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Guscott column: Gap is closing in North-South divide

Everybody was saying that, for it to be a successful Autumn campaign, England would have to win three out of four. I was of the mind that performance outweighed the results because, although we had a feeling of what England were trying to do, lack of consistency made it all a bit cloudy.

That South Africa display was the building block for the improved performance against New Zealand. In that second half against the Boks they made so many clean breaks but couldn’t quite finish them off with tries. It was crucial they did against New Zealand, otherwise they would not be in the game.

That effectively is what happened. The start of the first half against New Zealand was a continuation of the end of the Springbok match which for me was a huge plus. Yes, New Zealand was a game they should have won and those players involved will think of it as a missed opportunity to beat the No.1 side in the world.

But I was impressed with the strategy and execution and everything was plus, plus, plus for me, bearing in mind you are missing at least four starters in Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi and the Vunipola brothers.

And then there were a few changes and it was back to normal England against Japan. Error after error, opportunities butchered and unforced errors that you cannot afford at this level if you have any designs on winning the World Cup. But fair to say it’s better to get it out the system so, come the World Cup, it isn’t happening.

They needed a reaction last weekend and there was no bigger statement than in that first scrum that absolutely marmalised Australia. They tore the Wallaby pack apart and seemed to take note of what Eddie Jones had been saying in the lead-up that they have to really terrorise Australia and make them know they were in for an intense game by making it incredibly physical.

That scrum was the big statement to kick the game off and there were some wonderful tries from Elliot Daly and Joe Cokanasiga. The end result was a good, convincing win and sets them up for what is going to be an extremely challenging Six Nations because of how well the rest of the Home Unions have played, Wales, Scotland and, particularly, Ireland.

For me Ireland have stepped up to the level of intensity and execution that New Zealand have. They are an incredible force in world rugby and are are now one of the favourites, with New Zealand, to lift the trophy in Japan.

Joe Schmidt has moulded a team that plays a low error game that gives very little momentum to the opposition and one that really plans their attack and how it can break down the opposition. That try by Jacob Stockdale summed up the detail that Ireland have put in to the game of rugby.

They are a cerebral team that also has brawn. The brawn is seen in their ferocious intensity – how can the opposition possibly get in the game against such accuracy and so few errors? That Ireland-All Blacks game epitomises rugby. Defences were red hot and at times it was gladiatorial – for those who don’t know rugby it could possibly have put you off, it was such a fierce contest.

On the march: Scotland ran New Zealand and South Africa close this autumn (photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

While Wales went through the Autumn unbeaten, and Scotland put in some good performances, I sense they are just a couple of levels below Ireland and New Zealand. But there is a swing in the superiority between hemispheres. Yes, New Zealand are still there but Australia and South Africa are definitely behind Ireland, England and Wales.

It’s a great step in the right direction to be contesting for the World Cup. Wales’ Autumn was built on defence and while they didn’t score a lot of tries, they didn’t have to. Of course, you can still win games if you don’t score more tries, but it does help if you can score some tries and move away from the opposition rather than allow it to stay an arm-wrestle edging three or six points ahead through penalties which Wales were doing.

It adds to the tension in the players and also makes the crowd more anxious – which plays on the players mind because of the atmosphere. But psychologically, the big plus is that they managed to close the games out whereas in the past they might not have.

For Wales to be real contenders for the World Cup, they have to beat England at home in the Six Nations and take Ireland close or win.

Scotland, like England against New Zealand, had the opportunities to win against South Africa. The Boks are a very physical side with a lot of ball carriers and so would have been a significant psychological hurdle to get over for Scotland, much like Wales ending their hoodoo at home against Australia.

Scotland are that little bit behind, but on the whole it’s refreshing to talk about the Home Unions having a successful Autumn when for so many years it has been the Southern Hemisphere who have been dominant. That has changed, and not just by a little, but by a lot…


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