Now that the Domestic and European programme has finished its first phase, excitement is building for the Autumn Internationals, tempered however by the various unavailabilities through injuries or simple resting of key players.
My take on the season so far has been a welcome move to find creative influence in the middle of the field. Coaches are finally realising that the well timed pass or piece of vision can be the difference between winning and losing. Toomua and Ford at Leicester have shown this in abundance, as have Lyon in France and Newcastle in England. Glasgow and Scarlets also play with vision and, with Leinster, remain market leaders in the Pro 14 – although Euro success eludes the first two to date. However, all is not lost because the doubleheaders in December are a winner takes all across the pools – Saracens/Clermont, Bath/Toulon and Leinster/Exeter home and away possibly whet the appetite more than the Autumn Internationals dare I say it!
Talking of which, the All Blacks arrived in town to play the Babas at Twickenham at the weekend and it was wonderfully entertaining, lots of creativity and not a head injury in sight – if you don’t play head-on rugby, that tends to be the outcome. More special was the Barbarians support of wounded service personnel through placing the Help for Heroes logo on their shirt and an invitation by their sponsors Paysafe to a number of soldiers to attend the match. A wonderful reflection of rugby’s true values linking up with those who deserve all our support – topped off by an impromptu rendition of the Haka post match in the changing rooms for their visitors. It would have been a memory to cherish.
It was nice of Twickenham to organise an All Blacks trial at the Home of Rugby, given that 10 of the Barbarians team were New Zealanders. They have forty of their best players here to allow Steve Hansen to run the rule over fringe players, and all the nations have adopted the same strategy. That is why if you exclude the All Blacks then Southern Hemisphere wins could be a rarity over the coming weeks given their last opportunities to experiment. Scotland and Wales will be fancying their chances, Ireland are nigh unbeatable at home as England found out, and the strong revival in Italian rugby under Conor O’Shea bodes well for their chances. This is all caveated by the tactics adopted as all Southern Hemisphere teams can swing the ball around dangerously, as the rugby Championship showed – Australia in particular look to have found a team for their World Cup after a couple of years of chastening results, especially against England and New Zealand.
Talking of England – their Argentina tour unearthed rare talent and a new way of playing. But it is not uniform across their squad. Certain key players lack pace – Hartley, Robshaw, Cole and Brown spring to mind. Jones has some tough calls to make for the core of his team and some positional. Last years Six Nations saw good results but the performances were lacking. He won’t mind that as long as the team kicks on from here – all his main competitors are on sharp curves upwards. There are constant attempts to keep feet on ground – not fit enough, not enough leaders on the field etc. Remember, there was a “no excuses” culture adopted by Woodward in 2001 which became a real mantra and his 2003 winners were by now already the best in the world.
Still, let us not compare or recall history. The All Blacks never do, and they remain the benchmark.