How do you think the Summer tests went for the Northern Hemisphere teams? Scotland had a great tour whilst some say Ireland had a pretty poor tour?
Ireland’s display in the second test was fantastic, it was one of the best matches I have seen in a while. Kidney’s men showed what they’re capable of when they play with ferocious intensity and particularly striking was the great movement, precision and thrust in attack. The difficulty for them was reproducing that level of performance consistently as we witnessed in the third test and New Zealand punished them ruthlessly. A special mention for the All Blacks though who were mightily impressive, adopting a great running rugby style, wonderful moving of the ball and utilising the ‘extra’ pass to great effect. NZ have always been the world leaders in rugby, they invariably uncover a new approach and the rest of the rugby world follow. Normally, I press for countries to cut their own swathe and become trend setters themselves but in this case I hope it is only a matter of time for other nations imitate because us rugby fans will be the true winners.
Scotland will be delighted with their three results on a difficult tour, the win against Australia being the highlight. They also blooded some new players and with the improved performances of their pro clubs things are looking up for the Scots. However, the next two campaigns will be the acid test to gauge if real progress has been made.
For England and Wales, they both had decent performances and respectable score lines but would have loved to have won at least one test match. They will be disappointed on reflection they did not take their chances when it really mattered. England will be pleased with the development of players such as Joe Marler and in particular Tom Johnson who impressed yet again in an England shirt. Lancaster continues to acquit himself well in the role but it is really about results going forward and with a settled coaching team it is vital they kick on in the Autumn.
In Australia, I felt Wales were victims of not making the most of their new found depth, something that could be levelled at them not just on the tour but throughout the season. One of the reasons they were so good in the World Cup was the way Gatland freshened up the team by picking the players in form and getting a real hunger and desire into the squad. The edge that comes from that is crucial to the way Wales play. In my opinion, they need to pick whoever is the form player in each position for each campaign. Going over to Oz, Ryan Jones and Justin Tipuric were match fit, in top form and had earned the right to start the first test. If they had done perhaps the intensity required to beat the super powers of world rugby would have been present. It may
mean dropping a proven performer but that is the boldness needed. I would also like to see Gatland and his staff looks to add to their game as they appeared to at the World Cup with greater variety to their attack. The back three is as good as anything in the world right now, they are the players that can make a huge difference and Wales need to utilise their ability as much as possible. It may eventually be that North is moved to playing centre for two reasons. Firstly, North has the ability to make things happen whether by brute force or slight of hand. When a player is that good and can exert that much influence, you need to get him on the ball as much as possible. The second reason is to see Harry Robinson coming in on the wing, he looks dynamite and could add another dimension to the team. Regardless, it is very exciting times for this Welsh team and its fans.
What do you think of the outcome of the London Welsh Promotion debate?
What a farcical situation and one that has been brewing for a couple of years. It reflects badly on the whole sport and hopefully the saga is finally at an end and Newcastle don’t appeal. For London Welsh it is hugely significant and will be a huge boost to the club and it’s continued existence in the professional game.
In terms of their prospects, in Lyn Jones they have a coach with pedigree and one who can motivate. As well as getting the best out of the boys who got the team into the Premiership it is vital that Welsh make some key signings. Sonny Parker is a great start and just the type of experienced, consistent performer they will need. The quality of the Championship is high and Exeter have shown what can be achieved with good foundations and a few quality additions. I think they will be competitive but have to get a couple of early wins to keep morale high.
Rhys Priestland has got a lot of criticism during and after Wales trip to Australia, what do you think?
Rhys Priestland transformed the way Wales performed during the World Cup with his style of play bringing the best out of the talent around him. He had an excellent first season of international rugby and shown himself to be a class act. There is no doubt that he hasn’t hit the heights of his world cup performances but Wales haven’t either. He is still Wales’ best outside half but faces stiff competition from Hook and, in particular, Biggar who was in great form at the end of the season.
What do you think of Scotland’s four year plan to win the Six Nations and then win the World Cup?
I think it is fantastic to have big ambitions and a vision on how to get there. Too often in the professional game teams are looking to downplay expectation so it’s always good to see a team setting high targets – good luck to them. In order to achieve these ambitions though, Scotland have to address major issues in their game particularly at grassroots and dramatically increase the levels of participation in the game. One worrying development in this grand plan is the drive to recruit players from overseas to qualify through residency. This issue needs to be addressed by the IRB with immediate effect otherwise countries could just recruit the best from overseas rather than develop their own talent and it will make international rugby a farce. It goes against what international rugby is all about. If there is a lack of talent then the pressure should be on the unions to improve the academies, Wales are a great example of how this can succeed with the likes of North and Warburton being among the brightest lights in world rugby. Overall though, you have to admire the ambition and courage of CEO Mark Dodson and applaud the way he is leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of improving his organisation.