Nobody can claim that England’s 32-15 win over Australia and Ireland’s rousing 29-20 triumph over New Zealand, this weekend, came out of the blue.
England has won their last eight Test matches against Australia, and 12 of the last 14, while Ireland, after coming up short in their first 28 attempts, have now won three of their last five against the All Blacks.
Not only do those statistics point to a trend, the manner of both wins had a very familiar ring to it.
At Twickenham, both sides went into the match having lost two starting props, with Wallabies’ fans particularly anxious about how their set piece would hold up. Wobbly was the answer, and although things weren’t a complete disaster, there was never the stable platform provided to put the Wallabies’ backline on the front foot.
The same could be said for the lineout. Things started well enough with Rob Leota snaring three clean jumps, including a couple towards the back of the lineout, which provided good, usable ball.
But the longer the match went, things increasingly turned awry. And, given the caning the Wallabies received in the penalty count from referee Jaco Peyper, territory and possession were conceded with depressing regularity.
This is not the way to beat England, who, even on their off days, never like to give up multiple try-scoring opportunities.
Despite their shortcomings – including some horribly disconnected midfield defence – the Wallabies did well to stay in touch, at 16-12 at halftime. And when James O’Connor, whose goal kicking was far more convincing this week, closed the score to 16-15 just after halftime, anything felt possible.
That anything was a foolish tip-tackle by Angus Bell on Courtney Lawes; earning the Wallabies their second yellow card of the match.
There’s those familiar themes again. Last week’s loss to Scotland was punctuated by ill-discipline, and no matter how much the Wallabies will have talked about improving that during the week, that talk is worth nothing if it doesn’t change behaviour and bring better outcomes on the field.
Under the pressure of chasing the game, and with captain Michael Hooper forced from the field with a leg injury, the Wallabies’ passing and handling went astray. The impossible was attempted and, all too predictably, failed to come off; most embarrassingly when Kurtley Beale fluffed a grubber kick and Len Ikitau provided Peyper with the easiest offside call of his long career.
Even at the death, when the Wallabies strung together their best-looking attack of the whole match, Ikitau somehow managed to transfer the ball straight to an opponent, to allow Jamie Blamire to scoot into open space and score.
32-15 was all that England deserved, just reward for their better cohesion and the more robust framework housing their game.
Their tall men were all busy and industrious, including man-of-the-match Freddie Steward at fullback. Even allowing for the head start over Australia’s advancing runners, he comfortably accommodated everything that was sent his way, and Australia was seldom able to fracture play and break up the well-organised English defence.
All eyes were on Marcus Smith in his first start at 10, and while there were none of the brilliant flashes he has become renowned for, by underplaying his hand and doing the basics well, he will move forward with great confidence.
It is hard to say the same of any Australian player, with the side disappointingly lacking in cohesion and continuity. Counter-intuitively, the best individual performances tend to come as a result of dominant team play.
There were standout individual acts – a much improved Nic White desperately preventing Jamie George from scoring in the 34th minute – but these were too few and far in-between, and were about keeping Australia in the match, not winning it.
Scratching around for positives, the Wallabies’ lineout maul defence was first rate, and prop Ollie Hoskins earned himself a Test jumper after endearing himself to social media on Friday, for his emotional reaction to being selected on the bench.
This was by no means a poor performance, but England at Twickenham demands more than what was offered, and what has been offered by the Wallabies for the last decade or so.
Having finally unlocked the secret to beating the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016, Ireland now knows it is on to a good thing. Always a potent bubbling mix of intense red and green mist, Ireland has learned to temper that, just enough to ensure that their skill execution isn’t impeded, and is sustained for the whole 80 minutes.
Ahead 26-20 with a couple of minutes to play, some thoughts may have gone back to the All Blacks’ famous victory in 2013, when the calm heads of Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu led an irresistible wave of phase play down the field, for Ryan Crotty to eventually steal the match.
But this All Blacks’ side, against this Irish defence, was never coming within a bull’s roar of pulling off the same stunt. Deprived and incapable of recycling cleanly and quickly all match, the All Blacks inevitably succumbed to a turnover, allowing Joey Carberry to stretch the final margin to nine points.
One of the reasons was sheer exhaustion; the All Blacks, like a cruel training drill on the bags after a bad loss, required to make endless tackles throughout the match, as demanded by their surging opponent.
It was an effort that deserves special mention, with the All Blacks somehow going into halftime ahead by 10-5, having already made 158 tackles, and impressively holding their discipline in the defensive line.
All of which made the try to Ronan Kelleher just after the break, all the more disappointing; the hooker burrowing through a gap that wasn’t there in the first forty minutes.
The dam wall was at bursting point, and when the superbly named Caelan Doris came around the corner and breezed through Codie Taylor, 17-10 felt like a more accurate reflection of proceedings.
The All Blacks weren’t done with, however. Will Jordan’s try seemed to come from nowhere and, but for a slightly forward transfer from Rieko Ioane to his brother Akira, they would have regained the lead, 24-23 with twelve minutes to play.
But with a couple of dodgy kick-off receipts and TJ Perenara struggling to exit with any depth, Ireland continued with their dominance of field position, and the penalties came; one after James Lowe pulled off a huge spot tackle on Ioane that had all the portents of big trouble for Ireland at the other end.
Of Ireland’s three victories, Chicago will always stand tall, because it was the first, and because of the manner in which the game was taken up to the All Blacks. The same high confidence and consumate skill levels were in evidence here, with the All Blacks seemingly powerless to knock the green shirts off their stride and force handling errors.
But what stands out most about this win is the cohesion that Ireland displayed; the seamless transition between forward and back, the quality of their set piece, and their temperament and conditioning to see things right through.
Notably, seven of the starting forward pack, come from the one club, Leinster. Five of the seven backs – including the three New Zealanders for whom this win must have been extra special – also play for Leinster.
Their recent record is ultra-impressive; Pro 14 champions the last four years straight, with a European Championship win, and a runner-up, semi-final and quarter-final appearance in the same period.
One has to have the playing talent and strategy to begin with, but there can be no stronger demonstration of the benefit of having players familiar with each other to such the extent of what was on display here.
Time after time, Irish runners smacked into contact, and before any All Black defender could even think about the prospect of a steal, there were two supporting blocks in place, holding perfect body position, and the ball was presented back to halfback Jamieson Gibson-Park on a well-oiled plate.
The All Blacks of course are no strangers to each other, and have been working together in camp for weeks, but their breakdown work was, by comparison, haphazard. Accordingly, the advantage line, just like territory and possession, was comprehensively conceded to the home side.
This facet of the game is critically important, and has been recognised by coaches and players everywhere. Concede the gain line, concede the momentum and, as night follows day, concede the match.
There is a downside however. Nobody can have missed the re-emergence of the discussion about concussion in recent days, particularly as it related to the news that ex-All Black Carl Hayman has joined a large group of players in an action against World Rugby.
All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett was replaced after 21 minutes after failing a HIA, a result of him entering a tackle too upright. He was by far the only player across the weekend to reel out of similar tackles, shaken up by contact initiated by the tackler himself.
All of this is a result of the focus placed on executing dominant tackles, to win the collision. Barrett could have bent at the hips, and bought his opponent down to the ground falling backwards, in the type of passive tackle many of us were taught to make as juniors.
That would have kept him on the field, but earned him a ticking-off from his coaches, for conceding the collision.
All of the momentum around the topic of concussion in contact sports is harnessed in one direction. Rugby is fast approaching the day when it will have to determine if how the game is played – by professionals who are vastly stronger and faster than their counterparts of even one and two generations ago – is compatible with the health outcomes that will be demanded of it by players, medical professionals and courts.
Unscrambling this egg is not going to be easy – how are coaches ever going to be encouraged to divert from demanding uncompromising physicality to win the collision areas?
This isn’t meant to be an early call on the death of rugby as we know it. But as each retired player in their 40s and 50s steps forward and presents with conditions consistent with repeated brain injury suffered as a result of playing rugby, the more urgent the need becomes for smart minds within the game to find a solution.
In other matches, Scotland, struggling to find a way through a suffocating Springbok defence, resorted to chaos rugby, at Murrayfield, in their 30-15 defeat. Whether it was Finn Russell kicking backwards, a scrum and lineout that failed to measure up, or players scrambling the ball rapidly backwards to teammates in worse positions, it somehow brought them two tries, but ultimately a lot more grief.
Aside from Willie le Roux momentarily forgetting that the job of a fullback is to actually attempt to catch the high kick, the Springboks were methodical and impressive. All of the hard work was done up front, before clean transfer of the ball and timing of the pass by Siya Kolisi and Damien de Allende twice sent Makazole Mapimpi streaking for the line.
Argentina got a much-needed win in Treviso, 37-16 over Italy. With so many other matches on, and so little time for sleep, it wasn’t a difficult decision to put the red pen through that fixture.
Not only is it now five years since Italy last defeated a ‘tier one’ nation, they are a side that does little to inspire fans to watch them. That’s another theme that, disappointingly, has become all too familiar.