Fine margins and shocking shortcomings
June 25, 2012
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny reflects on another agonising defeat for his side © PA Photos
An epic northern hemisphere season finally drew to a close at the weekend when the physical toll of that 11-month odyssey was clear to be seen in some places while others defied that unprecedented workload with another gutsy showing.
Story of the Game
While the battling performances of England and Wales added weight to the argument that the gulf between the hemispheres is now a thing of the past, Ireland's capitulation at the hands of New Zealand was the starkest possible reminder that when the world's best are on their game they are in a class of their own. England's draw with South Africa and Wales' latest flirtation with victory against Australia should no longer heralded as freak results and must be viewed as keys stages in the development of each side but it will remain case of so near but yet so far if until they boast the composure of their illustrious rivals and master the match-defining moments.
Ireland's third and final Test against New Zealand in Hamilton was clearly a game too far for the tourists. A side that came agonisingly close to an historic first victory over the All Blacks just a week before were simply blown away by the hosts who evidently had a point to prove having disappointed on their eagerly-awaited return to Christchurch. That backlash resulted in a record 60-0 hammering in Hamilton with fly-half Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Willliams taking starring roles. Fears over the loss of first-choice playmaker Dan Carter evaporated in a truckload of tries orchestrated by Cruden and even when he was forced to make way with an Achilles injury, the All Blacks stumbled upon another gem in Beauden Barrett who made a seamless step up to the Test stage.
"That scoreline is a bit embarrassing," admitted Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll in an honest assessment of his side's shortcomings. "They were very, very clinical at the breakdown today and we were terrible." Unsurprisingly All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was delighted with his side's return to top form and in particular the outstanding display from openside Same Cane who grabbed two tries on his first start and announce himself as a likely long-term successor to captain Richie McCaw who moved to No.8 to accommodate his team-mate. "He has given me an easier night's sleep tonight," Hansen said of Cane's performance, "because I know how to look after my mate [Richie McCaw] beside me here." Wales will head home scratching their heads having for the third successive week failed to beat the Wallabies when an historic first victory over their rivals since 1969 appeared to be there for the taking. The one-point loss in Sydney is the closest they have come to ending that drought but that will be of little consolation having conspired to throw away a winning position in the closing moments of the game. Basic errors contributed largely to their latest loss but the biggest question marks remain over their game management and ability to think clearly under pressure.
But they do not return home empty-handed, they will board the plane safe in the knowledge that they can compete with one of the world's best sides and they should relish their re-match in November. "We have been very close over the last few weeks, but we don't want any taps on the back - this team just wants to win," said defiant caretaker coach Rob Howley who refused to dwell on referee Craig Joubert's whistle-happy performance that cost Wales dear.
England fared a little better in their bid to avoid a series whitewash against South Africa but they were also guilty of letting a great chance for a rare victory on southern hemisphere soil escape them as they had to settle for a 14-all draw in Port Elizabeth. A spirited display included a try-scoring return for scrum-half Danny Care who drew a rather impressive line under what has been a troubled season but his try was a rare attacking highlight in a committed but limited England performance. As a result, a surprisingly poor South Africa side lacking cohesion and their usual grunt with an alarmingly off-colour Morne Steyn at fly-half were able to escape with a share of the spoils. "We're gutted not to win the game," said coach Stuart Lancaster. "We wanted to win the game. We wanted to win the series. We didn't, but there are plenty of positives to take as well."
As significant as the strides made by England and Wales, and to a lesser extent Ireland, the side that has come the furthest in the last month is arguably Scotland. Ahead of a busy international tours season, the Scots were reeling from a woeful Six Nations showing that had seen them pick up the wooden spoon and their coach was under increasing pressure to halt their slide. A clash with World Cup semi-finalists and Tri-Nations champions Australia could have been the tipping point but instead was the springboard with a battling victory followed by another against Fiji and most recently Samoa.
It could have ended so badly with Samoa on the brink of a sensational success only for replacement Rob Harley to cross for a last-gasp score that was converted by Greig Laidlaw to seal a 17-16 victory and an unbeaten tour. "Winning is a positive," reflected Scotland coach Andy Robinson who immediately set his sights on further improvement. "We kept fighting but we want to be able to play against the very best, compete against the very best and beat the very best."
Europe's finest can now take a well-earned break and at the same time ponder what is sure to be an interesting autumn that will see the inter-hemisphere battle for vital IRB ranking points and a favourable 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw intensify.
Tour season report card
England - 6/10
France - 6/10
Ireland - 5/10
Italy - 5/10
Scotland - 7/10
Wales - 7/10
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.