He isn’t exactly likening the supposedly infallible All Blacks to the Titanic, but Mike Tindall believes the autumn Test series highlights there is a crack in the hull, and that the rest of rugby’s international powerhouses must now exploit their chance to sink the ship.
He’s sat, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged at 10:30 at Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre in the shadow of Dubai International Airport, but former England centre Tindall is adamant the seven-hour flight from the UK hasn’t made him delirious. The man capped 75 times by the Red Rose smiles when he says he has been “laughed at” by friends and colleagues over the past year when he even dares question New Zealand’s invincibility.
But the evidence is there. They came through the end-of-season internationals unscathed, unbeaten against the Barbarians, France, Scotland and Wales. But against the Scots and Welsh in particular, they looked ragged at times, outplayed for long spells by both. Of their 14 games in 2017, they were beaten twice, by Australia and the British & Irish Lions.
The third and final Test against Warren Gatland’s visitors was drawn 15-15 in Auckland. That followed defeat in the second Test, the first time since 2011 the All Blacks had gone successive games without victory – an incredible span of 77 matches. Add in defeat to Ireland at Soldier Field last November, the supposedly invincible All Blacks army have lost three times in 12 months. And Tindall feels that is a crack. Albeit tiny, but a crack nonetheless.
“I’ve said it and been laughed at for the last year for saying they’ve got a chink, a little crack in the ship,” said Tindall, who appeared alongside former All Black Josh Kronfeld at The Royals Rugby Sevens Dinner at Le Meridien last night ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sevens, beginning on Thursday.
“Not a big one. It’s a ship that’s made of cast iron usually, but since 2015 there’s a little chink and there needs to be a regular hammering of it to spring a leak.
“You look at the leaders they’ve lost. If Kieran Read doesn’t play, you don’t have an immediate standout as captain.
“You don’t have the seasoned veteran, like (Richie) McCaw. In their back line too, Beauden Barrett is undoubtedly the best 10 on the planet but he seems to go through a rollercoaster ride every now and then. His kicking can be suspect and he can have quiet moments in games. It’s a small chink but it’s down to other nations to prise it open. If it’s there, it can be exposed. Whether it’s the other teams catching up or them on a slight decline, the gap is closing. There’s an ability to get at them and every nation needs to feed off that.”
Closer to home, Tindall admits the Red Rose were hardly scintillating during the autumn. However, Eddie Jones rested Lions stars like Owen Farrell and Mauro Itoje, while a number of a new wave of talent were blooded. Even while experimenting, Jones steered England safely to wins against Argentina and Samoa, with a clinical 30-6 dismantling of Australia the highlight. “Overall they’ll be pretty happy,” Tindall said.
“Argentina was disappointing. How clinical they were in the last 10 minutes against Australia was encouraging. Even in the Samoa game they took their opportunities ruthlessly. So one poor performance and two good ones. If they want to establish themselves as the world’s No2 team though, they have to win a Grand Slam.”
Looking ahead to the Six Nations, England will be gunning for a hat-trick of titles, a feat no side has ever achieved since the inaugural Home Nations tournament was played in 1883. And Tindall expects several of the new breed to make Jones’ squad. “I think one place we’re not really set yet is the back-row,” said ex-Bath and Gloucester man Tindall.
“Sam Underhill and Chris Robshaw do a lot of the same things and it puts pressure on Nathan Hughes to do a lot of the ball carrying.
“Sam Simmonds has had a great autumn. He got through his work and can be that ball carrier. We always function better when we have two carriers.
“Henry Slade didn’t have the best game against Australia but played better (against Samoa) and Piers Francis came on and had an excellent game. The new role of a prop is to be useful around the field, we have that with Mako (Vunipola) and (Ellis) Genge.
“It proved our depth is strong. Their options are good. You get an injury and someone will slot in. Billy Vunipola is a massive player for England too so to play like we did without him is a positive sign.”
Despite the fact England have become a juggernaut under Jones, equalling the All Blacks’ record of 18 Tests unbeaten in March, Tindall doesn’t expect more history in the shape of a third successive Six Nations title to come easily. With Scotland resurgent even before smashing Australia 53-24 last weekend, Wales adopting more of a multi-faceted attacking game and Ireland already England’s nearest rivals, Tindall is predicting one of the most keenly contested championships in years.
“England should win it, is what I believe, and the other three could be a coin flip,” he adds. “Realistically it could be a coin flip for all four. It could be a top four of home nations. Italy are in a woeful spell and France are still not great so you probably put them last and second-last.”
England were exposed at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – the first host nation to not make it beyond the pool stage in eight tournaments. Under former Japan coach Jones though, they have rediscovered their swagger, something Tindall admits was lacking under predecessor Stuart Lancaster.
“(Jones) doesn’t play to the media. He does the opposite,” said Tindall, who scored 14 tries for England. “Look at Sam Simmonds. He’s been the best No8 in the Premiership this season so everyone’s saying he should start and he doesn’t. I think he does that to show a) he’s still boss b) it’s the mental game with the players to keep them on their toes. People compare him to (Jose) Mourinho.
“He’s doing a fantastic job, giving them more freedom. Stuart was a bit of a disciplinarian.
“(Australia coach, Michael) Cheika talked about bullying England in the World Cup. Michael Hooper said ‘we knew we could do anything we wanted because we knew they wouldn’t retaliate’.
“Eddie’s said that won’t fly so Dylan’s (Hartley) captain, Mike Brown is vicecaptain and Owen Farrell, people who are really in your face.”
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Michael Cheika’s Wallabies certainly are record breakers.
Following on from last Saturday’s biggest ever loss against England, Cheika’s side set a whole new host of records against Scotland today at Murrayfield.
In the history of Australia vs Scotland test matches, stretching right back to 1927, the 53 points were the most ever conceded by Australia against the Scots and 29 their biggest ever losing margin. Scotland’s eight tries were also the most they have ever scored against the Wallabies.
But to fully appreciate those three new marks you need to put them in context. The previous highest score by Scotland against Australia was 34, in the controversial quarter final loss at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – that mark was beaten by 19 points.
The biggest ever losing margin before today was nine points, that was exceeded by 20 – and the most tries Scotland had ever managed against Australia in a Test before today was three. That was beaten by a staggering five five-pointers.
Then there were the marks that Scotland almost set. It was the third most points ever scored against Australia in 617 Tests; they became only the third country after South Africa and New Zealand to rack up a half century against the Wallabies (the first northern hemisphere nation) and it was the equal ninth largest lost in Wallaby history (again the largest to a northern hemisphere nation.)
Yes, the Australians played over half the match with 14-men after a mindless and totally out of character shoulder charge by Sekope Kepu but this was insane rugby by any standard.
Scotland have made stunning strides under new coach Gregor Townsend, and this was their second victory over Australia this calendar year, but this was far more impressive than that 24-19 triumph in Sydney.
The Scots were decimated by the loss of their star Stuart Hogg just before kick-off but rather than go into their shell they fully committed to their new-look high-tempo, highly skilled running game.
Even when they went behind 12 – 10 just before Kepu was sent off or when Australia scored first in the second half, the brave Scots refused to flinch.
Their skill levels were breathtaking and despite their break-neck speed their accuracy was impressive with just six dropped passes (eight by Australia) and 23 missed tackles (29 by Australia).
The match showed the Scots nearly-victory against the All Blacks last weekend was no-fluke and Scotland are now right up alongside England and Ireland as Six Nations favourites.
As for the Wallabies – Cheika has to take full responsibility for this debacle. Yes Australia were unlucky against England but there was no luck in this. Kepu’s red card, and Kurtley Beale’s second in two games, shows a recklessness and lack of discipline that stems straight from the coach.
If the coach cannot control himself how can the players.
When they were reduced to 14 men they had to have a plan B – keep it tight, play territory – but they still threw the ball around like it was an end of season Barbarians jaunt. It played right into the Scots hands, and the adoring Murrayfield crowd’s hearts.
Just over a month ago the Wallabies deservedly beat the All Blacks in Brisbane and after a horror spell in Australian rugby, on and off the field, things were finally looking up.
But after record losses to England and Scotland the Wallabies end their season as a dis-heartened rabble and Cheika has to start all over again in 2018.
If the Wallabies are to have any chance at all in the 2019 RWC, or claiming back the Bledisloe Cup before that, Cheika must learn some discipline and then instill that discipline in his team. Or else more dark days like this will follow.
Ireland recorded their biggest win over South Africa on Saturday with a 38-3 hammering at Lansdowne Road.
The Irish ran in four tries – three in the last 10 minutes – to extend the woeful Springboks winless run to five matches.
Especially pleasing for Joe Schmidt was the fact that three of his inexperienced players, Andrew Conway, South Africa-born hooker Rob Herring and the impressive Jacob Stockdale scored three of the tries. Rhys Ruddock nabbed the other.
Here, we take a look at three things learned from Dublin.
For a side that sparkled for large parts of the Rugby Championship, South Africa failed to bring an attacking and physical edge to the Aviva Stadium and were blown away by a strong Ireland side.
Joe Schmidt’s men played with desire and commitment in defence and attack as they hammered South Africa territorially at every opportunity.
They restricted their opponents from attacking the wider channels, with Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale always willing to close down the Springboks back three and prevent any quick breaks from deep.
Although it is unfair to say Alistair Coetzee’s side looked short on confidence, it was the Ireland’s pressurising tactics to keep possession and close down space that caused them problems.
The Springboks failed to keep the ball in hand, threaten the line and out-work the Irish – and that proved costly in the end.
Ireland looked very accomplished from ball in hand during a scrappy contest, with man-of-the-match Jonny Sexton at the fore of their kicking dominance.
He consistently pinned back his opponents deep in their own territory, and converted five out of six kicks in a stellar display.
In the big games, the 32-year-old cements his reputation as Ireland’s ice man with his threatening efforts from hand and off the tee.
Overall, Sexton played the line superbly, both with ball in hand and defensively, and set the tempo for a commanding Ireland win.
The Ulsterman was an inspirational presence against the Springboks, taking on possession at every opportunity.
One of the best in the business under the high ball, the 21-year-old showed his stellar pace, solid tackling ability, good positioning and lethal finishing under the bright lights of the Aviva Stadium.
He made a superb break to execute a key pass for Rhys Ruddock’s try and capped off a fine performance with a clever finish just before full-time.
If Schmidt has one eye on the World Cup then he needs to give this industrious winger more chances to continue developing his skills on the international stage.
At 6’5, he can act as an option for full-back, centre and wing and should get the nod for the matches against Fiji and Argentina.