Ireland show the way
John Taylor
December 2, 2009

The November internationals were supposed to be the chance for the European nations to put down a few markers against southern hemisphere opposition.

Instead, with the glorious exception of Ireland, it was a pretty depressing month. The England performances beggared belief, Wales were hugely disappointing, Scotland got lucky for one game and France, having looked the part against South Africa, suffered one of their worst ever defeats against New Zealand.

Sad to say, but after 14 months under Martin Johnson's leadership there appears to be no improvement despite all attempts to try to say otherwise. At the post mortem, last week, the management appeared to be in complete denial. Rob Andrew's attempt to explain it all away - injuries, England a work in progress etc - was totally unconvincing.

He also tried to convince everyone that England are not scoring tries because the pendulum has swung too much in favour of the defending side and quite bizarrely seemed to be claiming that the coaching team were obviously doing a good job because Josh Lewsey had apologised for criticising them.

It was almost surreal - no mention that England have always been one of the most defence oriented teams in the world or that New Zealand and Australia in particular are still very capable of cutting loose and crossing the try line under the present laws.

Listen to this quote: "In terms of closing the gap on the southern hemisphere, which is what we're trying to do, you have to say the gap has been closed. We lost the try count by three to one against them last year."

Nobody else in the country would dare to use that barometer to measure improvement. Everybody else believes what they see - that there are no real signs of progress and the gap is as wide as ever.

Everybody wanted Johnson to usher in a new era and I was one of those prepared to give him time to sort things out. A year on and I am fed up with excuses and no clear vision of where England are going.

They still have a plodding pack and the much heralded return of Jonny Wilkinson has done nothing to sharpen the attack. The new Jonny stands so deep he is out of harm's way and an already pedestrian back division stands no chance of crossing the gain line. I never expected Johnson to be radical but I did expect him to be bristling with intent and purpose. Instead he appears loyal and stoic but short of inspiration and - dare I say it - courage.

Wales were slightly better until last weekend. They put in a massive effort against New Zealand but with such a small playing base they really struggle when key players get injured and badly missed the likes of Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and, most of all, Adam Jones who really came of age on the British & Irish Lions tour.

He is crucial to the front five but there were worrying signs that the back-row which has been key to their success over the past few seasons is no longer the force it was.

When Warren Gatland took over his first move was to persuade Martyn Williams to come out of international retirement and he has been an inspiring presence ever since - until last weekend.

Let's hope it was just an aberration but he was missing tackles and looked a yard short of pace against Australia. Andy Powell is totally one dimensional, Ryan Jones is no longer breaking tackles as he used to and none of the youngsters have really stepped up to the plate so it does not look good.

It is difficult to know what to say about Scotland's victory over the Wallabies except - well done! But even the most patriotic Scot must know in his heart of brave hearts that Matt Giteau will never kick that badly again, that the Australian backs will never butcher so many chances again and that they just got lucky.

They defended superbly but showed, particularly against Argentina that all the old problems are still there - one break from Sean Lamont was not a good enough return for all the hard work from the forwards. If they do not learn how to score tries it looks like another season in the doldrums.

We all know the Six Nations is rarely predictable but on the autumn evidence we should all be rushing out to get a bet on Ireland repeating their Grand Slam. The way they came back against Australia to force that thrilling last gasp draw spoke volumes for their skill and spirit and then they outmuscled South Africa in the loose and controlled the game beautifully despite being demolished at the scrum - something that rarely happens in rugby.

Cheers Ireland! You've shown the way - let's hope the other three home nations can follow your lead.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to

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