Warming up the Group of Death
December 1, 2013
George North put in a sensational performance against Australia © Getty Images
The autumn internationals have been and gone and the south still reigns supreme. Following a weekend where Wales suffered more heartbreak against Australia and the Aviva Premiership showed its class, the Monday Maul looks back at some of the key talking points.
The group of death warming up nicely
Pool A in the Rugby World Cup. You will need to take out a mortgage to watch the big games, but Wales, Australia and England in the same group is a saliva-inducing prospect. Wales are the best side in the northern hemisphere, England are going about their business in an efficient, workmanlike manner while Australia are finding momentum as they pivot off the superb Quade Cooper at fly-half.
If Saturday's game between Wales and Australia is a benchmark for what we can expect then it will be worth the two-year wait. Unfortunately three into two does not go so the quarter-finals of the 2015 showpiece will be void of one of those sides but until the pool is settled, there will be plenty of speculation, ill-judged predictions and bold statements as to how it will work out. Is it worth the thousands of pounds it'll cost to watch the games? You will have to judge that but it will be a series of match ups that will be at the centre of the World Cup pool stages.
North shows world class credentials
The weekend's awards
George North appeared to be one of a fair number of players who were struggling for form following the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia. But on Saturday, he was sensational against the Wallabies. The men in gold must be sick of the sight of him. His first try was opportunist, his second showed off his physicality and unique skill set. Although he has returned just one try for Northampton, he is box office and the Saints should be praised for allowing him to play in Saturday's match, rather than being the subject of a potential fine for breaching Premiership Rugby protocol.
Wonderful Wallabies hands
Playing the game at pace, something that is hard to do but when it is achieved, it is superb to watch. Quade Cooper's hands were precise and game-changing for the Wallabies while the Australians' running lines have seen defences carved open with ease over the last five Tests. Israel Folau is likely to be overlooked in the IRB's Team of the Year with Leigh Halfpenny a shoe-in for fullback but he has had a superb debut year in union while Adam Ashley-Cooper dominated the inexperienced Welsh midfield pairing. Australia have improved hugely over their five-Test autumn series and are benefiting from Ewen McKenzie's no-nonsense approach.
The problem pack at Gloucester
Gloucester's backs have quality throughout. Rob Cook is a competent fullback, Jonny May and Charlie Sharples have pace and good rugby nous while their centres have plenty of ability. There is a similar story in their half-backs with Freddie Burns and Jimmy Cowan. But they are powerless to do anything if their forwards are unable to secure quality ball. Gloucester were linked with Adam Jones in the press at the weekend and they need that sort of calibre of player if they are to sort out their front-row issues.
The Championship shows its under-rated class
Away from Cardiff, the other match of the weekend? Without a doubt it was at the Memorial Stadium as Bristol and Leeds played out a classic. Eventually it was the men from Yorkshire who shocked the south westerners but there were some remarkable tries, superb individual play - no more so than Jonah Holmes and Jacob Rowan who were brilliant - and well done to Sky Sports for showing it.
Cipriani back to his best
Slowly but surely, Danny Cipriani is finding the same swagger we enjoyed when he first burst on to the rugby scene. An ill-judged jaunt to Melbourne Rebels saw his form and stock dip but at Sale this season, he has been fantastic. Although Sale lost to Saracens, Cipriani was the star of the show, something that has been an increasing occurrence over the last few weeks.
Fiji hamstrung by IRB and Premiership Rugby
There are few better sights in rugby than seeing Samoa or Fiji at full throttle. When at full strength, they are a nightmare to live with. It was a shame they had to play with a depleted side against the Barbarians in front of 70,000 supporters at Twickenham on Saturday due to IRB protocols.
Captain and flanker Akapusi Qera was prevented from joining the team, though did not play against Leicester for Gloucester, and while Napolioni Nalaga did play for his side Clermont, Fiji lacked that added class. If these matches are put into the calendar, then you feel the IRB and the various stakeholders should do more to support teams like Fiji and grant them access to their players.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.