The #Scrumdown - The Autumn Internationals
Rugby Union : Preview of the Autumn Internationals
It’s getting cold, it’s getting dark and it’s the best time of the year for rugby. . . Except for the Six Nations. . . and the Rugby Championship. . . and the Lions. . . and the RWC. Okay, it’s the joint 5th most important time of the rugby calendar along with the summer tours, but there are always some cracking matches on offer in the Autumn Internationals, and with the World Cup two years away it’s a great chance to lay down a marker, and perhaps pick up some huge scalps. Let’s look at the home nations.
Opponents – Argentina, Australia and Samoa
England are still unbeaten under Eddie Jones at Twickenham, and expectations will be for another clean sweep here. This outcome is looking much less cut and dry following Australia’s sensational win over the All Blacks a few weeks ago, and the Wallabies will definitely feel they owe England following four straight losses. It should make their encounter totally unmissable. Elsewhere, there is an intriguing tie against Argentina, their first meeting since they were drawn in the same group for the RWC 2019. The Pumas have been misfiring of late, but they have an immensely talented team and should not be taken lightly.
Key Man – Owen Farrell. It has to be. Farrell has become a world-class talent in recent years, and his distribution has come on leaps and bounds. He is becoming a marvelous all-rounder, and an England team without Farrell would be lost.
One to Watch – Sam Underhill. The Bath flanker may be new to the Premiership, but his tackling rate and skill at the breakdown has been a revelation. This will be his first caps in front of a home crowd, and expectations are high. Could he finally be the answer to England’s long running number 7 conundrum?
Predictions – All depends on how quickly they get out of the blocks. I think they’ll win all three, but the Australia tie is going to be a squeaker.
Opponents – Australia, Georgia, New Zealand, South Africa
Wales are in somewhat of a transition period right now, both in personnel and in rugby philosophy. So-called ‘Warrenball’ has served them well over the years, but with law changes and with the most successful Welsh domestic team, the Scarlets, playing a fast-flowing and exciting brand of rugby, Wales are changing. A plethora of young talent are joining the old guard. They are playing the three top teams in the southern hemisphere, as well as the up-and-coming Georgia, and will be aiming for at least three wins out of four.
Key Man – Taulupe Faletau. With a plethora of injuries befalling the camp in recent days and some old heads missing the cut, the Bath 8 remains the calm beacon at the heart of Wales. Expect another four huge performances from the two-time Lion.
One to Watch – Steff Evans. The winger has been on fire in the Pro14, and has waited patiently for the big stage. Now is the time for the talented youngster to be unleashed on an unsuspecting Southern Hemisphere.
Predictions – I’m expecting a couple of big wins here. A first week game against Australian team that has been together for a couple of months may be a stretch, but a sound beating of Georgia and convincing win over the Boks should follow. As for New Zealand? They look beatable, but Wales haven’t won this tie since the 50’s. I expect it will be tight, but the All Blacks will scrape it.
Opponents – Samoa, New Zealand and Australia
By their own admission, the Scots are no longer the team that loses bravely. Having picked up high profile wins against Ireland, Argentina and Australia in the last year, Scotland are no longer the pushovers they were for so many years. Glasgow are playing some of the best rugby in Europe and coach Gregor Townsend has expanded on the strong work by Vern Cotter. They will be relishing the challenge poised by the heavyweights of Australia and New Zealand.
Key Man – Stuart Hogg. Only just back from injury, but unmistakably one of the finest backs in the world. Scotland will hope their talismanic full-back has made a quick recovery.
One to Watch – Finn Russell. A strange choice considering he’s been with Scotland for a couple of years now, but such is the mercurial form that the fly-half is showing for Glasgow the world is expecting big things.
Predictions – Following a comprehensive win against Samoa, they have nothing to lose against the All Blacks. Although I think they’ll fall short there, the Australia game could be a huge scalp for Scotland following their win in the summer. I think they’ll do it.
Opponents – South Africa, Fiji and Argentina
Under the fantastic stewardship of Joe Schmidt, Ireland have become a formidable force. They beat all the Southern Hemisphere teams in a calendar year, and ended England’s 19 game unbeaten streak in the Six Nations. They have talent all across the pitch, and strength in depth, and can be considered contenders for the RWC in Japan. Their meeting with the Springboks has added edge after South Africa were all but guaranteed to host the tournament in 2023, and they will be consider anything less than a clean sweep as a failure this autumn.
Key Man – Sean O’Brien. The controversial flanker has been in the headlines recently for his comments regarding the Lions, but there is no denying the Leinster player has been back to his brilliant best so far this season. Expect some huge performances.
One to Watch – Joey Carbery. The youngster may be the heir apparent to follow Sexton at fly-half, but can play in the midfield or at full back as well. Oodles of talent and with skills that need to be seen to be believed, Carbery wants to become one of the best in the world. Don’t bet against him.
Prediction – The Boks are always difficult to beat, especially when they are the underdogs, but I expect Ireland to get the job done and to win all three.
Best story of the series – Six years after losing sight in one eye, Ian McKinley has been named in the Italy squad for the series. A truly amazing story, and one that reminds you just how inspirational the men and women that play this sport can be. Best of luck, Ian.
Worst story of the series – Just days before their kick off against Scotland, Samoa’s government announced that their rugby union was bankrupt. Considering the money that is now in the game, for this to happen is a travesty. Investment in Pacific Island rugby was needed years ago, and now it’s come to this. The contribution to world rugby by Samoa has been immense, and to keep the game healthy and growing all nations need to remain strong. The wealthier nations need to help; otherwise the likes of Fiji and Tonga could be next. A sorry state of affairs, and a reminder of how money could tear the game apart.
*Cover photo courtesy of www.sport-onthebox.com