What a fascinating start to the autumn international series we saw this weekend! England have started brightly with a positive win albeit over a relatively weak Fiji side, whilst Scotland showed some promising signs scoring well against a strong New Zealand team.
On the flip side Ireland didn’t really show their true colours and were ground down by a dogged South Africa side, and Wales underestimated an improving Argentina side.
Let’s start with England. It was a bit of a one horse race with the Fijians not really having the squad to cope with a fired up and hungry England side. England will be encouraged by an excellent performance by their backs, most notably the two younger headline grabbers Charlie Sharples and Alex Goode.
As you know though for me it’s all about the platform that was laid for the backs to score all those tries and I must say I was impressed with the performance of Tom Youngs on debut. There have been question marks about his lineout throwing, but he hit his targets all day and looked very comfortable in what is a very open position in terms of Lions contention.
The Scots had a tough opening fixture against the World Champions and it’s no surprise they dominated Scotland for large parts of the game scoring some wonderful tries and exposing the frailties of the Scottish defence. Tim Visser will take the headlines for his two try performance but I was also impressed with the work ethic of the Scottish pack who never stopped making tackles. Alasdair Strokosch and the two locks Ritchie Grey and Jim Hamilton in particular were cutting down trees all day long, but Scotland lacked the ability to hold on to possession, and when they gave possession away they usually didn’t get it back again until after the All Blacks had scored.
Ireland laboured to a disappointing defeat in Dublin against the Springboks. The game was patchy and lacked any real creativity or invention from either side. The South Africans seemed quite happy with grinding out the win by wearing down their opposition and Ireland had no real desire to offer much else to counter with. Sexton showed his qualities with the boot by kicking all Ireland’s points, but he missed two crucial kicks that proved to be the difference in the score line. Overall there were no real stand out performers in the Irish side and they missed their leaders Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll desperately.
Wales were the stand-out dunces this week. Poor performances all round from a vastly under prepared side. Never mind the players for a minute, the most worrying thing from a Lions perspective was the performance of Rob Howley who failed to adequately prepare the Welsh team for what he must have known would be a difficult game against a resurgent Argentina side. Despite working with Warren Gatland at test level for Wales normally, it doesn’t bode very well for his Lions coaching ambitions.
One of the most damning things about this weekend was the lack of leadership from any of the Home Unions, but most notably Wales and Ireland. Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip both had extremely poor games. Heaslip was sat in the sin bin whilst South Africa scored the vast majority of their points, whilst Warburton may as well have not been on the field for the Welsh such was his anonymity.
The Lions captain is the most open race it has been for some time. The last two or three tours, the captain has been a bit of a shoo-in for months beforehand, but not this time around. We’ll need to see an increase in intensity from each of the home unions, but particularly their captains.
Finally, what we can take heart from though is the performance of our Lions opposition at the weekend. Australia looked completely out of sorts against a competent but not world beating French side. Robbie Deans was already under immense pressure before the autumn internationals and he will be needing to step things up next week against the English at Twickenham this weekend otherwise the pressure from back home will ratchet up a notch further.
Next week, former Bath, England and British & Irish Lion Gareth ‘Cooch’ Chilcott will be giving us his views about this weekend’s Internationals and those players that stood out for him. Check back here next week for his unique Lions Watch.