DONAL LENIHAN: Notes from November

NINETEEN internationals in a calendar month involving 12 different countries provides a surfeit of information not only on the state of the game but also on the form lines of the main pretenders for honours with the 2011 World Cup now coming into sharp focus.

New Zealand were the only country to emerge with a 100% record winning all four contests on tour, five if one includes their Bledisloe Cup encounter with Australia in Tokyo en route to Europe.

Once again they are ranked as the number one side in world rugby two years out from a RWC having overtaken South Africa by virtue of their respective performances over the last month.

That is exactly where they were before the last three World Cups and we all know what happened when the main event came calling in 1999, 2003 and 2007. Given that they will be hosting the next global showdown the pressure on them to deliver will be massive.

Graham Henry has done well on this tour after a very disappointing Tri Nations where once again the absence of their two totemic figures, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, for much of that series proved too big a burden. The minute they returned, the fortunes of their team improved dramatically.

Last Saturday’s victory over France in Marseilles not only compensated for the 22-27 defeat to the French in Dunedin last June but it was also the most complete performance of any side this autumn.

Dan Carter, now fully recovered from the achilles tendon injury that threatened his career, was simply majestic and tore the French apart. All too often pundits rage that the All Blacks are not half the team without their two key playmakers. And? World class performers separate good teams from great teams. In 2005, Ireland went through an autumn series without Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell and the results were very disappointing. Even now with Ireland playing some inspired rugby, the team just would not be the same if those two were forced out at the same time. That is a simple fact of life.

The most satisfying aspect of Ireland’s November campaign at both full and A international level is that several new players have been blooded and have not looked out of place beyond the comfort of their provincial teams. In all, 56 players saw game time in five separate outings, 28 at each level.

The overall depth in playing resources has improved and the most rewarding aspect of the work carried out by the Irish management team (trophies apart), is the amount of fresh faces that have been introduced to the international arena. With players such as Marcus Horan, Shane Jennings and Geordan Murphy back in the mix by January, the portents are good.

Ireland apart, the two teams that interested me most over the last few weeks were France and Australia, the former because they will prove the biggest obstacle in retaining our Six Nations crown and the latter as they share Pool C with Ireland in RWC 2011. Let’s deal with the French first.

Their 20-13 win over South Africa in Toulouse was arguably a more impressive performance than Ireland’s win last Saturday in that they created more and dismantled the Springbok scrum.

They followed up that victory with a comprehensive demolition of Samoa before imploding against New Zealand. The fact that they were so badly exposed by the All Blacks will actually serve them better for the Six Nations for had they won that contest they may have got carried away with themselves.

The mistake they made against New Zealand was that they allowed them to play too much rugby. The physical intensity they brought to the table against the Springboks was dispensed with on this occasion and their defence was badly exposed.

Despite that win over South Africa, French coach Marc Lievremont made six changes – two injury-enforced – to the team that faced the All Blacks. Four of those alterations were in the pack and it showed. The loss of Imanol Harinordoquy, who is back to his very best at the moment and Louis Picamoles from the back row was immense. The decision to bench Nicolas Mas and Lionel Nallet from the front five also backfired.

For some reason Lievremont persisted in playing Biarritz centre Damien Traille at full back where his positional play against New Zealand was dreadful. I expect Maxime Medard will be handed the No 15 jersey for the championship. France have improved immeasurably over the last few months, despite last Saturday’s setback and with Ireland travelling to Paris in February they will target that game as the most pivotal of the championship.

Their pack will be formidable but the biggest issue for Lievremont remains who he will pick at out half to run the show. Francois Trinh Duc has been his preferred choice but he still fails to control a game and he may be forced to revert to Lionel Beauxis who was injured for the autumn series. Half backs apart, France once again have a formidable squad.

Anyone taking pleasure at the misery Australia have endured on this trip, losing to Scotland and drawing with Ireland, better think again. Unlike New Zealand they are past masters at peaking for World Cups. They have had a torrid season losing five of their six Tri Nations outings, yet they finished on a high with a glimpse of what they will be capable of producing in their demolition of Wales. September 17, 2011 is a date that Declan Kidney will have embedded on his brain as that is the day Ireland meet the Wallabies in Pool C in Ellis Park Auckland, a venue that they will be very familiar with.

Whoever wins that game will top the pool. The significance of that is that in all likelihood they will then advance to play Wales in the quarter-final. Lose the pool encounter and reigning champions South Africa will in all probability be their opponent. That is why we will all be forensically examining the progress of the Wallabies over the next two years.

A shambolic scrum was the single reason why England eliminated the Aussies at the quarter final stage two years but the emergence of Ben boys, Robinson and Alexander has solved that issue. Their line-out is stillvulnerable but with Nathan Sharpe likely to return from injury there is scope for improvement on that front. With Rocky Elsom finally afforded a break from rugby, he too should be back to his best by the summer. The emergence of David Pocock has added further to the effectiveness of the Wallabies at the breakdown and in tandem with Elsom and George Smith they could be devastating.

Behind the scrum, under fire coach Robbie Deans has introduced a whole host of young players who are barely shaving and they could transform the side if their pack continues to develop and produce quick ball. In two years time players like Quade Cooper, Digby Ioane, Will Genia and James O’Connor will be household names. Matt Giteau with 77 caps is still only 27 years of age and with Stirling Mortlock and Berrick Barnes also available, Deans will have some difficult but welcome choices to make.

On June 26, next year Ireland finish off their season with a return fixture against Australia in Brisbane. That game will offer the next clear indicator as to where both countries sit on the road to that date with destiny in 2011.

While the Wallabies rest, Ireland have a Six Nations championship to defend and more scope to develop. It should be interesting.


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