented number 7`s. Stephen Moore will be an important man to have back in the ranks and if Wycliff Palu can get his mojo back alongside fellow strugglers, Will Genia and James Horwill, then Australia can be a genuine force again. So much to ponder.
The Australians are not the only one`s with difficulties in their World Cup group. England, as previously mentioned, have their problems not least because of the crippling lack of creativity in the backs. Preferring brute force, which will include the power of Manu Tuilagi and Sam Burgess, will not succeed without some maverick ability.
Wales are yet to convince themselves that they can beat the best when ahead for most of a match. One cannot help but feel that the Australia and England group games will go to the final whistle and that does not bode well for the Welsh, despite finally winning against a Southern Hemisphere superpower in the shape of the Springboks.
Which brings us to Heyneke Meyer`s men. An impressive performance at Twickenham will not appease the Republic after a thumping in Ireland and a limp performance against the Welsh to round off their European adventures. They have ageing warriors to go with young but inexperienced bolters, and the jury remains out on whether Meyer knows what his best First XV is.
The unlikely forms of Scotland and the resurgent Irish team, playing like the frenzied wolf packs of old, have come through as a welcome change to the usual southern hemisphere dominance at this time of year. It was needed as well, because the All Blacks were way below their usual immaculate selves and yet still did enough to overcome the spirited challenges of England, Scotland and Wales.
France, bless them, continue to confuse their public by winning well against the Wallabies to be then beaten at home (again) by an unfancied Argentinian side.
Just maybe the All Blacks will not have it their own way next year. Their ability to close games out is a magnificent strength and to be admired but Steve Hansen will want to get games done by the final quarter to avoid a continued trend of close matches.
The Wallabies have worryingly regressed in the last five weeks and with a trip back to the UK next year, they have got to come to terms with their scrummaging and defence otherwise it will be an early ride back home from the World Cup.
IMAGE: Australia’s wing Henry Speight (C) jumps to catch the ball during the Autumn International rugby union Test match between England and Australia at Twickenham Stadium, London on November 29, 2014. England won the game 26-17. (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)