Offside at the Rugby Union Autumn Internationals

The final Autumn Internationals of the season  take place this weekend at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium where England will face Australia and Wales South Africa, respectively.

Mark Leech - The All Blacks perform the Haka before the match.
Mark Leech – The All Blacks perform the Haka before the match.

Offside’s cameras have been on the touchline for many of the recent games during this informal series to take in the sights and photograph the state of international Rugby Union in late 2014.

Mark Leech - England coach Stuart Lancaster watching the warm up.
Mark Leech – England coach Stuart Lancaster watching the warm up.

Mark Leech began his tenure at Twickenham with England’s opening clash with New Zealand in early November.

Mark Leech - All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
Mark Leech – All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

The All Blacks — the number one international team in the world according to the IRB rankings — travelled across multiple time zones and crossed the hemispheres to take on Stuart Lancaster’s side at the home of English rugby and the resulting showdown did not disappoint.

Mark Leech - All Blacks full back Israel Dagg comes under pressure from Mike Brown and Jonny May of England.
Mark Leech – All Blacks full back Israel Dagg comes under pressure from Mike Brown and Jonny May of England.

New Zealand may have been the odds-on favourites for the clash, but England ran them close and offered more than just stubborn resistance.

Though the visitors got off to a strong start, running up a 17-3 lead through tries scored by Julian Savea and Kieran Read, their advantage didn’t hold.

Mark Leech - Referee Nigel Owens gives a penalty against England in the pouring rain.
Mark Leech – Referee Nigel Owens gives a penalty against England in the pouring rain.
Mark Leech - Referee Nigel Owens awards a try to New Zealand.
Mark Leech – Referee Nigel Owens awards a try to New Zealand.
Mark Leech - England captain Chris Robshaw and his team complain about a refereeing decision in the pouring rain.
Mark Leech – England captain Chris Robshaw and his team complain about a refereeing decision in the pouring rain.

England roared back to rebalance the score to 22-20 in their favour, with Lancaster’s side using the power of their forwards to great effect.

Mark Leech - England captain Chris Robshaw complains about a refereeing decision in the pouring rain.
Mark Leech – England captain Chris Robshaw complains about a refereeing decision in the pouring rain.
Mark Leech - Richie McCaw stands in the rain with his All Blacks pack.
Mark Leech – Richie McCaw stands in the rain with his All Blacks pack.
Mark Leech - England captain Chris Robshaw clears his nose as he stands in the rain with his defeated team.
Mark Leech – England captain Chris Robshaw clears his nose as he stands in the rain with his defeated team.

Yet their highly-rated opponents raised their game and scored a converted try and a penalty to end the game as 30-22 winners.

For just one more game at least, the All Blacks’ bid to record a perfect year remained alive after securing their 13th consecutive test match win.

Mark Leech -  A message tattoed on the inner arm of referee Steve Walsh, 'he who controls himself controls the game'.
Mark Leech – A message tattoed on the inner arm of referee Steve Walsh, ‘he who controls himself controls the game’.

England’s next opponents at Twickenham was South Africa, who arrived to do battle with the hosts in mid-November. Mark Leech was again Offside’s man on the side of the pitch.

Mark Leech - Courtney Lawes of England gets the hand of Duane Vermuelen in his face.
Mark Leech – Courtney Lawes of England gets the hand of Duane Vermuelen in his face.

The Spring Boks headed onto the field ready to defend an 11 match unbeaten streak against England, and grab some sporting bragging rights over one of their greatest rivals.

Mark Leech - England captain Chris Robshaw speaks to referee Steve Walsh.
Mark Leech – England captain Chris Robshaw speaks to referee Steve Walsh.

As was the case against New Zealand, South Africa were the quickest off the mark at the start of the match, and at one point in the second half their hosts trailed the visitors by 14 points.

Mark Leech - England captain Chris Robshaw gets an elbow in the face from Schalk Burger.
Mark Leech – England captain Chris Robshaw gets an elbow in the face from Schalk Burger.

However, that wasn’t the end of it. England put together a great period of point scoring later in the game to fire themselves back into contention.

Even with their late surge though, the home side couldn’t cope with the Spring Boks, and regularly put themselves under pressure with poor decision making and error-strewn passages of play.

In the end South Africa ran out deserved 31-28 winners with questions being asked about England’s plans and preparations for next year’s World Cup with the team appearing to be going backwards according to some pundits.

Mark Leech - Duane Vermeulen carries the ball at the rear of a South African maul.
Mark Leech – Duane Vermeulen carries the ball at the rear of a South African maul.

Lancaster’s team trudged off the hallowed turf of Tickenham having fallen to their fifth consecutive defeat.

John Hales was present for Australia’s visit to Dublin to play Ireland, with the Wallabies keen to test themselves on the power of their hosts’ pack and backs.

John Halas - Nick Phipps dives down to score a try.
John Halas – Nick Phipps dives down to score a try.

Joe Schmidt’s team showed England how it’s done by bursting out of the blocks to run up a commanding 17-0 lead in the early stages the Aviva Stadium.

John Halas - Nick Phipps scores a try.
John Halas – Nick Phipps scores a try.

Given how the Australians inflicted a crushing 32-15 defeat upon the Irish last year, their ability to dismantle the visitors on home soil so quickly was as satisfying as it was impressive.

However, the Wallabies fought back and even snatched the lead mid-way though the game before Ireland came through to win 26-23.

The result, along with all their other victories against the visiting teams of the Autumn Internationals series, saw the Irish jump after of Australia to third in the IRB rankings.

Mark Leech - Samoan players enter the field at Twickenham.
Mark Leech – Samoan players enter the field at Twickenham.

England’s third international match was billed as far more winnable affair against one of the game’s middleweights, rather than a true super-heavy. Mark Leech was once again Offside’s man at Twickenham.

Mark Leech - Samoan players perform their Haka.
Mark Leech – Samoan players perform their Haka.

That’s not meant with any disrespect to Samoa, who are ranked ninth in the world, but their capabilities and trophy cabinet isn’t on quite the same level as New Zealand and South Africa.

Mark Leech - England wing Jonny May leaves the pitch with a cut head.
Mark Leech – England wing Jonny May leaves the pitch with a cut head.

With England heading into the match on a five-game loosing streak however, the possibility of an upset wasn’t out of the question.

Yet Lancaster’s side finally got their first win of the Autumn Internationals with the hosts benefited from their opponents losing a man to the sin bin to win the game 28-9.

Mark Leech - Samoan front row Ti'i Paulo, Census Johnston and Sakaria Taulafo stare down England's pack.
Mark Leech – Samoan front row Ti’i Paulo, Census Johnston and Sakaria Taulafo stare down England’s pack.

It wasn’t a spectacular performance by England, and while the fans may have filled Twickenham, some pundits were quick to suggest that their loyalty went unpaid as far as the quality of the rugby went.

Mark Leech - An uncomfortable moment for England prop Matt Mullan.
Mark Leech – An uncomfortable moment for England prop Matt Mullan.
Mark Leech - Players of both teams kneel and form a group huddle after the match.
Mark Leech – Players of both teams kneel and form a group huddle after the match.

At least they got a victory though. Australia are up next for the English. The home crowd would probably be happy to take a functional and flat win over their great Antipodean rivals.

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of current and classic rugby pictures as well as other images from across the world of sport. Explore Offside’s unique library at www.welloffside.com.

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.

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Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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