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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nations Cup: England win again in downpour

England rounded off their Nations Cup defence in "English weather" - pouring rain - with a four-try 22-0 win over Canada. Apparently they dominated the play having 95% of the possession, according to some spectators - however, as the web video feed didn't work, its difficult to confirm this!

The earlier match was (by the sounds of it) a thriller, USA and France drawing 15-15 - France again coming back from behind, and again having a conversion to win the match... which they missed. This was the first time USA have tied a test match - draws normally very rare (there have only been 13 in 767 internationals since 1982) but we had two in this tournament.

The final table looked like this:
PositionNationGamesPointsBonus points[2]Table
1 England4400126154020
2 USA421176611011
3 France41215282008
4 Canada41035266127
5 South Africa401334116002
So, what did we learn from the last inter-continental tournament before the World Cup?

England were head and shoulders above everyone else, winning even when playing badly (as against South Africa). However, while their first choice XV remains frightening effective it is remarkable how much the performance of the team seems to decline when other members of the squad are brought in. The first half performance against France was less than impressive, and did not really improve until several "1st XV" players came on in the second half, while the South African win was littered with errors and wasted chances. But these are still brilliant players. Its like a finely tuned engine misfiring because a single new component has been changed - are they not as used to playing with each other? Is there a momentary fraction of a hesitation that means that a pass does not go to hand, the kick does not quite go where it is intended?

It was reminisent of the Six Nations, where the loss of half-a-dozen top players to the Sevens World Cup co-incided with defeat to Wales and a narrow win over Ireland - in contrast to the overwhelming wins over France and Scotland that followed their return.

England will not be able to field their preferred XV in every game next year - the intensity of the World Cup will inevitably mean that key players will have to be rested from some games (but you can guarantee that whoever England play will be at full strength!). Could England's greatest threat come from an unexpected result in a game where a few leading players are watching from the sidelines?

The USA, on the other hand, were something of a revelation. With no wins since 2006 a battle for third place with France was what might have been expected - but they exceeded all that. They started well - getting an early lead against a strong England team - and though they eventually lost they were by no means disgraced. A six try win over South Africa was followed by a dramatic win over Canada - their first win over their greatest rivals since before the last World Cup - and a draw with France where they were winning for much of the game.

The Americans are a tough team - no-one tackled harder in the tournament - but their biggest problem seemed to be handling and passing which, at times, was terribly slow. Scrum-half passes too often either loop slowly through the air, or drop short - and that could limit how far they might go next year. Against most opponents they will get away with these technical limitations and dominate through their physical strength - but against the leading teams (like England) it will continue to cost them dear.

In contrast Canada entered the Cup on a high, and confidently expected to reach the final game against England unbeaten - the whole tournament was structured to build to this game. They had grown used to winning, and winning well, and in their opening game with South Africa they exploded from the blocks. Four tries in the opening twenty minutes - the Canadians were sublime, brilliant. The there was a water interval... after which Canada were never the same again.

They actually "lost" remaining 60 minutes against the South Africans 17-10 - a fact that all commentators seemed to miss - but they could not miss the next game. Good defence kept the French out, but poor discipline gave away too many penalties in simple positions, and a lack-lustre attack rarely looked likely to break through, a combination that lead to what has to be called a "shock" 12-7 defeat. The performance against the USA was better - but no-where nearly as good as their performance against the same opponents only seven weeks before - and the last minute defeat was, this time, no surprise. After that the defeat to England was inevitable. Canadian coaches now have a big job on their hands - they have to turn this round, but suddenly have very little time to do it. Improved performances during their tour to France in November will be crucial.

But at least their job is easier than the coach of one of the other teams. Who would be the coach of France? Frustrating is probably the gentlest way to describe how it must be - one moment you are (very nearly) losing to South Africa, the next you are leading against England and beating Canada (without ever looking like losing). Its difficult to see a pattern or lesson to be learnt from how France played in this tournament because there wasn't one - other than to expect the unexpected, and never assume anything.

However the positive that came out of this is that France are maybe not quite as poor as many thought - which also perhaps means that the likes of Ireland and Wales are significantly better than has previously been suspected.

Which leaves us with South Africa - outclassed but by no means disgraced. They possess a fly-half of trully international class - Zandile Nojoko - who scored all their tournament points, apart from one try. However, they became less and less effective as the tournament went on, opposing coaches watching their performances and making tactical changes to match. The are unlikely to cause most opponents serious concerns next year - though they are unlikely to finish last this time.

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