rugbyworldcup.com and James Mortimer 30.Dec.2012Getty Images
On Wales earlier 2012 success
Winning a Grand Slam is not an easy thing to do. I remember being part of England teams that fell at the final hurdle on a number of occasions. It took us a long time to do it. Wales certainly didn’t do this the easy way. They had to go away from home on a few occasions, beating Ireland and England, who turned into a bit of a surprise package in the Six Nations. Warren Gatland’s team deserved the plaudits, for not only playing winning rugby but also playing attractive rugby.
Wales are always going to be a force to be reckoned with when they have got all their players fit. What we saw over the year is that when some of the key players were injured or slightly out of form, they had some problems and were not able to build on the momentum that they had gained. They’ll be very disappointed because when you win a Grand Slam, you expect to go on and beat at least one of the southern hemisphere sides.
They had a decent tour, without getting the results, in Australia and really should have won one, if not two of those Test matches. They then had a disastrous autumn campaign. It was a funny old year for Wales. They went from high to low in the space of 12 months and now face a tough pool alongside Australia and England at Rugby World Cup 2015.
The Rugby Championship: New Zealand set a new standard
This New Zealand team is one of the best ever, in my opinion, and that’s saying something. I have been especially impressed with the fact that the All Blacks were able to step up again immediately after winning the Rugby World Cup.
Post-World Cup there’s often a lot of disruption and people start to take their eye off the ball. It’s unbelievable, really, that they were able to keep their form, keep their momentum and, many would argue, actually play even better rugby. They’re peerless at the minute, not just winning games, but winning by considerable margins as well. At the Rugby World Cup draw, they rightly scooped up all the major awards.
The Rugby Championship: Argentina arrive in the big time
Argentina’s displays this year – including a draw with South Africa and win over Wales in Cardiff – will have been a bit worrying for the rest of the world. The Pumas are only going to get better and better, as when you play against quality sides you learn so much, so quickly. You don’t get brought down to anyone else’s level.
The more contact that Argentina have with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the better their rugby will become. They’re already not stuck in a one-dimensional game plan. They seem to have expanded their style, although they will always play to their forward strength. Their victory over the Six Nations champions recently was no great surprise because they’re learning very, very quickly.
Rugby World Cup: Qualifiers add a special edge
To be given the opportunity to get the journey to Rugby World Cup 2015 underway was pretty special. I went over to Mexico for their match against Jamaica, the first qualifier, and it was just an amazing experience. In my rugby career, I’d never really had the chance to go to countries like that and see what the sport has done.
Similarly, with Hungary and Bulgaria in the first European qualifier, it was a wonderful chance to see rugby in action and a great step on the road to the tournament itself. Not long have we recovered from one Rugby World Cup and we’re working towards the next one. It’s very exciting.
November Internationals: Upsets provided added spice
I think the gap is closing all the time between the world’s top 10 sides. During a great series of November matches Tonga defeated Scotland and Samoa overturned Wales, while Scotland beat Australia back in June. These days, there are no easy games and on any given day a lot of the teams can beat each other. That’s a good thing for rugby and we saw at the last Rugby World Cup that the margins were decreasing. Nothing in November suggested any different.
November Internationals: England’s big surprise
Without doubt, given the form of New Zealand and England going into their meeting at Twickenham last month, it was an incredible victory for the hosts. England had been poor against Australia and unlucky against South Africa, but they were unbelievably good against New Zealand.
The only difference – they didn’t suddenly get more talented – was that their mindset changed. There’s no doubt that criticism fuelled their change in mentality. They were men on a mission up front and caught New Zealand completely unawares. Now, all the matches they play will be judged against that performance. That is a great thing, as the pressure now comes from themselves to perform.
In many ways, it’s testament to New Zealand that Richie McCaw refused to use the virus that had affected his team in the build-up, or the fact that they were at the end of a long year, as an excuse. He just put his hand up and said: “We were well beaten by a much better side on the day.”
That will just give them a little reality check and probably give a bit of a boost to the rest of the world as well, just to realise that this team, heralded as possibly the best ever, were completely dismantled. I don’t think anyone could have seen that result coming.