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RUGBYPASS+ Uncertain England left looking for answers

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Uncertain England left looking for answers

The first weekend of the summer Tests got off to a spellbinding start as the Southern Hemisphere asserted their dominance over their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. It was Wales who were closest to an unlikely victory, losing to a last minute penalty, but England were humbled by the 14-man Wallabies in Perth and Ireland were picked apart by the All Blacks bent on revenge and Scotland underwhelmed in Argetina. It’s all dissected by RugbyPass+

England stuttering into mediocrity

England have been here before. Leading a game with a numerical advantage but failing to land the knockout blow. Ironically, the best England have played in this calendar year has been when down to 14-men, where they competed with a slick Irish unit for 70-minutes before succumbing to some late fatigue as Andy Farrell’s men found a way to finish them off. Against the Barbarians, with Will Skelton’s 37th minute dismissal, England simply failed to exert the pressure expected of having an extra man and were thumped 52-21,  despite Eddie Jones dismissing the game as an irrelevance in the bigger scheme of things. A fortnight on, it seems, it was just the hors d’oeuvre to another maddening display in a game they should have won.

Leading 14-9, as the game slid into the final quarter, it was Australia, who were emboldened by England’s mental frailty, scoring three unanswered tries, through Jordan Petaia, Folau Fainga’a and Pete Samu, to canter into an unassailable 30-9 lead. Were it not for Henry Arudnell’s latest x-factor cameo, and a Jack van Poortvliet dash over the whitewash in the last play of the game, to give the scoreboard a barely deserving sheen, England could have been looking at a record defeat.

The autopsy on the first Test will have to be rapid, with Eddie Jones already talking about a 2-1 Series victory, but make no doubt, these are worrying times for the RFU, with the side looking nothing like world champions. Tom Curry is flying home, leaving Jack Willis or Sam Underhill to counter Michael Hooper’s breakdown nous and there are question marks over the relationship between Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, which resembles one of Australia’s more dubious exports, Married at First Sight, where two individuals are thrown into a union before being forced to work on their differences in real time, under the camera lights.

Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete exposed a lack of muscle as they carried 111m between them and out wide, the brooding presence of Joe Cokanasiga was almost criminally underutilised as England struggled to impose themselves on the gainline. The penalty count was in double-figures and with Jonny Hill lucky not to follow Darcy Swain into a permanent exclusion for some hair-pulling, and Billy Vunipola a tad unlucky after a marginal high shot, discipline could also be improved.

For all Jones’ protestations about looking to France, where he could be judged, England fans are looking shorter term, as the questions outweigh the answers. Dave Rennie will be licking his lips for the Second Test.

Wales finally show they have able deputies for AWJ and Ken Owens

There was a time when Wales would fold without their twin totems, Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens on the field. Despite all the murmurs about their advancing years, they were too fine a player’s to discard because Wales didn’t have the requisite quality to replace them. In essence it was up the chasing pack to ‘retire’ the iconic duo.

Through injury absences to Jones and Owens, Wayne Pivac’s men have been forced to adapt, forced to blood players who would normally be watching on while the duo exhibited their warrior-like spirit for Wales. Will Rowlands is no carbon copy for Jones – who could be? – but the square-jawed Oxford scholar is a fine player in his own right. Seven years to the day younger than AWJ, he has a spring in his step that saw him make ground at a fair lick for a man of 6ft 6in and 19st, and his workrate and high-tackle count saw him rack up 16 tackles over the 80 minutes. It was Adam Beard who was replaced by Jones, leaving the Dragons lock on to duel with Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth, which speaks volumes.

Dewi Lake
Dewi Lake is maturing into a top-class hooker (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the front row, Ryan Elias has proved an able deputy for his regional team-mate, Owens, and at 27, he is nearing his peak years, yet it is Dewi Lake, who has only recently turned 23, who you could imagine wearing the No 2 shirt at the World Cup, leaving Owens and Elias to tussle for a bench spot. Lake’s physicality is well-suited to going toe-to-toe with sides like the Springboks, and his athletic leap to the line in the 76th minute was a visceral example of the power he brings in close quarters. He was also able to stop the fast-advancing Kwagga Smith with bone shuddering hit. With his set-piece work rapidly improving, Lake looks like the coming man for France.

There is no reason to discard the experience of Owens and Jones, but no longer indispensable – something you couldn’t have imagined saying 12 months ago.

Black day for the Irish

When you go 28 years and 47 games without defeat in the same stadium, you must have something about you. When you go through history with just five sides getting the better of you – and four of those are the only other teams to have played in a World Cup final, and the fifth the British and Irish Lions – well, it’s clear you value your tradition and build on it.

Here in Auckland, we didn’t see the best of the All Blacks on Saturday by any stretch and yet we were still awestruck by the way they won a game by a 23-point margin even though they had just over 40 per cent of possession.

No team in the world punishes the opposition off turnover ball quite like New Zealand. Indeed no team comes close. You have scenarios where Ireland are attacking in the All Blacks 22, their captain suffering an injury mid-move which forces him off to go for a HIA, and from being on the way to a 12-7 lead, they make one error and it is 14-5.

Peter O'Mahony
Peter O’Mahony speaks to a shellshocked Ireland side (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Shortly after, the Irish scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, takes a quick tap penalty when everyone in the stadium is screaming No, Don’t!!!!! Ireland get turned over. They had an opportunity of gaining entry to the All Blacks 22; they end up in their own 22, and within a 90-second timeframe, end up conceding a third try.

You could say that’s Irish sloppiness and you’d be right. You could also say it’s ruthless execution on New Zealand’s behalf. In a 20-minute spell on Saturday they scored as many tries against Ireland as France/England/Scotland/Wales/Italy managed in this year’s Six Nations. That’s not down to luck or sloppiness. It’s not to attacking brilliance.

The Pumas return

As the confetti blazed and the old Estadio 23 de Agosto shuddered, you couldn’t help but be moved. Here were Los Pumas, on home turf at long last, a packed out and unmistakeably Argentine venue revelling in their glory.

Of all the rugby nations stupefied by covid, Argentina may have suffered most grievously. Their Super Rugby franchise, the Jaguares, were effectively booted out of the competition, undoing years of painstaking work and investment. Nine months before the pandemic struck, the Jaguares had made the final. With no prospect of top-level club rugby at home, their players were advised to skedaddle, and pick up whatever contracts they could overseas. Argentina’s place in the Rugby Championship was, for a time, in grave jeopardy too. As SANZAAR nations closed ranks and the game reeled, they became victims of geography.

Over one-thousand days had passed since Los Pumas played a Test match in their own country, before their own people. The small, rustic and economically modest province Jujuy, and a sold-out, 24,000 capacity stadium with a fence and a moat and a formidable flock of pitch-invading pigeons, provided the backdrop.

And how Argentina delivered the performance to match. For all Scotland were poor – and they were very poor – the Pumas went at them like beasts, harnessing the occasion and the purpose. They were better on the ground and in the air, in attack and defence, and tellingly, at the set-piece, where the Scottish scrum was smithereened. Old-school behemoth Marcos Kremer was omnipotent. Matias Orlando carried, tackled and line-broke himself into the dirt. Agustin Creevy, fit to burst with emotion, trundled on to end a three-year international exile and helped muscle Argentina over the finish line.

Michael Cheika, in his first game as head coach, allowed himself a chuckle and a smile in the aftermath. He has spoken much this week about playing against the odds, against their gilded championship rivals and against the rotten hand rugby has so often dealt them.

What Cheika has, though, is a group of towering ability and serious experience. There are Argentine fingerprints on all but two of the game’s biggest club prizes and his starting XV had close to double the number of caps as that put out by Gregor Townsend. In his Pumas squad are Premiership winners, European Champions Cup winners, European Challenge Cup winners, and a Super Rugby champion. There are luminaries of the club game all over the place, even those whose teams fell short last term. Look at Kremer and Santiago Cordero of Bordeaux-Begles, Juan Imhoff of Racing 92, or Santiago Carreras of Gloucester.

His challenge will lie in tying all this together, producing a blueprint and a feelgood that vanished in a trying 2021. He has the building blocks, though. He has a rousing start in the top job. And he has, overwhelmingly, a cause behind which to unite his men.

More questions for tame Scotland

Scotland were desperately underwhelming for all but 15 second-half minutes in Jujuy, when they finally stirred from their torpor and landed two well-taken tries. As soon as they’d drawn level, they promptly conceded again. The final throes were an exercise in frustration and game management – or lack of it.

The stats make grim reading. Scotland made one line break and conceded a dozen turnovers. Only one of the starting pack managed more than five carries. Their scrum disintegrated and penalties tumbled out of it like sweets from a beaten pinata. The lineout was decidedly shaky. Their decision-making was wayward and the error count mountainous. Not once in a desperate first half did they manage a visit to the Argentina 22. Duhan van der Merwe, their greatest strike runner, touched the ball three times and his biggest contribution was a try-saving cover tackle on Santiago Cordero.

Scotland had no business looking so rusty. Not against an Argentine team who had not played since November. Not against an Argentine team who, by the admission of their coach, could only train seriously twice a week due to the demands of their never-ending club seasons. Not against an Argentine team scattered far and wide across Europe, and even New Zealand, in the wake of the pandemic. Not against an Argentine team who lost their first-choice scrum-half in the warm-up and their first-choice stand-off in the opening quarter.

Scotland
Scotland’s disappointing outing against Argentina has put more scrutiny upon Gregor Townsend’s shoulders (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Gregor Townsend’s pack looked under-powered and short of dynamism. Though Rory Hutchinson went well at full-back it was frustrating that, like Van der Merwe, he did not get on the ball more often where his play-making acumen could make a difference. Blair Kinghorn’s distribution and decision-making at stand-off were erratic, barring the two-try blitz, when he showed the kind of skill and threat which have his coaches so excited about his potential as a Test 10. Overall, though, that potential seems a way off being realised yet.

The injury-enforced absence of Adam Hastings, to whom Townsend would have looked to steer Scotland to victory, was telling. So, too, that Ross Thompson, Kinghorn’s back-up, was the only unused replacement. It would not be a shock to see Hutchinson given a whirl in the pivot role before the series is out.

It should be noted that Scotland were without their four most influential players: Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson. But with a World Cup looming, they cannot deliver such meek stuff.

The Six Nations was a largely chastening experience. A soporific first Test has done little to salve those wounds.

Bouncebackability

The Irish tour heads south on Wednesday – geographically speaking. From Auckland, it’s Dunedin next stop. Their concern, their need, is to stop things heading south in the other sense of the word.

After losing 42-19 on Saturday, hope remains high in this Ireland camp that they can turn it around. They’re good at breaking records, this Ireland crew, and have been busily taking scalps across a couple of decades.

But this is different. Not only have Ireland failed to ever win a test in New Zealand, they’ve also won just 33 per cent of their away games under Andy Farrell; at home their win ratio under Farrell stands at 94 per cent.

Inside the squad, the same message prevails, that they can win away, that they can level the series, that they can make history. But a nagging feeling persists, that Ireland at home is a different beast to Ireland away. In Dunedin we’ll be closer to finding out if this perception is true.

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