The continuing north-south divide
November 18, 2013
It was a bruising weekend for England © PA Photos
It was a familiar tale; valiant performances from the northern hemisphere sides but a trio of losses to the big three from the southern hemisphere. Wales did their bit to keep the European hand up with an impressive win over Argentina while Italy and France also recorded victories but it is the scalps of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand that the northern hemisphere teams really want. For the last two weekends they have proved elusive and going on the performances of the Wallabies, Boks and Kiwis, it will take a monumental effort to nudge them off their pedestal.
The latest Monday Maul looks back at good, the bad and the ugly parts of the weekend's action.
The importance of the lineout
If ever you were in any doubt over just how important it is to secure your own ball in the lineout, then look no further than Scotland's horror show against South Africa and the capitulation in England's set piece when Dylan Hartley left the field. In the first-half at Murrayfield on Sunday, Scotland threw more ball into South African hands than their own. It ruined any attacking platform, threw their defence off kilter and gave the Boks an extra advantage in a match where Scotland needed all the luck if they were to get a win.
The weekend's awards
For England, when Hartley left the field, Tom Youngs failed to find his targets and despite the pack's valiant effort in getting the home side back into the game, the lack of set piece security gave the All Blacks more front-foot ball than they should have had. Doing the basics right still has a huge bearing on Test rugby.
The ever-increasing Welsh injury curse
You do have to feel for those over the Severn Bridge. Cory Allen was enjoying a successful debut for Wales and was repaying Warren Gatland's faith until a dislocated shoulder brought a premature end to his Test. Scott Williams, one of the small number of northern hemisphere folk who can create a try-scoring opportunity through his own ability alone, also left Cardiff in a protective boot. That coupled with Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts' injuries leaves Wales painfully thin in the centres for their match against Tonga and then the Wallabies. Ashley Beck will have to play a key role and who his partner will be, only Gatland and his coaching staff know.
Fatigue of the Lions takes its toll
As things stand, by our calculations, there are up to 12 of the Lions' summer contingent who are currently out injured - Stuart Hogg, Brad Barritt, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Croft, Mako Vunipola, Simon Zebo Manu Tuilagi, Alex Cuthbert, Adam Jones, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and potentially Jonathan Sexton. Tired bodies and the relevant stakeholders should look to give the players longer off after the 2017 jaunt to New Zealand.
How do you solve a problem like England's centres?
The mix in England's midfield is still not right. Joel Tomkins failed to live up to his billing throughout the autumn series while Billy Twelvetrees' form oscillated between mediocre and poor. England are badly missing Manu Tuilagi and if he fails to make it back in time for the Six Nations, then Stuart Lancaster could do a lot worse than call in Luther Burrell. The giant Northampton centre could have got a chance against Argentina had it not been for Twelvetrees' shocker the weekend before against Australia. Rather than throwing the Gloucester centre to the outskirts of the England side, Lancaster backed him to bounce back against the Pumas, and in the process prevented Burrell from making his Test bow. England lack a cutting edge in the centres and Lancaster must give Burrell the nod come the Six Nations.
Indiscipline costs Islanders dear
Fiji did well to end up within six points from Italy at the end of their Test on Saturday. During the first-half they were reduced to 11 men and collected a record-breaking five yellow cards throughout the match. Had they kept their full contingent, they could have got a memorable win against Italy. And any hopes of a Tonga triumph against France ended when Sona Taumalolo was shown a red card. While France were also reduced to 14-men, they had the ability to soak up the loss of Yoann Maestri, Tonga did not have such a luxury.
Pitches are scrum farce
This column mentioned the poor pitches last week and it needs highlighting again. The Murrayfield pitch was an absolute shambles while the turf in Cardiff resembles a speedway track more than a rugby field befitting that fine stadium. Such was the patchiness of the Edinburgh turf that both packs failed to grip when in scrums and it did no favours to the Test.
The gap between south and north
Despite Steve Hansen's post-match assertion that the perceived and discussed gap between southern and northern hemisphere rugby is perhaps over-egged, it is hard to argue anything other than the fact that South Africa and New Zealand are playing the game at a higher level than anyone else in the world. South Africa did not have to get out of second gear against Scotland while the All Blacks are on for an unbeaten 2013. Australia also gave Ireland an absolute battering at the Aviva Stadium. The gap is still there and the poor return over the autumn Tests has done little to narrow it. Ireland, Scotland and Wales still have a chance to save face for the northern hemisphere teams, but they will need to find another level to their game.
Welcome to international rugby, Joe Schmidt
Schmidt would have learnt a harsh lesson from Ireland's hammering at the hands of the Wallabies. He fielded an experienced team with veterans Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell both starting. But they lost four tries to nil in Dublin with Australia cutting their defence to shreds. Perhaps what might have been most worrying was his pack's failings as the Wallabies bullied them while their aimless kicking game - hitting the ball direct to Israel Folau is never a good idea at the best of times - did little to help their cause.
Up next? The All Blacks. Ireland will need to regroup this week or it could be ugly next weekend, as Luke Marshall admitted after their loss to the Wallabies. "If we plan to play like that, there's no point in going out on the pitch next week."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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