Nothing summed up the wreckage of the northern November more painfully than the fractured skull of Jamie Roberts. The giant centre clashed heads with the even bigger Stirling Mortlock at the very start of Wales's final game of the autumn series, a last chance to salvage something from an arduous month.
The wind of change has got to start blowing north
Nothing summed up the wreckage of the northern November more painfully than the fractured skull of Jamie Roberts. The giant centre clashed heads with the even bigger Stirling Mortlock at the very start of Wales's final game of the autumn series, a last chance to salvage something from an arduous month. Unlike the Wallaby captain, Roberts never lost consciousness, despite being poleaxed in the collision. He stayed on the field, made a break in the build-up to Shane Williams's try, but then began to suffer severe pains upstairs. He trudged off, and will remember very little of the one and only victory by a Six-Nations country over the Tri-Nations tourists.
At least Roberts will have the consolation of the result. Wales finished their campaign with a smile, the fallibility of their line-out offset by their off-loading in the tackle and their ambition to keep the ball alive. It was a performance that saved the honour of the north, a tribute to the daring of Lee Byrne at full-back and the impishness of Williams on the wing. Roberts himself had been one of the success stories of the series, a player of obvious physical attributes who was doing his best not to make himself a slave to physicality. There is a lot to be said for launching a big player with fast feet at any defence, for making the most out of what Roberts and No 8 Andy Powell bring to the party, but both Welsh players also tried to embrace a new game of continuity, of passing out of contact, of subtlety.
It may be worth comparing these two Welsh players with their New Zealand counterparts: Rodney So'oialo and Ma'a Nonu. Neither of these All Blacks could ever be accused of shirking when it comes to physical duties, but for a few seasons now both have been playing with a thoughtfulness to go with their ruggedness. The point is that New Zealand remain a couple of season's ahead of Europe's most open-minded team. The pursuit is on, led by Wales, but the All Blacks are not standing still.
And what advances are made in New Zealand are copied in Australia and South Africa. The Tri Nations constantly push ahead; the Six Nations all too frequently find themselves bogged down in a dog-fight, where standards matter less than a victory, especially when it comes against England. It may almost help the cause of general European enlightenment that England are in a dysfunctional state at the moment. There was a whole load of stuff written and said about Danny Cipriani and Tom Rees as stellar performers and about Martin Johnson as a manager who would tolerate nothing less than world domination, but after a month of games the truth is out. England at the moment are not a very good team.
There are signs that beating them is no longer an end in itself for the Celtic nations in particular. Scotland, for example, were prepared to concentrate on the development of a long-term style, rather than on trying to drag any of their opponents into Murrayfield mayhem. Euan Murray and Ross Ford emerged as front row forwards of authority. The back row was so competitive that a player as good as Ally Hogg could on occasions be released for duty with Edinburgh rather than Scotland. The wings are powerful and Mike Blair is a world-class scrum half.
Scotland do have a problem. They couldn't convert any of their charges at the All Black line into tries, or any of their penalty kicks into points against the Springboks. In the face of huge encouragement across the playing spectrum stands this inability to score. What Scotland need is a Dan Carter, or a Matt Giteau, or even a Ruan Pienaar, the Springbok who emerged last month as a class number 10. That's to say, there's still a huge gulf between Scottish promise and southern hemisphere delivery. The southern hemisphere have the proven performers, while Scotland can only wish for a playmaking points machine.
Ireland have Ronan O'Gara, who rediscovered his cruel right boot in the final game against Argentina. Given the tensions between the two sides, based on encounters at the last three World Cups, this was a game with almost as much at stake as Wales-Australia. But not quite. Until Argentina are afforded their rightful place in either the Six Nations or the Tri Nations, they will remain a card of limited value. Not a team of limited worth, but an attraction of reduced appeal.
It is a situation as punitive as O'Gara's spiralling punts, as brutal as the night when O'Gara's role was inverted, and the All Blacks charged down his first kick and turned a Croke Park night of promise into a nightmare. Ireland beat Argentina to restore some legitimacy, but suffered horribly against the All Blacks. For a muted November, however, nowhere was as hushed as Twickenham. Until the stadium broke into booing as England fell to Australia, South African and New Zealand.
November was a Grand Slam month for the All Blacks, who won four out of four without conceding a try. South Africa won three out of three, and went from a team on the brink of all-out internal feuding to a world-champion outfit slightly disappointed not to have stuck more than a record 42 points on England at Twickenham. Australia won three out of four tests in the UK and lost to New Zealand in Hong Kong, and Wales in Cardiff. That hardly represents a month of misery.
That condition remains the preserve of England. Their November was a stinker. They discovered Delon Armitage, but lost Cipriani to the ether. They added steel to their performance against the All Blacks, but lost four players to the sin bin. The mould of the Anglo-Saxon machine has been broken. November proved that it is time to move on. Nobody is too big in the northern hemisphere to resist rugby's wind of change.
Eddie Butler is a former captain of Wales.