Southern hemisphere in pole position
June 13, 2010
England manager Martin Johnson reflects on his side's defeat to Australia in Perth © Getty Images
There is just over a year until the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand and while that day can't come quick enough for the in-form southern hemisphere giants - it is a daunting prospect for their northern rivals who are alarmingly under-cooked.
The latest high-profile inter-hemisphere clashes suggested that the gap between the two appears as great as ever with Ireland, England and France found wanting by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa respectively. Only Scotland bucked the trend with victory over Argentina but as brave and notable their success it too lacked the kind of creative sparkle that could be found elsewhere on a busy day of international action.
The outlook is largely bleak and nowhere was as gloomy as a wind and rain-swept New Plymouth, where a new-look New Zealand side made merry after Ireland hit the self-destruct button. The All Blacks recorded a thumping 66-28 victory. An uncharacteristic error from the usually assured Rob Kearney gifted Conrad Smith the opening try at Yarrow Stadium but his error soon paled into insignificance. No.8 Jamie Heaslip took centre stage with an unbelievable assault on All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw - driving his knee into his rival's head not once but twice right in front of referee Wayne Barnes. The English official will never have had to make such an easy decision and you can only wonder what went through the mind of the usually imperious Heaslip.
From that point on the contest was over. The All Blacks wasted no time in making the numerical advantage count but their task was made all the more easy when yet another experienced head - fly-half Ronan O'Gara - tugged All Blacks winger Cory Jane back off the ball and rightly saw yellow as a result. Three more tries heaped woe on the tourists before they were back to 14 men and any hopes of laying down a marker with an historic victory over the hosts were long gone. The All Blacks ran in nine tries in total, with fly-half Dan Carter also returning to form with the boot to claim a place in the 1,000 Test points club, but they also leaked four tries as Ireland showed their battling qualities, which will be a concern to coach Graham Henry. That fight back was helped no end by a raft of All Blacks changes that robbed them of momentum but there were few complaints about Henry's tactics come the final whistle with his six debutants rising to the occasion, fullback Israel Dagg the pick of the bunch.
The focus then switched to Perth where Australia beat England 27-17 in a clash of vastly contrasting styles. A lopsided game also defied the rugby logic that games are won up front. England outmuscled their inexperienced rivals at scrum time from the opening moments of the game, but once again they failed to find the attacking flair to compliment that physicality. It cost them dear in what was widely regarded as a great opportunity to return to record a win on southern hemisphere soil for the first time since their Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003.
Stripped of their first-choice front row, Australia were embarrassingly inadequate at what is such a key aspect of the game, but luckily they are blessed with an abundance of talent in their backs division that helped them weather that storm up front and exploit England's own shortcomings. Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper and his able cohorts - scrum-half Luke Burgess, wingers Drew Mitchell and Digby Ioane and fullback James O'Connor - delivered the kind of game-changing and crowd-pleasing fare that England can only dream of at present. All but three of the tourists' points came from scrums with the pressure exerted by the likes of the impressive tight-head Dan Cole, hooker Steve Thompson and loose-head Tim Payne drawing two penalty tries. The fact that referee Nigel Owens waited until the 67th minute before brandishing a yellow card - to Wallabies tight-head Salesi Ma'afu - may have worked in the hosts' favour but England have enough concerns of their own to deal with before pointing the finger at the officials.
As eye-catching the performances by New Zealand and Australia it was South Africa who delivered the most impressive display of the day to sweep France aside in Cape Town. The Springboks were knocked off the back pages in the build up to the game with Bafana Bafana and the Fifa World Cup occupying the country's psyche but with the kind of ruthless display that accounted for visitors they will soon be the focus again.
In a blistering opening they hit France with a deadly mix of power and pace on their way to a 42-17 win that was the most emphatic reminder of where the balance of power resides in world rugby. The sell out crowd drawn by a match-up between the Six Nations Grand Slam champions and the Tri-Nations holders were treated to a surprisingly one-sided affair where the Springboks stamped their authority early and there was no way back for Europe's best. Like Ireland, France travelled in strength and in hope and confident that they could notch a fourth successive victory over the Springboks, but like the Irish they found those hopes vanquished within a matter of minutes. But unlike Ireland, they were not architects of their own downfall - merely victims of a superb South Africa side. No.8 Pierre Spies was at his rampaging best but winger Gio Aplon, in only his second Test appearance, stole the show with two tries of a thrilling nature.
With the northern hemisphere reeling from a succession of heavy blows it was left to Scotland to stop the rot and they did just that with an outstanding display against the Pumas to notch a 24-16 victory - their second successive win on Argentinian soil and sweet revenge for a home defeat last November. They may have been outscored two tries to none but their industry and invention brought them due reward with fly-half Dan Parks punishing the ill-disciplined hosts with the boot to notch yet another man of the match honour.
It looked as if the Scots would also taste defeat after they fell behind early to a lively looking Argentina and struggled to find any rhythm. But to their credit they rallied, steadied the ship and kicked on with the seemingly inexhaustible front-row leading the way and matching the formidable Pumas pack blow for blow. The penalty count killed the hosts who constantly felt the wrath of referee Dave Pearson and you could not help but wonder whether the Pumas were up to speed regarding the latest interpretations at the breakdown.
Scotland will relish the chance to further their reputation when they tackle the Pumas again next weekend in Mar del Plata and England too will welcome a swift return to action as they bid to right the wrongs of Perth against the Wallabies in Sydney. Ireland must re-group against the New Zealand Maori while Wales re-enter the fray against the All Blacks.
Such is the gulf between the hemispheres in terms of approach and application, not even a series of morale-boosting and historic wins would be enough to warrant a re-think as to where the next Rugby World Cup crown will end up.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.