England lead resurgent north, All Blacks still a class apart
SYDNEY – New Zealand’s long dominance of world rugby shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon but England’s historic sweep of Australia and Ireland’s June tour of South Africa offered some hope of a northern hemisphere resurgence.
Southern hemisphere teams filled all four semi-final spots at last year’s World Cup as European teams proved unable to deal with the power, pace and depth of the Rugby Championship sides.
While the June window following a World Cup year is a period of transition for many sides, there were some early indications that the southern hemisphere powers might not have it all their own way at the next global showpiece in 2019.
England, knocked out of their own World Cup at the pool stage last October, set out their stall in no uncertain fashion and decisively broke the southern grip on the top three in the world rankings with a 3-0 triumph Down Under.
Replacing World Cup runners-up Australia as the second best side in the world was no mean feat and coach Eddie Jones has made it plain it is not the extent of his or the Six Nations champions’ ambitions.
“New Zealand have been up there all the time and it’s about time someone put in a real challenge to them and we’re going to be the side to put the challenge to them,” the Australian said last week.
Many a team riding a wave of success have plotted similar challenges but New Zealand have proved resilient in the face of all-comers over the best part of the last decade.
Despite the test retirement of two greats in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after their second successive World Cup triumph last October, Steve Hansen’s side barely missed a beat in their June series against Wales.
The Welsh put in a suitably brave showing in all three tests but the All Blacks always had another gear and eased away in the final quarter of each match to register a comfortable sweep of Warren Gatland’s tourists.
“They were pretty outstanding,” New Zealander Gatland, who is likely to lead the British and Irish Lions to his homeland next year, said of the world champions.
“It’s an incredibly tough place to come on tour. Until I went away to work, I didn’t realise how hard it was to come and win here.”
Perhaps the June match that gave the best indication of the superior depth of New Zealand rugby at the moment, though, was the 40-7 drubbing a weakened Waikato Chiefs side gave the Wales second string.
Ireland also boast a New Zealand coach in Joe Schmidt and came close to embarrassing the Springboks in their own back yard before their hosts rediscovered the traditional strengths of the South African game.
It was a close run thing, however, with the Irish battering away at the try line with time running out in Saturday’s third test in Port Elizabeth as they sought the converted try that would have clinched the series.
“The last couple of minutes we showed a lot of character,” said Adriaan Strauss, who led South Africa’s fight back for a 2-1 series win after they lost the first test and trailed 19-3 in the second.
“They were still in the game at that time and we defended for our lives, so the effort was brilliant,” Strauss added.
“I think we progressed technically and tactically over the three weeks. We had to, we played against a very good team.”
France also fought back after defeat for an experimental team in the first test of their two-match tour of Argentina, routing the Pumas 27-0 in Tucuman on Saturday to square up the series.
Fiji too rescued an unpromising start to the Pacific Nations Cup in June, coming from 15-0 down to beat Tonga 23-18 in their opener before securing a fourth successive title with a 26-16 victory over Samoa last weekend.
Scotland needed no fight back on their tour of Japan, though, sweeping the 2019 World Cup hosts 2-0 with Saturday’s scrappy 21-16 victory over the Brave Blossoms in Tokyo secured by seven penalties.
Despite their try-scoring prowess, the biggest losers of the June international window were undoubtedly Australia, whose ‘Cheika Revolution’ was stopped in its tracks by Jones and the English.
The Wallabies have question marks all over the park but no more so than in their set piece as they look forward to opening the Rugby Championship with back-to-back tests against the All Blacks in August.
“I don’t think anyone is expecting anything to happen there for us now after this,” defiant coach Michael Cheika said. “All we need to do is to get in, work hard and prove people wrong.” -Reuters