Scan­nell’s last-gasp kick saves the day for Mun­ster

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL REES

NEW ZEALAND won again yes­ter­day. “You want to be out there when the lights are on,” said Aus­tralia’s cap­tain Michael Hooper dur­ing the build-up to the Test in Yoko­hama, ex­plain­ing that the Wal­la­bies’ slump since reach­ing the 2015 World Cup fi­nal was not down to a with­er­ing of com­pet­i­tive­ness or de­sire.

The lights will be on for four week­ends next month as the do­mes­tic pro­gramme in Europe yields to the Novem­ber in­ter­na­tion­als, but not at full wattage. The south­ern hemi­sphere na­tions will be in the fi­nal stretch of a 10-month sea­son and, like their Six Na­tions op­po­nents, are blighted by in­juries: the Vu­nipola broth­ers, An­thony Wat­son, Taulupe Fale­tau, Tendai Mtawarira, Sam Cane, Conor Mur­ray, Wes­ley Fo­fana and Stu­art Hogg will be watch­ing from a dis­tance for what may be the last ‘friendly’ Test win­dow be­fore World Rugby in­tro­duces a more com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment from 2020, al­though it is still to be for­mu­lated, let alone agreed.

Novem­ber’s fix­ture list is meant to be played over three week­ends from Novem­ber 10, but four ex­tra in­ter­na­tion­als will be played next Sat­ur­day, all for com­mer­cial rea­sons at a time when player wel­fare is sup­posed to take pri­or­ity. New Zealand will play their sec­ond match in Ja­pan, against next year’s World Cup hosts, Wales take on Scot­land, a fix­ture stripped of its Six Na­tions al­lure hold­ing lit­tle ap­peal, South Africa are at Twick­en­ham and Ire­land and Italy will meet in Chicago close to the an­niver­sary of pro­hi­bi­tion.

If there is a lot on next month’s menu, the chef ’s spe­cials have been ra­tioned. New Zealand’s matches against Eng­land and Ire­land stand out. Eng­land’s first meet­ing with the All Blacks since 2014 may not be the bout be­tween the two favourites for the World Cup that it promised to be a year ago, given Ire­land’s rise to sec­ond in the rank­ings and their dom­i­nance of Euro­pean rugby at club and in­ter­na­tional level last sea­son, but it will of­fer a glimpse into the fu­ture.

New Zealand for once have had a hand laid on them be­fore re­claim­ing the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, los­ing to South Africa in Welling­ton be­fore gain­ing re­venge in the fi­nal min­utes in Pre­to­ria. But the All Blacks made what had be­come rou­tine fix­tures more de­mand­ing by tak­ing risks long be­fore vic­tory had been sealed. They kept the door open for South Africa, but will look to slam it shut in the faces of Eng­land and Ire­land when they are likely to be more tac­ti­cal, work­ing the score­board be­fore in­dulging them­selves.

Euro­pean tours used to mark a drop down in weight for New Zealand, Aus­tralia and South Africa, but the bal­ance of power has shifted. The All Blacks re­main in front but the chasers are led by Ire­land, who may need to show the greater tac­ti­cal va­ri­ety of Le­in­ster to re­tain their place in the rank­ings; Wales, whose greater am­bi­tion may see Dan Big­gar re­placed at out-half by Gareth An­scombe; Eng­land, whose head coach Ed­die Jones turned from saviour to scape­goat in a few months; and Scot­land, whose rise mer­its more than an un­der­whelm­ing list of fix­tures that cul­mi­nates with the visit of Ar­gentina.

And there is France, the great un­known who flick­ered into life last sea­son af­ter a draw with Ja­pan prompted the sack­ing of their coach, Guy Novès. Their only vic­tory in the last two Novem­ber win­dows came against Samoa, but they vexed the All Blacks in the sum­mer’s three-Test se­ries on a tour when they had no more suc­cour from the match of­fi­cials than they had had in the 2011 World Cup fi­nal. Jac­ques Brunel has engi­neered a re­vival based on de­fence but progress will hinge on mak­ing use of pos­ses­sion.

Eng­land came un­der pres­sure af­ter the se­ries de­feat to South Africa in the sum­mer to axe Jones, even though there was no suc­ces­sion plan in place. It was as if it all came down to one man and had noth­ing to do with the sys­tem that un­der­pinned the na­tional side, sloppy think­ing redo­lent of the am­a­teur era. A raft of in­juries means Jones will sur­vive the au­tumn, al­though if Ja­pan do to Eng­land what his Cherry Blos­soms did to South Africa in 2015 any last ves­tiges of good­will will van­ish.

Eng­land are hardly in bad shape. They will miss the gain­line gate­crash­ing of the Vu­nipo­las and the slip­per­i­ness of Wat­son, but the re­turn of Manu Tuilagi from a se­ries of in­juries of­fers Jones a di­men­sion he has lacked in his time in charge, one that will help them over­come a weak­ness, play­ing off slow ball.

Jones has a de­ci­sion to make at out-half: Owen Far­rell or Ge­orge Ford. He has mostly used them as a mid­field pair­ing, but Tuilagi’s pres­ence gives him the op­tion of play­ing Far­rell at 10 with Tuilagi out­side him and the play­mak­ing Henry Slade at 13. Ford has been dropped twice this year, both af­ter de­feats when Eng­land’s break­down prob­lems left him staved of quick ball for long pe­ri­ods; like Danny Cipri­ani, he needs to be on the front foot.

Eng­land’s first match is against a

South Africa side that has been re­vi­talised un­der Rassie Eras­mus, even if en­ergy and or­gan­i­sa­tion have masked weak­nesses. They will be un­der-strength at Twick­en­ham, un­able to call on their play­ers based in Europe, such as the in­flu­en­tial Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk, and their tour will be an assess­ment of strength in depth.

Aus­tralia, who have slith­ered to sev­enth in the rank­ings, can­not look be­yond the present. They start with Wales, World Cup group op­po­nents they have en­joyed 13 con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries against, be­fore fac­ing Italy and Eng­land. Strangely for a side coached by Michael Cheika, they have been more in­di­vid­ual than col­lec­tive, stronger on pa­per than on the field.

More than one-third of the fix­tures in­volve a tier-two na­tion, part of World Rugby’s pro­gramme of giv­ing emerg­ing coun­tries ex­po­sure in be­tween World Cups. The most no­table is Ge­or­gia’s match against Italy in Florence on Novem­ber 10, Six Na­tions as­pi­rants against the side that usu­ally fin­ish last in the tour­na­ment. Friendly it won’t be.

It is 100 years next month that the lights came back on in Europe. Next month will be no phoney war, with the start of the World Cup less than a year away. Stretcher-bear­ers will con­tinue to be in de­mand, but surely there has to come a point when the ca­su­alty rate be­comes more than a sub­ject for de­bate.

Aus­tralia’s Michael Hooper is tack­led by All Black Beau­den Bar­rett dur­ing their 37-20 de­feat in Ja­pan

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