Give the England team its due
England are on the verge of completing a remarkable turnaround from their humiliating World Cup campaign, with just Ireland standing between them and a new record for consecutive wins by a tier-one nation.
While some efforts have been made to discredit England's achievement on the basis that they haven’t played the All Blacks in that time, I’m not sure how strong an argument that is…after all the All Blacks didn’t play England on the way to their record either.
But if you do want to compare…here are the tier-one opponents and the number of times they were beaten in the streak.
New Zealand || England|
| v Australia ||5 ||4|
|v South Africa ||3 ||1|
|v Argentina || 3 ||1|
|v Wales ||3 ||3|
|v Ireland ||- ||1|
|v Scotland ||- ||2|
|v France ||1 ||2|
|v Italy ||- ||2|
New Zealand also played Namibia, Georgia and Tonga once, England played Fiji and Uruguay once.
New Zealand averaged more points per game, and the average ranking of their opponents was slightly higher per game, but only by a fraction.
Bottom line, to win that many games on the bounce takes some doing, and so England are to be congratulated, and frankly, unless Ireland show a dramatic improvement on their rather staid effort in Cardiff, then this time next week they will have sole possession of the record anyway.
What England's run will do is fuel calls for this year's Lions team to be dominated by English players, with speculation that over half of the touring party will come from the Eddie Jones squad.
Talking of whom, it is another great achievement for the feisty Australian. The potential there is for England to become even better on his watch. They are better organised these days, mainly because they can afford to be. They pay huge amounts of money to the clubs to be able to use “their players”, and are reaping the reward for significant investment in their age group systems.
But the key difference has been the clear thinking that Jones has brought to the coaching role, after things got all muddled and confused under his predecessor. People down under still see Jones as a ticking time bomb, but all we have seen so far is a bit of irritation and some very well-directed verbal barbs….most notably those that helped unhinge the Wallabies last year.
There is no clash with the All Blacks scheduled until next year, although there are reports that England are trying to arrange one in early November when the All Blacks are slated to play the barbarians at Twickenham. England want to strike while the iron is hot, and will be able to charge a king's ransom for tickets, while New Zealand Rugby will ask for at least a £2 million chunk of the gate…which market forces suggest they will get.
In the meantime all we will have is rather pointless pontification over who is the better of two teams that have not played each other since 2014, when the All Blacks won two tests very narrowly, and one convincingly.
Much has changed since then, and England deserve credit for what they have achieved.
It is not unusual to have a messy weekend early in Super Rugby.
After the excitement and anticipation of the opening round, and teams bounding out of the gates with great energy and enthusiasm, there is often a bit of a road bump in week two or three, and it happened this weekend past with some fairly untidy fare.
However, it wasn’t enough to stop a handful of teams starting to stand out from the crowd.
We had a terrible week of weather in New Zealand last week, with heavy un-seasonal rain cutting short what had been an enthralling cricket test between the Black Caps and your outstanding Proteas.
My daughter and her schoolmates had to be evacuated from their camp in the Hunua Ranges south of Auckland, which was very dramatic for the parents and a lot of fun for the kids, and that same hideous weather had a major impact on a highly anticipated game between the Chiefs and the Hurricanes.
There was a lot of niggle in the game, with three yellow cards, a suspension, and a troubling injury to the brilliant Nehe Milner-Skudder, who will miss the next six weeks.
In the end the Chiefs played the conditions better and showed marginally better discipline to come out of it with their third tough win in a row against New Zealand opposition, and a great platform to build on as they go into a run of seven games against overseas opposition.
Their clash with the Stormers in Cape Town on the 8th of April is one to look forward to immensely, despite it being staged at a hopeless hour for New Zealand punters. And they wonder why viewing figures are suffering.
The Blues Highlanders clash at Eden Park was played in much better conditions, and ironically produced a game of much lesser skill levels as the Highlanders tormented the Blues with their kicking game.
The Highlanders showed incredible resolve to score their first win despite a mounting injury list that includes some of their most influential players.
The Crusaders also suffered from some bad injuries, especially Israel Dagg, and yet found a way to come back from 17-nil down to edge a Reds team that rather naively tried to shut up shop with ten minutes still to play.
It was another disappointing weekend for the Aussies, with the Brumbies scoring their only win at the expense of the Force, a win enough to see them top the Aussie conference, and rather ridiculously hold second in the combined Australasian group ahead of three New Zealand teams with a superior record.
The Aussie group has totaled four wins, three in derby matches, and only one win in eight games against overseas teams, which is not a great record at this early stage.
The Waratahs came a cropper for the second week running against South African opposition, at the hands of a Sharks team that is now beautifully set up for the rest of the season.
They built pressure against the ‘Tahs, forced some errors and cashed in on others that were self made by the Sydney-siders.
Curwin Bosch played an excellent hand when coming on for the luckless Patrick Lambie, and when you consider they have already played their Aussie leg and now face a succession of games they should win, they are in a great position to take control of their conference.
Mind you they are in a very competitive group with the Lions and Jaguares, which has to be good for the competition.
There were some understandable grumblings about the Lions loss in Buenos Aires, one because Johan Ackerman again chose to take a below-strength side (notwithstanding the compassionate grounds on which Rohan Janse van Rensburg remained at home) to Buenos Aires, and two because of the conduct of Jaguares flyhalf Nico Sanchez.
Sanchez is a gifted player, but he is the first to squeal when he is on the receiving end. He has been cited and banned one week for a cannonball tackle that the officials simply did not scrutinise carefully enough….perhaps not helped by the continual communication issues between ref and TMO that seemed to occur at Velez Sarsfield.
He should have been yellow-carded and who knows what impact that might have had.
His other act of dangerous play threatened himself more than anyone else, but underlines what I wrote last week about the player in a dominant aerial position seemingly immune to sanction.
Players leaping into the air over the top of another are often the ones initiating the risk, and yet are never culpable. This surely needs to be revisited.
Other than that, the Jaguares played a very good game, using their powerful loose forwards to great effect. Losing Facundo Isa to Europe was a big blow, but Pablo Matera is made of the same stuff, and was particularly impressive. I think they will be a much greater force this year.
The Stormers got the job done without any real problems against the Kings and have built such good momentum early on that they could have done without the bye this week, while the Cheetahs might have been guilty of taking their eye off the ball just a little, against an improving Sunwolves side, but are still on the pace going into a string of very tough games.
I think we can confidently expect better fare this weekend in Super Rugby, while England take on Ireland the day after St Patrick's Day…well that is one not to miss, to be sure.