By John Birch.
The tradition of summer international rugby in Canada was revived in August with the largest ever tournament held there outside of a World Cup. Featuring all of the the nations that finished 2nd to 5th in the last World Cup, plus Africas strongest side, it promised to be a real test for all the participants one year away from the next World Cup.
That England ran out clear winners was no real surprise, but other results proved much less predictable and at the end what did we learn from the Nations Cup 2009?
First to the team who finished bottom of the standings, South Africa (5th) - outclassed but by no means disgraced. They possess in Zandile Nojoko, a fly-half of truly international class, but both she and her team benefited in the early games from being such an unknown quantity and became less effective as opposing coaches worked them out. They are unlikely to cause most opponents serious concerns next year but have probably improved enough to at least avoid the wooden spoon.
Onto the host side, Canada (4th) entered the Cup on a high, and confidently expected to reach the final game against England unbeaten - the whole tournament was structured to build to this game. They had grown used to winning, and winning well, and in their opening game with South Africa they exploded from the blocks. Four tries in the opening twenty minutes - the Canadians were sublime, brilliant and then there was a water interval, after which Canada were never the same again.
They actually "lost" the remaining 60 minutes against the South Africans 17-10 - a fact that commentators missed at the time - but they could not miss the next game. Good defence kept the French out, but poor discipline gave away too many penalties in simple positions, and a lack-lustre attack rarely looked likely to break through, a combination that lead to what has to be called a "shock" 12-7 defeat. Later performances were better, but the decline in performance in only a few weeks has been remarkable. Its almost as if they peaked too soon - 18 months out from the World Cup and whereas the USA are building match by match, Canada now have a major rebuilding task and less than a year to do it.
France will have been pleased with third place and they came very close to finishing second but who would be the coach of France? Frustrating is probably the gentlest way to describe such an unnervingly unpredictable team at one moment you are very nearly losing to South Africa, at the next you are leading against England, beating Canada, and nearly winning against the USA as well. The vagaries of team selection may account for this and maybe if the French had a settled side theyd have more consistent results. As it is, though they will record some good results next year, this level of unpredictability will be their undoing.
Runners up were the USA, who were something of a revelation. With no wins since 2006 a battle for third place with France was what might have been expected - but they exceeded all that. They started well - getting an early lead against a strong England team - and though they eventually lost they were by no means disgraced. Then a six try win over South Africa was followed by a dramatic victory over Canada, followed by a draw with France where they led for most of the game.
There is still room for significant improvement, however, before the Americans can realistically hope to win another World Cup. They are a tough team - no-one tackles harder - but their biggest problem seemed to be handling and passing which, at times, was terribly slow. Against most opponents they get away with it and can dominate through their physical strength - but against teams like England such mistakes almost inevitably cost points.
England remain head and shoulders above everyone else, winning even when playing badly, as against South Africa, and as they showed against Canada if it rains next year theyll be all but unbeatable! If they do have a fault, however, it is that while their first choice XV remains frighteningly effective in all departments of the game, it is remarkable how this declines when other members of the squad are brought in. It is no co-incidence that the middle two games against France and South Africa, where a good deal of squad rotation was used, were significantly less impressive than the opening and closing games which featured effectively the first choice XV.
There is no obvious reason for this - these are still brilliant players but its like a finely tuned engine misfiring after a single new component has been changed. Passes dont go quite to hand, players are ever so slightly out of position, kicks dont quite hit the target and so on. Its all about fractional hesitations, a need to think rather than react. And its not new - it was reminiscent of the Six Nations, where the loss of half-a-dozen top players to the Sevens World Cup coincided with defeat to Wales and a narrow win over Ireland - in contrast to the overwhelming wins over France and Scotland that followed their return.
Squad rotation will have to happen next year - England will not be able to field their preferred XV in every game and it is a slight worry that England's greatest threat could come in a game where a few leading players are watching from the sidelines.