Such is England and Ireland’s improvement over the past fortnight that it seems the All Blacks are standing by themselves in holding back the Northern Hemisphere tide.
Coach Steve Hansen has been a keen observer of not only that improvement but also the battle raging across the Tasman between England coach Eddie Jones and his Wallaby counterpart, Michael Cheika.
The latest victory by the Australian Jones, who has turned England from confused World Cup flops to a side with a steely edge, was the 23-7 victory in Melbourne that sealed the series after the home side’s 39-28 defeat in Brisbane the week before. And Hansen can’t help notice that the result has come on top of Jones winning the off-pitch battle in terms of his strategy to unsettle Cheika in the media. The two are former club teammates, and Hansen wonders if that history is playing a part in Cheika’s apparent willingness to keep turning the other cheek.
“Cheika has not come back, he’s let Eddie have a free rein to the point where he’s actually allowed Eddie to bully him in the media. I don’t know if that’s because they know each other that well that there’s a pecking order from the old days … but that’s gone on to the park, hasn’t it?”
Hansen’s needling of Cheika could have consequences for the build-up to the All Blacks v Wallabies Rugby Championship test in Sydney on August 20.
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Cheika will be desperate to put one over Hansen after the All Blacks beat Australia in last November’s World Cup final, but he is unlikely to be coming from a position of strength.
After they were physically bullied by England in the first test at Suncorp Stadium, Cheika’s message to his troops was clearly to fight back in Melbourne, but, apart from some pushing and shoving and off-the-ball niggle, England were once again allowed to dictate terms.
It suggests the Wallabies have a soft underbelly, a perception they will be desperate to put right in the final test in Sydney at the weekend.
It also suggests Cheika’s willingness to let Jones fire at will without response has left him out-thought as well as outfought off the pitch.
In South Africa, after beating the Springboks in the first test, Ireland couldn’t finish the job despite their lead at Ellis Park in the second. They were overhauled to lose 32-26, but it has been a more competitive series than many predicted, and they are still in the hunt for a remarkable series victory.
“If there’s a changing of the guard, that’s great, I reckon,” Hansen said. “The more teams we have competitive the better it is for the game.”