Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Razzle-dazzle sadly absent

As a teaser for the truly fabulous 2015 World Cup, the November internationals flopped, writes Gregor Paul.

The big hope for the IRB was that an unprecedented number of tests played throughout November would capture the English public's imagination ahead of the next World Cup.

Flood the market with fixtures, keep the sport in everyone's face and the impacts, the drama, the intricacies and peculiarities of rugby would hook the casual or previously uninitiated viewer.

That was the theory but possibly not how things panned out.

The IRB wanted tangible evidence a sparkling World Cup is on the horizon - a tournament crammed with high-quality sides playing pass-and-run rugby, underpinned with supreme athleticism and set-piece excellence. One team managed that, the All Blacks.

Ireland had a promising series where they continued to develop and refine an engaging and effective style of open rugby and France found their inner selves - playing with flair and expression just like the good old days. But was that enough to consider the past few weeks a hypnotic and addictive cocktail that must be sampled again?

The overnight games might force a rethink but, up until this weekend, there hadn't been a classic as such. There were flashes of brilliance from the All Blacks in Edinburgh and the second half of their game against Wales in Cardiff was engaging, if a little lacking in drama given the 33-0 scoreline after 50 minutes.

The rest was pedestrian and entirely forgettable. Wales and Argentina slugged it out in the mud with barely any rugby on show; England and South Africa were two giant sides butting heads for 80 minutes and the rest was wallpaper.

The IRB would have been hoping for more; British Lions coach Warren Gatland would have been hoping for more. As he himself confirmed, many of the players potentially pencilled in to make his squad for the series against Australia next year, went backwards.

Wales only managed one good half of rugby. Scotland not even that and were abject against Tonga which led to the resignation of their coach Andy Robinson. England still don't appear to quite know what they are trying to be.

What sets the All Blacks, and to a lesser extent the Irish and French, apart, is their ability to use the ball. All of the world's top 12 teams showed they can get the crunchy bits right. Tonga and Samoa, historically teams that have tried to avoid the set piece, have made giant strides in scrummaging and lineout work. Samoa buckled the Welsh scrum and, if they can maintain that stability, will continue to rise up the rankings. They are a side that will never have issues with creativity or willingness to find space.

But sadly the overall perception of the November test was that too many of the leading contenders - England, South Africa, Wales and even Australia, it has to be said - are building game plans that don't appear to be thinking much beyond carting the ball up the middle and smashing into things. The fact that eight players ended up in front of the judiciary for foul play only reinforces the perception that emphasis is too heavily placed on the physical side of the game.

In terms of projecting how the various teams may progress or regress in the build-up to the next World Cup, the English are arguably the most intriguing. They have the greatest room for upside. They have a pack that can win them the ball all day and dominate the collisions against any side.

Three years out from the World Cup on their own territory, they have to be fancied to come good again after almost a decade in the wilderness.

"Yes, I'm surprised England haven't done more since 2003," was All Black first-five Dan Carter's take. "They've shown the strength of their side only in patches since then. Maybe consistency is what's been lacking. They've got the players, so talent's not an issue. They can beat any side on their day."

The nomination of Owen Farrell to the IRB world player of the year shortlist is encouraging as he may be the all-round creative force they need to install in the No10 or No12 jersey to provide the missing piece.

It's too far out to have any form views but England are probably the side to keep an eye on for 2015.

- Herald on Sunday

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