Ireland supreme but England’s back line in a muddle – where home nations stand a year from World Cup

Ireland supreme but England’s back line in a muddle – where home nations stand a year from World Cup

Stuart Barnes

Are Ireland the best team in the world? Officially, they are. So says World Rugby. We’ve been here before. Ireland ascended to the subjective summit before the 2019 World Cup. And we know how that ended for Ireland. I have heard and seen more than a few perhaps envious comments since they claimed top spot with their epic series win in New Zealand.

Disrespect the Kiwis all you want but a series victory in the land of fluffy white clouds is something to be treasured, unless a century-plus of history is to be dismissed. In 2019 it was all too obvious that Joe Schmidt’s team was running out of steam. In a bid to take complete autocratic control of the team, Schmidt’s men — with the No 8 CJ Stander grinding on in second gear — played it slower and safer. Offloads were sacrificed as ball retention became the hallmark of an obsessively over-structured system with no room for instinct.

Even their World Cup pool victory against Scotland in 2019 was a dire monument to centralised coaching. The hammering by the All Blacks in the quarter-finals inevitable. “You find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom,” so sang Bob Dylan. Schmidt’s team were heading downwards even as they beat Wales 19-10 in a World Cup warm-up to go top of the world rankings.

Ireland sealed their first series win in New Zealand

And here they are again. “Peaking between World Cups” is the sneering reaction in some countries. Nonsense. Ireland are expanding their options. Tactically, they were supreme in the second Test. Andy Farrell has given them a freedom to play what they see within a structure that is forever flexible.

What they don’t possess, however, is the pure power of the Springboks, France or even England. New Zealand have dominated the world without bullying opposition. It required talent and rugby intellect. Ireland have to emulate the great Kiwi teams from the middle of the last decade; to out-think and out-strip the rest of the world.

They have the wit to compete with anyone but because New Zealand do not offer the most ferocious challenge in the tight, we need to see Ireland against the heavyweights before getting too carried away. Ireland are deservedly No 1 but that’s not the same as being favourites to win the World Cup. France are the likeliest winners. Their low-key two-match series in Japan gave Fabien Galthié a chance to rest his stars and test those on the fringes. With home advantage, France are best placed to win the World Cup.

England are rated fifth in the global rankings. That seems about right. It is difficult to fancy their chances unless Eddie Jones settles on a scrum half, other than Ben Youngs, to provide a top-class link between a potentially top-class pack and . . . and what?

Jones is nowhere nearer sorting out the muddled situation at 10 and 12. Is Marcus Smith the man? Is Owen Farrell better suited to a more limited gameplan? Are they still the best balance at 10 and 12? The confusion in these seminal positions is causing chaos wider out, with Joe Marchant — one of the better performers last season — disappearing from the 23-man squad down under and Guy Porter seemingly out of his depth. Henry Slade has to be the answer to outside centre but what questions are England asking at 10 and 12?

Yes, England had plenty of absentees but Australia lacked a greater percentage of key players. Throw Will Skelton, Quade Cooper and a few others into the equation and it’s hard to rate England above Australia. A series win was central to Jones’s plans. Pressure is temporarily alleviated but England have to build a back line around a pack that performed well in July. It has stellar performers in front, second and back row. Platforms have been laid

So much for the series winners. Wales have emerged from Lions-slaying, World Cup-winning South Africa with their honour restored. A first triumph in South Africa made the headlines but the reality is that Wales beat what was effectively a second/third-choice side, rather than a first or second-string 23. South Africa were not a semblance of their World Cup-winning team. There were, unfortunately, echoes of the Lions series. Bar some slick scores from Louis Rees-Zammit in the early stages of the first Test, Wales offered little ambition.

Kieran Hardy, a clever scrum half, box kicked — and often brilliantly — for the time he was on the field. Wales took little to risk in their rugby. If I criticise England for their conservatism over the years, it would be disingenuous to ignore the Welsh lack of ambition.

It almost worked against a near full-strength South Africa in the first Test and Wales were in the game most of the deciding Test. If you believe the world champions were playing at 7/10 level, this was a successful series from a troubled Welsh perspective. However, if the Springboks looked like they functioned at nothing more than a clogged up 3/10, Wales may well have lost themselves even further in this falsest of dawns.

Scotland, in contrast, have come out of their losing series in surprisingly decent shape. Without Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell was to be without their undisputed leaders. They made some silly decisions in the series but by the final whistle, Hamish Watson had emerged as another serious option as captain. His back-row combination with Rory Darge was impressive. Matt Fagerson did well between them at No 8 while his brother, Zander, had a storming tour at prop.

Scotland started the tour to South America with a struggling set piece but finished by mastering Argentina’s pack. It was notable how, having levelled the series, Gregor Townsend made a tranche of changes, leaving outstanding performers like the prop Pierre Schoeman on the bench.

He wasn’t dropping players, he was using the tour to see others. It would have been excruciating to see the third Test slip away in the dying seconds but sometimes you learn more in the pain of defeat than the ecstasy of victory.

Just over a year from the World Cup, Ireland have to find a way of keeping the speed and intelligence of their game at a level to beat the big bruisers, playing a rugby game of guerilla warfare.

England are building a formidable pack but have to find the decision-makers to give the side more than one gameplan, as they had in the last World Cup.

Wales could do with more ambition. Brave defeats won’t keep the customers satisfied with the nation making a rare and diversionary football World Cup appearance in Qatar in November, while Scotland can be quietly pleased with many elements of a losing tour.

On Monday, I’ll look south to analyse the state of the southern-hemisphere before the Rugby Championship, which kicks off in the first weekend of August.