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England, Wales and Scotland struggle, while southern stars rise

  
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11/21/2012
By Robert Kitson (the Guardian UK)


Not for the first time we have been reminded how quickly things can change in Test rugby. Suddenly the Wallabies are roosters again, having been reduced to feather dusters in France. England are back in the dog house, gnawing on the same old bones of faltering basic skills and wobbly decision-making. Wales, grand slam champions last time we looked, cannot buy a win. Ditto Scotland.

It may look different again in a fortnight's time so perhaps we should be wary of too many firm conclusions midway through the autumn Test schedule. By the time the British and Irish Lions pitch up in Australia next summer, the wheel may have turned yet again. From what we have seen lately, however, the southern stars are on the rise. When New Zealand or Australia, in particular, hit a problem, they seem to resolve it while the northern hemisphere's finest are still scratching their heads.

It continues to be a question, as ever, of composure and attitude.

England and Wales have good players but not, perhaps, enough who rise consistently to the biggest occasions. Test match animals, as Ian McGeechan calls them, seem to be becoming a protected species up north. Take away Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies and Wales shrink dramatically. If you were picking a Lions squad, you would be praying all four of them are fit enough to catch the flight.

Not many England players did their causes much good on Saturday but, just as significantly, the Wallaby team they will face next June and July has scraped itself off the canvas. Michael Hooper played like David Pocock in disguise, Nick Phipps came of age as an international scrum-half and Berrick Barnes was sheer class. The scrum was solid and the defence resolute. If you add James Horwill, Will Genia, James O'Connor, Scott Higginbotham, Quade Cooper and Rob Horne to the mix, Australia's prospects of taming the Lions look significantly healthier than they did.

There is certainly a lot for Warren Gatland to ponder. His return to the Welsh head coach's chair against New Zealand this week will be dominating his thoughts, but he desperately needs the home unions to perk up and emulate the resurgent French. England, ironically, may find the straightforward, uncomplicated Springboks less of a baffling conundrum than the sharp, shrewd Wallabies, but if Wales are blown away by a full-strength New Zealand side playing with the freedom they have shown in Edinburgh and Rome it will be another bleak weekend for Lions watchers.

Scotland? It is not much use Andy Robinson praising his side's effort over the last 30 minutes if they reach the 50-minute mark trailing 21-3. Living with the best is not the same as beating the best, as their home records since 2007 show. England have won one, lost seven against the big three southern powers, Scotland are W2 L5, Wales are W1 lost 11 and Ireland have W1, L4 and drawn one.

It is hardly a record to brandish with pride and the coming week will tell us precisely where Ireland and Wales now stand. If the Welsh lose heavily to the All Blacks the World Cup semi-finalists could even end up dropping out of the current top eight rankings-wise. England, for their part, still have a tendency to take one step forward followed by two steps back, as Danny Care observed on Saturday night. "We're not going to be world-beaters tomorrow," said the scrum-half. "Hopefully in three years' time we will be." The bad news is that, at some point, potential world-beaters have to actually start winning games against the top teams, as opposed to just talking about it.