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LAST weekend saw a welcome return of international rugby to our televisions. Wales and Australia served up a cracker on Saturday afternoon culminating in a well-deserved draw for home team at the Millenium Stadium.
Wales performed well and when you factor into the equation that they lost their talismanic captain and string-puller Stephen Jones early in the game, it makes the 29-all scoreline look even more impressive. Young James Hook came into the fray and performed brilliantly – and he had seriously big shoes to fill.
When you look at the Welsh team they have no world class superstars outside of Peel and Jones. This writer thought it would be curtains as Jones left the field but the rags-to-riches story of Hook (he was still an amateur at the start of the year) meant not only did he make his debut but he also put in a flawless performance.
The Australian team selection was very strange. Matt Giteau was picked at scrum-half, he’s normally a centre. Matt Rogers was out-half (not sure what his best position is but it definitely isn’t out-half). Stephen Larkham was at inside centre, he is one of the world’s best out-halves. And Lote Tuquiri was picked at centre – he’s normally a winger.
But the one shining light in the Australian team (and not for the first time) was full back Chris Latham. He was inspirational at the back and is surely the world’s best number 15.
The battle at the Millenium Stadium on Saturday may have been a close fought affair throughout but there was to be no similar situation on Sunday. The All Blacks, and in particular one Mr Daniel Carter, was simply sublime as they inflicted the heaviest home defeat on record to England.
England may have a had a few new faces such as Shaun Perry and Anthony Allen. But they were out classed by a slick All Black unit whose power, pace and skill were leagues ahead of their opponents.
Carter contributed 26 points in total including a try, three conversions and five penalties. He was simply magnificent. As, of course, was Richie McCaw. The All Blacks continue to boast a wealth of talent with players like Doug Howlett, Anton Oliver, Ali Williams and Jerry Collins not even in the matchday 22.
England look a million miles away from successfully defending their world crown. New Zealand – who made it 21 wins from their last 23 starts – continue to coast towards a reunion with that coveted gold pot. They will go into next year’s World Cup competition as hot favourites, and rightly so.
A special word for our old friend Danny Grewcock who was up to his old antics again against the All Blacks as he tried to remove large chunks of Andrew Ellis’ hair. Very macho.
But now the focus turns to Ireland and South Africa next Saturday. At the time of writing the team is still unknown but many of the positions pick themselves. Players like Alan Quinlan and Mick O’Driscoll are unlucky to lose out but it is still a strong squad with, thankfully, a few new faces.
Utility back Paddy Wallace deserves his selection on the back of some excellent performances for Ulster this season but it will be interesting to see where O’Sullivan elects to use him.
It will also be interesting to see which two of Murphy, Dempsey and Trimble will fill the 11 and 15 jerseys. The other five back positions pick themselves.
Changes will be minimal up front too. Sheahan will start in Flannery’s absence with Horan and Hayes each side of him. The Munster locking combination will continue in the second row and it looks like Easterby, Wallace and Leamy will be the loose trio.
Finally this week it has just been announced that Paul O’Connell is one of five players in the running for the International Rugby Board’s Player of the Year award. The other nominees are New Zealand out-half and previous winner Dan Carter, Australian full-back Chris Latham, New Zealand flanker and captain Richie McCaw and South African scrum half Fourie du Preez.