Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' Talking Points: Scotland's win over Australia and England's winning habit
Last Updated: 28/11/17 3:14pm
Stuart Barnes looks back at the autumn internationals, including Scotland's fantastic win over Australia.
1. It was 2am but I could not beat the curiosity and make my way to bed in the early hours of Sunday morning. Just how had Scotland scored in excess of fifty points against an Australian team that had given England as good as they got for 70 minutes as well as beating the All Blacks and (as per usual) Wales? I am not altogether sure if I was any the wiser by 3:30am.
The sending off was undoubtedly a seminal moment. No question it was the right call and little doubt the absence of Sekope Kepu was costly. He has been in some form these last few weeks. But while the scoreboard was nip and tuck until his departure, the driving Scotland lineout was already creating carnage. There was a dynamism to the drive that epitomised much else in their game. It is hard not to see the inclusion of Ali Price as a boost for Gregor Townsend's team. Greig Laidlaw - last season's skipper - is many things but he is not a high-tempo player. Townsend's teams tend to be.
The game was high on errors and intensity. Australia visibly fell away while Scotland grew. So many missing men in the front row but here the home side dominated around the field. In adversity Townsend's squad has grown. No Stuart Hogg, but again Huw Jones impressed with some superb running lines. Suddenly Scotland's trip to Cardiff for the opening weekend of the Six Nations looks like quite some game.
2. Wales may have lost their last two matches but they have put in some decent levels of performance. There is a fluency to their play that has been lacking through the crash-bang-power era. What they have not been able to address is the mental weakness when it comes to playing Australia and New Zealand. They play South Africa this week. The one super power from the south they can and have beaten. Do not be surprised to see Wales win, whatever the situation with the availability of English-based players. They do not often lose to Scotland in Cardiff either. I am really looking forward to taking my seat in the Principality Stadium for that one further down the line in February.
3. England head to Rome that weekend. Looking at the results of the two nations anything but a conclusive England win would be up there with Japan's win against South Africa in 2015 (and well done Japan for drawing with France) as the rugby shock of all shocks. Twenty-three games and 22 wins in the Jones era. The winning habit is one of the great assets in any sporting team. England possess it. Their very foundations are based upon it. Yet the quality of performance has not risen through 2017. The Samoa game started well. Lots of width and fine interventions from the Saracens, Jamie George and Alex Lozowski, but from the moment Charlie Ewels and his lifters made a mess of a restart the tone was set for an error-ridden afternoon.
Ball retention was poor and the battering at the breakdown was worrying. The need for a top-class seven isn't being discussed as much as it once was, but the problem remains just as prevalent. England have to build upon the foundations that is their mental strength if they are to head towards Tokyo on the rise. Amid the impressive sequence of wins is a niggling worry in need of addressing. Rome should be an ideal place to start.
4. New Zealand lost two and drew one game this season. Crisis, a slump, the empire is crumbling! Or, a whole host of new players have been introduced and they will be all the better in the next two years as they grow towards Japan. I'll side with the latter. Scotland and Wales gave them games but there were key personnel missing, the year was coming to its end and still they found the formula when it mattered most.
The precision of their strike play is in another league to the rest. Beauden Barrett may have been quiet in Cardiff but World Rugby were right, he is the best player in the world and as for the breakthrough player of the year - the term sounds rather condescending. Rieko Ioane is the new Julian Savea with extra speed. What a future, what a threat. Steve Hansen will enjoy his few weeks rest.
5. Ireland prevailed again although Joe Schmidt's men have not - like England - looked as good as the results seem on paper. Tactically mature, they will be formidable foes in the forthcoming Six Nations, but with England to come at Twickenham, they will have to find yet more if they are to win the title.
6. Irish eyes - or at least Munster ones - should be glittering in anticipation ahead of this weekend. Ospreys visit Cork, bottom of their conference, sinking out of sight while they say, 'crisis, what crisis?' Missing men again as Wales face the Springboks, it is hard to see them leaving behind the humiliation of a home hammering at the hands of Glasgow and returning to west Wales with anything but more deep wounds. Munster will be targeting a bonus point to cushion what already appears a comfortable conference position.
7. A wonderful win for Worcester. Their first Premiership win at Leicester. Not only are they five points ahead of London Irish but they have some momentum heading into the winter. Irish, who scraped a bonus point in defeat against Wasps, have not won since the first day of the season. Suffice to say they could do with a little of that England habit.
8. Just down the M5, things are looking good at Gloucester. Wins over Saracens and Newcastle were tremendous. They have been playing some scorching rugby since the arrival of Johan Ackermann, but have not been able to put it all together. Keep an eye on the Cherry and Whites.
9. Indeed, has the West awoken? Gloucester going well, Bath up to third place in the Premiership and leading the way are Exeter. The champions had far fewer key men missing but it was a notable scalp against Saracens. Last season was no one-season wonder.
10. While in France, Clermont only managed a draw in Oyonnax, La Rochelle marched on and surprise early league leaders Lyon lost at home. Concern in the Auvergne, continued joy in the land of the Huguenots and signs of toppling turrets on the Rhone.
Enjoy your week,