A Question on Rugby

Tom Fordyce, Chief sports writer at the BBC, asks:

England equal the All Blacks – but are they on their level?

I can answer that emphatically: no.

Don’t get me wrong, England are good – and I say this as a Wales supporter. Since Eddie Jones has taken over he has given what was already a talented squad the ability to both win games with some style and, if necessary, grind out a win by holding off defeat. England have become extremely difficult to beat as their 18-match streak attests, and they are by quite some margin the best team in the northern hemisphere.

But there is one thing here that is not being acknowledged: there is the entire rugby playing world, and then there are the All Blacks. This has been the case for some years now: Australia has always been able to beat them in the odd match, but they haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. Australian rugby is still strong enough to beat Wales, Scotland, France and on most days England and Ireland, but as I wrote here, Australian rugby is in somewhat of a slump and has been for a while. South Africa are in even worse shape, having taken a reasonable team to the last world cup but are now fielding an embarrassment of a side ridden through with racial politics which are borne out in performances on the pitch. Meanwhile New Zealand have just gone from strength to strength as Fordyce notes on the way to answering his own question in much the same manner I did:

The World Cup-winning All Blacks side contained arguably the two finest ever in their positions, fly-half Dan Carter and flanker Richie McCaw, as well as other superstars in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. They were the first team in history to retain the Webb Ellis trophy, like the Brazil side that won football’s World Cup in 1970 at a sanctified level, taking their sport to heights that none before had touched.

When McCaw and Carter stepped away, the team continued to develop rather than atrophy. The XV that set the original 18-match mark with the 37-10 Bledisloe Cup win over the Wallabies contained eight players who would make most critics’ fantasy world team: Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.

Most England fans don’t watch the Super XV rugby, and I suspect even fewer Wales supporters do. The Super Rugby is shown at odd times on Sky TV, meaning most people in the northern hemisphere won’t have the time to watch this tournament which produces something like eight or ten games per weekend. This isn’t a problem for me: lighthouse keepers go green with envy when they see how much time I have on my hands. At least those guys have to polish the lamp every now and again. Ever since I went to Nigeria in 2010 I’ve watched most Super XV matches in which at least one New Zealand team featured.

I’ve also watched almost every Six Nations game played over that same period, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. I might have mentioned this on TNA’s old blog, but the basic skills of the New Zealand players are an order of magnitude better than those of their northern hemisphere counterparts. A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

The weekend before I went to Portugal I watched a Six Nations match with a foreign friend of mine, who (thanks to a Welsh ex-boyfriend) was not a complete stranger to rugby. Shortly afterwards we watched the Chiefs play the Blues in the Super XV, and even she noticed the difference in speed and skill. It really was like watching another sport. It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness. They can’t even manage angled runs half the time: Jamie Roberts is incapable of doing anything other than barelling straight into his opposite number, who in the modern era duly tackles him with ease. England aren’t much better, with the geniuses running the show on the pitch taking an entire half to work out that Italy were playing within the laws during their recent Six Nations match. Watch Aaron Smith and Dane Coles for a while and see how finely tuned their match awareness is, or track the off-the-ball movements of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith. As my friend pointed out, they’re passing the ball without even looking because they know damned well a support player (or two or three) will be hurtling up on their shoulder.

The All Blacks are beatable, very occasionally, as Ireland proved a few months back. The opening test of a series is normally quite close as the Kiwis overcome some sort of lethargy before obliterating their opponents in the final two matches. Anyone who has watched the All Blacks over the past five years or so will know that they can be beaten over 60 minutes without much difficulty. Only they bring on five or six world-class players from the subs bench and never let up on the intensity, which almost always secures them a comfortable victory by the time the final whistle blows.

England are good, and they might even run the All Blacks close in a single game, and half time could well see the men in white leading comfortably. But over a three-match series we would see that, despite being top of the rest of the pile in world rugby, New Zealand are way off on the horizon and the distance is growing.

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8 thoughts on “A Question on Rugby

  1. Can’t disagree with anything you say in general, but England’s performance in the Calcutta Cup showed that they are capable of intelligent and creative running lines and accurate passing. I guess you haven’t seen the match as I think had you done so you’re blogpost would have alluded to the progress shown.
    PS. The win against the auld enemy brought the winning streak to 18, not 17.

    PPS. Love your blog.

  2. I guess you haven’t seen the match as I think had you done so you’re blogpost would have alluded to the progress shown.

    I haven’t seen it – will watch it tonight. I’m sure England are capable of this, damned they’ve carved Wales apart often enough, but to do it as a matter of course every game is something different. Wales are capable of brilliance, as they showed against Ireland. It’s doing it every game that makes the difference.

    The win against the auld enemy brought the winning streak to 18, not 17.

    Ah yes: I was incorrectly referring to the 17-run win under Jones. Thanks, and corrected.

    PPS. Love your blog.

    Thanks!

  3. ” The opening test of a series is normally quite close as the Kiwis overcome some sort of lethargy”: nope. It’s not lethargy. What happens is that the Kiwis learn far more from the first encounter than their opponents do. It’s just an intelligence thing.

  4. Nothing to add Tim, very fair comment, it is fair enough England aspiring to be as good as the ABs; they are professional sportsmen and their job is to be the best they can be, but as you say, there seems to be this unbridgeable chasm.

    Mind you England on Saturday were really good, and they’ll need to pull it out again on Saturday – a defeat in Dublin would be worse than embarassing!

  5. I went to a breakfast Q&A with Jones last year, just after England’s whitewash of the Wallabies in Australia.

    He said that his goal is for England to be the world’s best, not simply as good as the All Blacks. He also cautioned against trying to be too much like the All Blacks because then, “you’ll be the second best team that play like the All Blacks”.

    Logical enough.

    The Calcutta Cup was the performance we’d been waiting for but, as Tim points out, there’s still a long way to go and against a different level of opposition.

    It’s a real shame for rugby fans that the NZRFU’s greed about gate receipts means that England vs New Zealand matches are few and far between.

  6. He said that his goal is for England to be the world’s best, not simply as good as the All Blacks. He also cautioned against trying to be too much like the All Blacks because then, “you’ll be the second best team that play like the All Blacks”.

    Yeah, the South Africans became world champions without trying to be the All Blacks: up until their recent free-fall, they played a unique brand of rugby which combined brutal physicality (or should that be physical brutality?) in the forwards and raw speed and power in the back line, but without as much flair as the Kiwis. I loved to watch them, and I liked seeing them beat the All Blacks on the occasions they did. The likes of Bismarck du Plessis, Bryan Habana, and Duane Vermeulen were as good as any IMO.

  7. It’s striking how unaware so many of the current English team are. For example, even in last Saturday’s defeat of Scotland, on more than one occasion, Mike Brown was on a run in space with a guy outside him. The tacklers closed in but instead of shipping a pass to the guy outside him, Brown took the tackle and went for a ruck. It was quite infuriating. Even Brian Moore was puzzled by it.

  8. “The tacklers closed in but instead of shipping a pass to the guy outside him, Brown took the tackle and went for a ruck.”

    Speaking as an ex-full back, I would invite you to guess what this list has in common;

    1. Santa Claus
    2. The Tooth Fairy
    3. The Yeti
    4. The Loch Ness Monster
    5. A full back who can pass

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