After a thrilling sequence of Test matches, Iain Morrison assesses how the contenders are shaping up with less than a year to go until the Rugby World Cup in Japan
1 Scotland can see rugby’s pinnacle but they are not there yet
Scotland do not yet field the power to run with the big dogs in world rugby. Although the return of Richie Gray will ameliorate the problem, they still need a human hammer in the back row to prevent the sort of breakdown break-up they suffered against the bully boy Bokke last weekend. Blade Thomson and Sam Skinner are a different breed but it would have been instructive to see Gary Graham play against South Africa or, indeed, anyone.
2 Low scoring games still offer plenty of drama
The wet weather helped keep a lid on things but the most compelling drama came largely from low scoring games. Wales/Australia failed to produce a single try in 80 minutes but not too many fans left the Principality Stadium early. In similar fashion the Ireland/All Black encounter was none the worse for being decided by the game’s only try that fell to Jacob Stockdale.
3 The All Blacks look vulnerable
All great teams look utterly unbeatable until, that is, they lose. The All Blacks struggled to wriggle free from England’s defensive straight jacket and they failed to escape from Ireland’s all-enveloping bear hug. New Zealand have lost any number of players abroad, including Bundee Aki and Brad Shields, who faced the Haka, but it is coach Joe Schmidt who should have been nailed down years ago. The World Cup just got a lot more interesting.
4 Ireland won the battle and now have to win the tug o’war
Irish rugby was something of a joke just a generation ago; what was the famous saying, “the situation is critical but not serious”? Now the joke is on everyone else because Ireland not only deserved their win over New Zealand but they achieved it without Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy. You can bet that Ireland will be throwing everything at Joe Schmidt, the keys to the Guinness brewery included, to induce him to stay in Dublin. We’ll know his decision in a day or so.
5 The Pacific Islands are not at the races
A scratch Wales team put an eye-watering ten tries past Tonga while Fiji conceded 54 points at Murrayfield to a Scotland side they beat just over a year ago. Oh, and those two are the best of the Pac Islands because Samoa are in even worse shape. Let’s hope that Fiji, at least, come good in time for RWC ’19.
6 The TMO has gone AWOL
The failure to nail Siya Kolisi for that headbutt was a whack in the face for Scotland, which is pretty much what Peter Horne’s cynicism got him. According to World Rugby, the Springboks skipper was saved by “mitigating factors”. Horne was holding him on the ground and, they said, there was “moderate force of the strike to the side of the head”. So the totemic Springboks’ skipper got out of jail because his headbutt (mostly) missed its intended target. He walked free thanks to incompetence, his own. The highest sanction for a headbutt is a two-year ban. The entry level is four weeks. In my book Horne’s cheating got exactly what it deserved but I don’t expect World Rugby to adopt the same Old Testament attitude. To borrow from Mrs Merton, what is it about South Africa’s first black captain that prevented World Rugby from pursuing him?
7 Too early for Rassie’s Bokke
The Springboks are a team in transition and not just because of the “transformation” in terms of more black players. There is a lack of experience which results in inconsistent performances. There is not too much wrong with the forward pack although more ball handlers in the back five would help. But some of the backs – like Embrose Papier, Andre Esterhuizen and Aphiwe Dyantyi – need more time in the saddle. And if Handre Pollard breaks a leg they can throw in the towel. Put money on them winning RWC23, in France, where they have form.
8 Scotland’s World Cup just got harder
Gregor Townsend has to look down as well as up when Scotland dive into Pool A of next year’s World Cup. Ireland were favourites to top the group even before that All Blacks scalp but Scotland’s other pool rivals Japan proved doughty competitors at Twickenham. They were leading England at half time and Jamie Joseph’s side will have heat, humidity and home advantage behind them in 2019 when they take on Scotland in a crucial tie for both teams.
9 Duncan Taylor is the missing piece in Scotland’s midfield
All four starting centres for Scotland made a howler, or several of them, including missed tackles and missed opportunities. If fit, Taylor would be first choice at 12 and first shout at 13 as well, with the others slotting in around him. Huw Jones’ missed tackle on Jon Davies came because he didn’t get an early call to “push” from Alex Dunbar. Taylor is a communicator, the glue that holds it together in defence and a potent threat in attack. Fingers crossed.
10 England won’t be far away next year
Eddie Jones is an odd one. Calling for his current side to “smash” his previous one when it was only going to motivate Japan to greater things. Maybe that is what he wanted? England need to go back to their power game, utilise their big runners and deny the opposition time and space on the ball. Even without some big names, Jones has done a decent job this autumn, and if England can get out of a tough World Cup pool which also features France and Argentina then they will likely have a reasonable looking quarter-final against either Wales or the Wallabies.