Autumn of discontent
November 1, 2013
The All Blacks have found northern hemisphere sides easy pickings in recent times © PA Photos
Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness if you are a poet. Season of defeats and disappointment if you're a British/Irish rugby supporter.
In the years since England achieved a unique November clean sweep over the Tri-Nations in 2002 and went on to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the record of autumn internationals against the Big Three makes dismal reading.
Excluding games in the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups, the four home unions have staged 60 autumn internationals against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in the past decade and won just 13, with two drawn. That's a success rate of less than 25%, at home.
England lead the way with five autumn wins (in 18 games), closely followed by Ireland (four wins and a draw from 11), then Wales (two wins and a draw out of 19 Tests) and Scotland (two wins in a dozen matches). Both of Scotland's wins - 9-8 against Australia in 2009 and 21-17 against South Africa the year later - were in downpours. Scotland, moreover, did not manage to score a try in either of those wins.
The nadir for the home unions was in 2008. All told there were nine matches on British/Irish soil against the Tri- Nations that autumn. John Smit's Springboks, Stirling Mortlock's Wallabies and Richie McCaw's All Blacks won the first eight of them.
Enter the Autumn Internationals Fantasy Game © Scrum.com
Australia beat England 28-14 and the week later South Africa won 42-6 at Twickenham. That Springbok hiding stands as England's all-time biggest home margin of defeat and their highest score ever conceded in Twickenham Tests. The week later, the All Blacks completed a Grand Slam of the home unions by beating England 32-6 there - England's next-biggest home losing margin.
The Springboks had beaten Wales and Scotland by tighter margins - five and four points respectively - before the last match of the autumn pitched the Wallabies against Wales at Cardiff. First-half tries by IRB Player of the Year Shane Williams and full-back Lee Byrne gave Wales the momentum to hang on for a 21-18 win.
Warren Gatland's relief after Wales's victory was obvious. "Someone had to carry the flag for the northern hemisphere," he said. "I'm pleased it was us."
Jamie Roberts was only on the field for a quarter of that match, but his contribution was significant. He had suffered a fractured skull in a collision with Mortlock in the second minute. The Aussie skipper was immediately replaced by Quade Cooper, but Roberts stayed on long enough to create an important try for Shane Williams.
So why do the Tri-Nations usually dominate the British and Irish? (Home union team records out there in the corresponding June Tests make even worse reading.)
You can't help wondering if the structure of the southern hemisphere season is better designed to bring success at Test level. The season at elite level in Europe lacks coherence.
Perhaps the imminent change to the leading European club/region competition will encourage the powers-that-be to think about revamping the competitive season and Test calendar in the northern hemisphere? As a blueprint for the future, why not mirror what happens in the southern hemisphere?
A blueprint for northern hemisphere rugby
Down Under the season begins in late-February with the round-robin of the Super Rugby series. That gives the elite players 16 games to get match-hardened before the June internationals. The business end of the Super tournament then kicks in during July. Meanwhile, the various domestic competitions that are the proving grounds for the next generation of Super Rugby players get into full swing.
The Test players then rejoin their national squads for the Rugby Championship played over six weekends between late August and early October. Three weeks later they set off for their final assignments of the year, the autumn internationals in the northern hemisphere. December and January are their rest months.
It means that the elite players making the northern tours have played between 25 and 30 games of Super and Test rugby before facing the home unions in November. Last calendar year, for example, Israel Dagg played 17 Super games for the Crusaders and ten Tests for the All Blacks before featuring in three autumn Tests in Europe. Jannie du Plessis had 19 games for the Chiefs and nine Springbok Test appearances before starting all three of the South Africa's November internationals.
In contrast, players in the northern hemisphere go into the autumn internationals with considerably fewer competitive matches of Test intensity under their belts. And of these games, only two are pool rounds in the European competition. Surely it's not beyond the wit of the administrators in Europe to tweak their season to closely match the southern hemispheres?
So much for the future. Back to reality, and this November.
At least the home unions can take some comfort from recent performances against the southern hemisphere powers. British/Irish rugby enjoyed a massive boost in the summer when Warren Gatland's Lions walloped Australia in Sydney to record the first Lions series success of the 21st century.
And who will ever forget England's uplifting performance against the All Blacks last season? It the only autumn win from eight Home Unions/Tri-Nations encounters. The memory of their 38-21 triumph against Richie McCaw's world champions will inspire Stuart Lancaster's team to prove that was no flash in the pan.
Even so, based on history it's hard to see the home unions collectively achieving even a 50% record against the Big Three from the south this November. We shall see.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd