Alex Massie

Autumn Rugby Round-Up

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So, now that the autumn internationals have been completed, we can assess who's best advanced their preparations for the Six Nations this spring and, longer-term, the next World Cup which, while still distant, is now within sight. In descending order, then, of satisfaction (not quite the same as achievement), the rankings might go something like this:

1. Ireland: The only northern hemisphere side to survive November unbeaten, even if they were mildly fortunate to escape with a draw against Australia. Better than anything on the scoreboard, however, was the emergence of Jonny Sexton as a true international-class fly-half. Next projects: finding a fresh tighthead prop and a genuine open-side flanker. Trips to Paris and London make a second Grand Slam an unlikely proposition, but Irish rugby remains on a high.

2. France: Until they were walloped by the All Blacks in Marseilles, France had been looking good. Deprived of Picamoles and Harinordoquy for the NZ game, and deploying Chabal in the second-row, France were too lightweight to monster the All Black forwards and, from 20 minutes on, there wasn't enough intensity about the French. Nor did Francois Trinh-Duc have one of his happier days. Nonetheless, Marc Lievremont now seems to know his best team - which is bad news for everyone else, but great news for those of us who love French rugby. On their day they remain the best team in europe. On their day...

3. Scotland: After the high of beating Australia, the loss to Argentina was infuriating and disappointing in equal measure. An old failing - being unable to convert pressure into points - reappeared and cost the Scots victory in a match that should have been won by half-time.

Nevertheless, the Scots at least know where they're going and the emergence of Alex Grove and Johnny Beattie this autumn are major plusses. A lot rests on Glasgow's Ruaridh Jackson, however: unless, when he recovers from injury, he emulates Sexton and becomes an internaitonal 10 quickly, Scotland will continue to struggle. If Jackson doesn't make the grade it will be four years (at least!) before Scotland have a proper test stand-off. A grim thought. Phil Godman wouldn't even be third choice in Ireland, Wales or England. That's a problem.

4. Wales were hammered by the Wallabies and lucky not to be beaten by Samoa. Injuries and lack of form explain some of this, but not all of it. Against Australia Martyn Williams suddenly looked a pensioner. With the laws as they are, there's a case for saying that 7 is the most important, influential position on the pitch. At the very least, teams need to win two of the three battles at 7,9 and 10 to prevail. Of course in the championship Williams won't face an opponent as talented as David Pocock or George Smith. Nonetheless, this was an autumn that delivered much less than it had promised and Wales look out of sorts. The talent is there, however.

5. England. Yes, England have had to endure a lengthy injury list. But they were miserable this autumn. If the All Blacks had played (or bothered to play) as well against England as they did against France they'd have put 50 points past England. One try in three games tels its own story. Worse, it's hard to see what this England side are about. Rugby is often a matter of what the French call terroir. But there's no hint of that from England, nothing distinctive about their play, nothing stamped "Made in England and Proud". It could be from anywhere and, hence, is from nowhere. Instead, there's a muscled-blandness to their play, a formulaic staidness and, above all, a crippling fear of making a mistake that a) inhibits their play and b) actually makes mistakes more likely. There's nothing to England's play at the moment that makes you think these guys actually enjoy playing rugby. There's no joy, no expression, no flair, no zip.

England have the players to recover from this wretched autumn, the question is whether they have the nerve to do so and the courage to play properly. Lewis Moody emerges from the autumn with credit but that's about it. England have Scotland's fly-half problem too, only at 9 instead of 10. Paul Hodgson would be fourth-choice scrum-half if he were Scottish. Surely, even in the absence of Harry Ellis, England can do better than that?

6. Italy. No Sergio Parisse = No Chance. Sadly.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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