Acid test awaits Wales in Australia
Mon, 19 Mar 2012 00:00
World Cup semifinalists Wales won their third Grand Slam in eight years when they took the Six Nations title at the weekend, a mark that stands comparison with their celebrated predecessors of the 1970s.
But will Sam Warburton's class of 2012 still be spoken of with the same awe decades on from their heyday as is now reserved for the likes of Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams?
What is certain is that success in what was then the Five Nations was more of a yardstick of a team's quality than its present-day equivalent.
Back then matches between Europe's elite and the Tri-Nations (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia) were rare - Wales played the All Blacks just twice in the 1970s - now this has become an annual event.
But in the professional era, World Cups and matches against the cream of Southern Hemisphere rugby represent a new gold standard.
Whisper it quietly in Wales, but they have won just one of their last 16 Tests against Tri-Nations opposition.
However, they have the chance to improve that record when Kiwi coach Warren Gatland takes Wales to Australia for a three-Test series in June.
"Tri-Nations teams tend to beat us, and we will definitely be targeting the Australia tour," said Wales prop Gethin Jenkins.
England's caretaker boss Stuart Lancaster, appointed following Martin Johnson's post World Cup resignation, steered his side featuring several new caps to a commendable second place in the Six Nations - with four wins out of five.
And yet the doubts persist. Is a man with Lancaster's limited experience the right person to guide England to the 2015 World Cup on home soil, especially when former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallett is waiting in the wings?
"A lot of people always talk about experience," Lancaster said. "The only bit I didn't have was the games and I've learnt as I've gone and tried to get up to speed as quickly as I could."
A tricky decision faces England ahead of their first tour of South Africa since 2007.
In Scotland the question is not whether Andy Robinson will be sacked after their wooden spoon season but will the former England flanker and coach resign?
Scotland suffered the indignity of a whitewash and have now lost seven Tests in a row, with last Saturday's 13-6 defeat by fellow strugglers Italy far more convincing than the scoreline suggests.
"There's a lot to take in in terms of what's happened and what's best for Scottish rugby," said Robinson.
Meanwhile Italy can think of winning more than one Six Nations match next season, with new French coach Jacques Brunel urging them to expand their traditionally forward-orientated game.
"The path towards victory is complicated, there are two ways to try to win, either by playing a tighter way and waiting more or you go for the way that we want to take," said Brunel.
For Ireland and France this was a frustrating tournament.
Injuries sidelined Ireland stars Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell while the mess England made of their scrum was made worse by the knowledge they now tour New Zealand for a three Test series against the world champion All Blacks in June with no obvious deputy at tighthead prop for Mike Ross.
"We got blown away," said Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien. "In this championship we've only beaten Italy and Scotland and that's just not good enough for this group of players."
World Cup finalists France were maddening, often only playing their best rugby when well behind.
New coach Philippe Saint-Andre made almost as many changes, especially in the key half-back positions, as much maligned predecessor Marc Lievremont although he did blood a centre with an old-fashioned eye for a gap in Wesley Fofana - only to play him on the wing in Saturday's 16-9 defeat by Wales in Cardiff.
Two Tests away to Argentina could be both brutal and beautiful.
"You cannot be happy with two victories and a draw," said Saint-Andre. "We'll go (to Argentina) with a new, not bad generation of players who started their adventure during this Six Nations tournament."
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