The Autumn International series, normally an end of season jaunt for the Southern Hemisphere and a pre-Six Nations warm up for the Europeans, this year takes on greater significance ahead of the Rugby World Cup next September, with a record breaking 5 million people applying for tickets to the tournament last month. With the matches serving as our last preview of some of the pool fixtures, including the much feared Pool A of England, Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay, all of the competing nations will be hoping to provide a firm statement of intent prior to the World Cup.
Of the Southern Hemisphere nations, Australia has the most to prove. With the team and coaching staff emerging from a succession of public misdemeanours, the newly appointed head coach Michael Cheika will be hoping to have a strong series following their entertaining win against the Barbarians last weekend. It will be the job of their young captain Michael Hooper to control the unruly talents. A key area to watch is the partnership of Bernard Foley at fly-half and Nick Phipps at scrum-half, leaving the more experienced half-backs Cooper and Genia on the bench. Whilst Australia’s young and talented side has a year to turn their ethos around and to reach their full potential, the home nations will certainly pose a significant threat to them this Autumn.
Wales’ first fixture against Australia will certainly be one of the best of the series. Wales have lost their last nine matches against Australia, often by a painfully close margin. Wales and Northampton try-scoring stalwart George North has been moved off the wing to the technical position of outside-centre, forming a centre partnership with Jamie Roberts. It can only be hoped that this will be a temporary measure and that Jonathan Davies will be fit to play against Fiji. It is refreshing to see that Gatland has followed the form of Pro12 leaders Ospreys in the selection of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb. Similar to Australia, November will be a chance for Wales to trial a mix of experience and fresh talent at the integral half-back positions.
Whilst South Africa were once famous for their pack, it is now their backs that are the most formidable. Willie Le Roux, Cornal Hendricks and the skilled fly-half Handre Pollard are all young, high scoring talents. Some have been questioning the return of South African legends such as Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha to the squad, perhaps the heart has ruled over the head for coach Heyneke Meyer. However, rolling out the same team that beat New Zealand last month must be an alarming move for the Irish who face South Africa in the opening weekend.
Hindered by injuries, Ireland are without all four of their first choice front row, as Sean Cronin comes in to replace the experienced Rory Best. This could be a blessing in disguise however, as Cronin has been a reliable force for Leinster this season. Coach Schmitt will undoubtedly be acting with trepidation in the selection of a new centre to replace Brian O’Driscoll. The opening match against South Africa sees Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw called up, both adaptable players for their clubs. It can only be assumed that Schmitt is looking to see who is best suited as successor to the hallowed 13 jersey.
The Scotland camp will be hoping to follow the winning form of Glasgow. Currently second in the Pro12 table, 14 Warriors have made the team to play Scotland’s opening match against Argentina. Whilst often in the shadows of the other home nations, Scotland have immense potential and strength in depth with their squad. Playing New Zealand is a challenge for any team, but it is the perfect chance for the world class back-three of Hogg, Maitland and Seymour to prove their worth and get some points on the board. The series sees the first outing of an all-Gray second row, with the giant siblings bringing agility and power to the Scottish forwards. Attention should particularly be paid to 21 year old centre Mark Bennett, who has been unstoppable so far this season. Scotland have to take a winning mentality forward with them to the World Cup, and wins against Argentina and Tonga this November will set a precedent for the rest of the season.
England have the most pressure on their shoulders. As hosts of the World Cup it is needless to say that the rhetoric of 2003 is being brandished with fervour. However, suffering from injuries and ill-discipline, England need to proceed with caution this November. The scrum will be weakened with the absence of Cole and Corbisiero, and the new centre partnership of Barritt and a just-recovered Eastmond, has been formed due to the injuries of Lancaster’s first choice pair. A lot will be expected of full-back Mike Brown following his excellent Six Nations last year, as well as much focus on the powerful wing Semesa Rokoduguni, gaining his first cap against New Zealand. It will be hoped that the experience and talent of Brown as well as the measure and skill of the Lance Corporal Rokoduguni, who has made the most clean breaks this season in the Premiership, will serve to bring power and points to England’s fixtures.
It is hard to see the All Black’s coming away from the Northern Hemisphere with anything but a clean sweep. This autumn sees the return of Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams to the fold. Carter, arguably past his best, is under pressure from the strength-in-depth that the Kiwi’s have at fly-half. The November series will serve as a test of his form following a return from 12 months of injury. Whilst they are the pinnacle of world rugby with instinctive skill and fluidity, the European teams should not be intimidated by the All Blacks. A loss to South Africa last month ended New Zealand’s 22 match unbeaten run and was a wake-up call for an intensely ‘settled’ team.
Argentina had their first Championship win against Australia in October and they will be coming to Europe with confidence, looking to gather further momentum in the coming year. The Pacific Island teams of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are always formidable opponents. Known for their free-running flair and incredible strength they will be a challenge. Fiji will be out to prove that they should not be side-lined for the big names in Pool A. The French, typically, will be unpredictable. The 2011 World Cup finalists have the capability to beat the best in the world, however, their famous temperament and flair remains a hindrance to consistency.
For those used to the European style of rugby, the Autumn Series gives you a great opportunity to familiarise yourself with the formidable Southern Hemisphere giants. With a fast, expansive and fluent style of play, expect plenty of exciting and close matches in the upcoming test series. The home nations stand a good chance against the touring sides; they have the skill and depth of talent to show the world that, come 2015, they will be the ones to beat.