An autumn rugby season to savour

2014-11-08 00:00

THIS weekend marks the beginning of the autumn season of international rugby that has traditionally been a month during which the participating countries drag as much money as they can out of the pockets of the game’s supporters.

The tired bodies of the Southern Hemisphere teams are submitted to a few last heaves before their brief holidays after which the whole cycle begins again. The results of the matches, whilst meaningful for a few hours, provide little more than a temporary measure of each team’s standing in world rugby.

This year, however, the matches have a greater significance than usual because of the looming Rugby World Cup which takes place next year in England. This is the last chance the coaches of the southern teams will be able to assess their players’ performances in conditions similar to those of the world cup.

In fact, the world cup will be played a full month earlier and conditions then are likely to be firmer than those encountered over the next month.

The most interesting of the first round of matches will be that between England and the All Blacks. England are thought by their supporters to have a real chance of defeating the All Blacks at Twickenham, where the home team won two years ago against an exhausted New Zealand team.

If England do win this match, it will stoke the argument that the All Blacks are no longer clear favourites to win the 2015 world cup, a situation which, whilst pleasing to some teams, will not faze the Kiwis.

The England camp will have been lifted by the defeat of the All Blacks by the Springboks in the Rugby Championship and the very tight matches played against them by the Wallabies who were unlucky not to come away with at least one victory. The feeling around Twickenham is that the All Blacks might be there for the taking and that this England team are ready and able to take them down.

Much of this belief comes from the quiet revolution that has been masterminded by Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, who took over the ill disciplined and arrogant rabble that contested the last world cup in New Zealand. Lancaster has overhauled every aspect that surrounds and affects the England team.

Character has been all important for the England coach. He believes that you have to have character to be a great international player. When it comes to tough selection decisions he always goes for character. Kevin Pietersen would have not found a place in his team. He believes that, in a sport like rugby, a player who was only in it for himself would never survive through the club structures, let alone fit into a top class international team.

Lancaster has been able to get his players to embrace an entirely new culture, identity and cause. He has moved well outside of rugby to gather in a harvest of examples that have had a deep impact on his players. He showed them a video of Graeme Smith saying what it meant to play for the Proteas and to represent his country of 50 million people. Smith said: “I think it is important we recognise how big our responsibility is. Our country is crying out for its next inspirational story. We need to re-invent ourselves as the best team in the world. We have the skill but do we have the character?”

This is the question that Lancaster hopes will be answered in the affirmative by his players later today. The meticulous transformation of the players’ facilities at Twickenham and their training base at Pennyhill Park where the pitch that is identical to that of Twickenham, the inspirational introduction to the players of the history of English rugby, the overhaul of selection policies and a maturer relationship between players and coaches have all been designed to produce a performance that can beat the All Black this afternoon.

It is the All Blacks team who have consumed Lancaster over these past four years. He has borrowed from them the principles they have used in their culture, their values and their identity. He wants England to be a comparable band of brothers who embrace their jersey and honour their legacy. Just how far Lancaster has brought his team will be on view today but is it possible he can achieved in four years what has evolved in New Zealand for over a century? One thinks not.

It would be a mistake to assume that a single victory over the All Blacks is anything other than that. It is only when a team are able to match the extraordinary consistency of the All Blacks in varying conditions at different venues that it deserves to be spoken of as a long-term challenger to their hegemony.

There is, of course, another match this afternoon at Landsdowne Road that will be of more interest to the South African and Irish supporters. There is a growing belief that Heyneke Meyer is on the verge of creating a special squad who are capable of playing with more width and enterprise than its immediate predecessors while retaining the punishing physicality of all Springbok teams.

Much is being expected of Handré Pollard who South Africans hope is going to be the sort of quality fly half that can mange his team’s performances in the style of Dan Carter and his classy understudies. One should remember that Pollard is in the infancy of his international career and that the role of Pat Lambie as his impact replacement is still evolving.

This tour will be a different experience for both of these young men. The most we ought to hope for from them is that they learn lessons in the next month that will stand them in good stead at the world cup.

The best outcome for these Springboks is the development of the confidence that their style of play will take care of the score on the board whoever they play this time next year.

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