As the summer tours got under way, there was plenty to delight the watching fans, but just as much to disappoint them.
England skipper Chris Robshaw had a stunning game against New Zealand on Saturday and oh-so-nearly led his team to a famous victory against all the odds. England – without several first and even second choice players – were pipped 20-15 by a late try but Robshaw’s contribution could not have been greater.
For starters, he obviously helped his players to get their mind-set exactly right, despite the fact everyone had written off their chances before the game. Then, with just two minutes gone, he burst through the All Blacks defence on a terrific run which would have resulted in a try for James Haskell if Ma’a Nonu hadn’t intervened with a professional foul.
Robshaw made a total of ten runs (bettered only by Mike Brown and Manu Tuilagi) eating up 61 metres of Eden Park turf (Tuilagi was the only England player ahead of him, with 84). The skipper also found time to make seven tackles.
Robshaw rounded off a great day at the office with the perfect reaction to the loss, insisting that honourable defeat was not good enough for this England team. “The only result that matters is that one at the end, and that went their way,” he said. “We’re extremely proud of all the effort that’s gone in to come here and do what we did. Extremely proud, but we can’t be happy with it. We’ve come down here to win a Test series, simple as that.”
Carry me home
With the Test poised at 9-9 as the last quarter approached, England had their backs to the wall with a scrum five metres from their own line. New Zealand had enjoyed 80% of second-half territory up to this point and it looked like England might crack under the pressure.
Then up stepped No 8 Ben Morgan. Instead of giving his half-backs an opportunity to kick away from behind the scrum and give the All Blacks another attacking platform, he decided it was time to try to carry England home. He picked up and raced up the blindside, galloping beyond the 22. His courage, power and pace put England on the front foot and they duly scored next, when Freddie Burns kicked a penalty a few minutes later.
Freddie Burns has had a season to forget at Gloucester. After forcing his way into the England squad last year, he lost his way through the winter, distracted by his decision to leave Kingsholm for Leicester, and slipped down the pecking order.
Injuries and unavailabilities meant Stuart Lancaster handed Burns the No 10 jersey for this first Test and he responded to the faith shown in him by rediscovering his old form. The young fly-half looked confident and totally at home on a very intimidating stage. He kicked all his penalties, from all angles, and used England’s possession well.
Yes, Burns ultimately ended up on the losing side but he confounded his critics with by far his best performance for many a month.
Lock of ages
Ireland skipper Paul O’Connell won his 100th Test cap on Saturday (93 for Ireland and seven for the Lions) and underlined once again what a great asset he is to his nation as he led them to a 29-17 victory in Argentina.
The Munster lock is still setting the standards for Ireland at Test level. He made eight tackles, eight runs and won four lineouts and he was at the heart of a scrum which demolished Argentina’s pack.
O’Connell’s attitude and leadership are as important as his physical strength and skills and he is setting the highest standards for his team, criticising their performance despite their victory.
“They (Argentina) put us under a lot of pressure, I think the result is great but the performance is disappointing,” he said. “We put a lot of balls down and missed some tackles. You look at what England did going down to New Zealand putting in a big performance against them. That’s what we needed to do and we didn’t do that.”
Scotland had a new head coach and three new caps when they took on the USA on Saturday and new boss Vern Cotter was delighted with the contributions of the young trio after Scotland’s 24-6 win in Houston.
Glasgow Warriors prop Gordon Reid was singled out for his eager start. “Gordon Reid at the first ruck took the ball and ran through the middle of it,” Cotter said. “Obviously he wants to be part of the game and that’s really important.”
Cotter described Blair Cowan’s contribution at openside as “outstanding” and said of stand-off Finn Russell: “You’d think he’s played 20 or 30 games already. He was composed, he kicked well out of his hand. He directed play well and defended.”
Cotter was pleased to see Scotland score two tries, plus a penalty try, and not concede any and he hopes for an improved performance against Canada next Saturday. “I’m happy because we got the win,” he said. “With certain things, as all coaches will say, we have to do better next week and we’re working on those.”
No, no Nonu
Ma’a Nonu took just two minutes to exhibit the cynical side of his game, when he pulled back James Haskell as he tried to support an incisive break from Chris Robshaw at the very beginning of the Eden Park Test. If Haskell had got the ball, he would have been under the posts, but Nonu’s foul play stopped it. Yes, the All Black was penalised and Freddie Burns kicked the three points for England but Nonu needs to put Nigel Owens at the top of his Christmas card list as the referee chose not to sin-bin him. It was a yellow card all day long, and Nonu probably knew that even as his hand was reaching out to grab Haskell’s arm. It was a classic case of a player trading a probable seven points for a possible three, knowing he might pay the price – but Nonu got away with it.
There is no doubt Nigel Owens is a great referee – among the top handful in the world – and his management of the players and his speed of thought and deed mark him out as a great talent. However, he put in an unusually inconsistent performance when England played New Zealand on Saturday and left England fans gnashing their teeth in frustration.
First he failed to sin-bin Ma’a Nonu for a clear, cynical, professional foul after two minutes. Then he penalised Jonny May and, later, Freddie Burns, for supposed knock-ons when the ball did not go forward in either case. From the scrum awarded against May, the All Blacks pressured England into giving away a penalty and Aaron Cruden kicked the three points.
In the second half Owens could have wielded another yellow card in New Zealand’s direction when the ball was killed after May had kicked and chased, alongside Marland Yarde, right up to the opposition line. It was 9-9 with the final quarter about to start and England kicked the penalty, but a binning at that stage could have proved decisive.
Ironically, Owens did sin-bin Marland Yarde for not releasing close to the line after a break from Brodie Retallick. England did not lose the game because of it the winning try came after Yarde returned – but it was still disappointing to see the referee treat the two teams differently.
It is going to be hard for Les Blues of France to indulge in any blue-sky thinking this week, after they were thrashed 50-23 by Australia in Brisbane. And the scoreline was kind to the visitors, as they had trailed 50-9 before scoring two tries in the last nine minutes.
Yes, they were missing some key faces, including skipper Thierry Dusautoir, but that cannot excuse this error-strewn performance. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre said his team panicked against the speedy Wallabies, but captain Nicolas Mas disagreed, saying: “It’s not a question of panicking. When the team was in a position to convert pressure into points we were making errors. We have to continue to work at that and eliminate errors when we’ve got an opportunity to score.”
Whatever the reason, it is not acceptable for France to concede seven tries to Australia and they need to make a massive improvement before meeting the same opposition in Melbourne next Saturday.
Pussy cats, not Pumas
The reputation and much of the success of Argentine rugby has been built on the scrummage down the years, but the Pumas’ set-piece was crushed by Ireland’s on Saturday.
Argentina lost three out of six of their own scrums as the tourists proved far superior in that area of the game. The home pack also struggled in lineout, where they lost four throws out of 11.
Yes, it was an inexperienced Argentina side, but their national pride will demand that they do better next weekend.