England and Wales in search of southern comfort
LONDON (AFP) –
After yet another largely depressing European autumn series for the Home Nations, England and Wales have one last chance to salvage some self-respect for the British Isles on Saturday.
So far this month, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have all failed to win against traditional southern hemisphere giants New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
There is one more chance to redress the balance on Saturday when England face world champions New Zealand at Twickenham and Wales play Australia at the Millennium Stadium.
But for France’s thrilling 33-6 win over the Wallabies, a display that suggested coach Philippe Saint-Andre is at last moulding a talented group of players into a cohesive unit, it would have been a truly wretched month for Europe’s best.
Indeed, ‘wretched’ summed up the performances of Wales when, even before they faced Australia and New Zealand, the Six Nations Grand Slam champions were well beaten at home by both Argentina and Samoa.
Ireland and Scotland have now completed their campaigns with the Irish finishing with a seven-try flourish against an Argentina side all but out on their feet at the end of a truly gruelling schedule.
But for the Scots their rugby plight was laid bare by a humiliating 21-15 loss to Tonga last weekend that led to Andy Robinson’s resignation as Scotland coach.
As for England, they have lost at home to both Australia and South Africa, albeit by a combined total of seven points.
England coach Stuart Lancaster has praised the effort and commitment of his side. But such qualities should be expected of any Test team, let alone one as well-resourced as England, who will aim to win a second World Cup when they stage the next edition of rugby’s global showpiece in 2015.
However, Monday’s pool draw will see New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France as the top four seeds.
And if Wales lose to Australia this weekend, they will drop into the third tier of seeds potentially scuppering their hopes of success in 2015 as they will be placed in a pool with two currently higher-ranked teams, with only two from each group going through to the quarter-finals.
The last few weeks have been tough to take for the old quartet of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, particularly as next year will see them join forces for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
A Lions series against the Wallabies has long been regarded by many in the northern hemisphere as more ‘winnable’ than those with their traditional foes, the All Blacks and the Springboks.
But on this latest evidence, Australia will return home far from frightened by the challenge that lies ahead.
The situation has become particularly acute in Wales, the one European region where rugby union rather than football remains the national sport.
Much was made of their success in getting to the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup in New Zealand but the Welsh reached the last four without defeating one of the ‘big three’ and left having still failed to do so after their third place play-off loss to Australia.
In their recent matches Wales, and indeed England too, have been undone by a lack of rugby ‘nous’, with their opponents demonstrating better basic skills.
At least England have recent memories of what it is like to beat one of the old Tri-Nations, defeating Australia 35-18 at Twickenham in 2010.
But Wales’ record under coach Warren Gatland, now in charge of the Lions, is one win, against Australia four years ago, and 19 defeats.
“It has got to the stage now where enough is enough,” said Sam Warburton, the Wales captain.
“I said to the players before the New Zealand game (which Wales lost 33-10 last week) that I’ve only been involved (at Test level) for three or four years and it is already getting on my nerves, this whole southern hemisphere scalp.”
Another defeat and the flanker will be far from alone in his frustration.