RONAN O'GARA: The November questions: Points of substance around the autumn tests

Is there any particular autumn international I’d buy a ticket for?

It’s not that one match stands out. I’m really struggling to see how France will beat the All Blacks in either of the two encounters in Paris and Lyon over the next few days. 

Purely as an 80 minutes of competition, I’d prefer to be watching Ireland and South Africa. It has that feisty look about it, that sense of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object. 

South Africa believe, incorrectly, they will pummel Ireland. They won’t. 

But as a value for money piece of theatre, there is still nothing that compares to watching New Zealand in their glorious pomp. 

The November tour for the southern hemisphere nations is last station before they step off and go on holidays, but New Zealand always seem to have something more to prove, and to protect. 

The bar is set higher by them and for them. 

What strength in depth are they going to find on this tour? 

That’s the intriguing bit for anyone speculating how long their domination is going to roll on for.

Are France getting their act together?

France are crippled with injuries and selection dilemmas all over the pitch. 

Put 50 rugby heads in a room with me and it’s unlikely many would agree on the same fifteen. 

They might also have ten different half-back combinations for tomorrow night’s game in the Stade de France. 

There are going to be players facing the All Blacks who aren’t even starters with their clubs. What’s the half-back pairing of choice these days? 

Antoine Dupont is at 9, another prodigy, and is partnered on this occasion by another debutant Anthony Belleau from Toulon, who would even be considered a rookie at club level. 

France get a second bite off the All Blacks on Tuesday night in Lyon, a result of FFR president Bernard Laporte getting wind of Racing 92’s plan to host the All Blacks for the opening of our U Arena. 

Monsieur Laporte wasn’t having that but it may still be a sobering few days for him.

Will Ireland beat the Boks?

Yes. Ireland is a far more settled team, its combinations are better, and in Murray and Sexton they have half backs who will steer the ship better than any other northern hemisphere pairing this month. 

South Africa’s buzz word has been atonement since the 57-0 humiliation by New Zealand, but the more you talk to South Africans, it seems to be an incredibly complex situation both in political and rugby terms. 

Munster players tell me Rassie Erasmus is an impressive speaker and he is expected to have a big motivational impact on the Boks and also improve their structures, but for the moment he is in a watching brief. 

They will feel they can run over Ireland, which should give tomorrow a nice edge. Ireland are plucky, but we are a better rugby team, the Boks think. Really?

Who in Joe Schmidt’s squad has the most to gain from November?

Rob Kearney. For Ireland, from Aug 2015 to now, Kearney has made 13 starts and one sub appearance. 

For Leinster, in 2015-16 he had ten starts, 2016-17 he had 6 starts, and this season he’s made three starts thus far for Leinster. 

He is chronically shy on competitive rugby and his wellbeing has greater importance now with Simon Zebo apparently out of the picture going forward. 

This will dominate debate into next year, believe me. If he can stay healthy, and Jared Payne is available to back up, no-one will give a thought to Zebo. 

If Payne’s ok, and Joey Carbery is available as cover, you’re still ok. 

But if Payne and Kearney are out of the equation, you can’t go to a World Cup in 2019 without Simon Zebo. But he won’t go if Kearney and Payne are fit.

Does the countdown to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan start here?

Not really. 

For who? Ireland will have 19 tests – ten Six Nations games, six November internationals and three on the summer tour to Australia, plus three WC warm-up games - before the opening match against Scotland in two years’ time. 

What does the countdown to 2019 mean beyond a catchy headline?

 For a seasoned international, it’s an irrelevance, you take it game by game. It can be the start of a media campaign for someone – you may see a clamour at some point for Leinster talent Jordan Larmour. 

If the try he scored against Ulster at Ravenhill is anything to go by - making Iain Henderson look extremely average in the process – then he is someone capable of delivering those ‘Moments’.

For a few seconds as he took the pass, it was like everyone else was on the Pause button. His progress will be worth monitoring, as will that of those who were given a chance on the tour of America and Japan last summer. 

See how many of them get game time, especially against Fiji, where I’d expect James Ryan to figure in the second row, an area where there may be opportunities.

When will the Pacific Island nations get a fair financial deal?

When they’re at home, it’s far enough away to be out of mind, but the financial woes of Samoan rugby are right on our doorstep over the next few weeks, again raising legitimate questions about whether the well-heeled Tier 1 nations like England should be aiding them – and to what extent.

In advance of tomorrow’s test at Murrayfield, the Samoan PM has declared the game at home bankrupt, a timely reminder to the RFU at Twickenham of the haves and have-nots of world rugby. 

There’s no obligation on England or Scotland to divvy out a share of the November international profits, but aside from the moral question, isn’t there an onus on the game to keep the flames burning in the Pacific Islands, if for no other reason than to ensure proper depth in the world game? 

The absence of a proper financial distribution model for world rugby benefits no-one in the broader context, least of all the players representing the likes of Samoa.

There’s a case for a minimum appearance fee when playing Tier One nations, around €5000 per head.

Who will light up November?

Has to be Beauden Barrett. The All Black ten just exudes a freedom of spirit and motion. Very few players in the modern game have that appearance of not having pre-programmed ideas in their head.

You can be sure he has his homework done but at the same time, he is engaged and aware and has the capacity to do wonderful things. 

His awareness of space, his devastating acceleration, and his attack kicking game are always delicious to watch.

What tactic or gameplan do we look out for?

The areas of the pitch teams are prepared (or not prepared) to attack from. So many coaches nowadays are pre-occupied with field position. 

It’s the buzz word, keep your energy for the attacking zone of the pitch.

However, the best area to attack from is 25m from your own line because the opposition has to have a back three covering the kick space.

That limits them to four or five defenders in the advanced area and you can have seven backs outnumbering them. A lot of teams choose to kick early to get out of their territory straight away, which isn’t necessarily a wise option when one considers a back three waiting to counter-attack.

Statistics show that’s where most tries are scored in the modern game.

Up front, who is the top visiting enforcer from the southern hemisphere?

The visit of Fiji to Lansdowne Road tomorrow week may provide the rugby highlight of November. Right now, Racing 92’s Leone Nakarawa is the best rugby player in the world. 

I’m out of bed and skipping into work daily at the prospect of working with such a positive, talented free spirit. He can’t wait to put himself into a training environment where he gets his hands on a rugby ball.

He’s like a little kid. His reach, his balance is exceptional, his offloading is absurdly good. He is incredibly talented and yet totally unpretentious.

This weekend, the return of Eben Etzebeth to the Springbok second row is a positive for rugby neutrals who enjoy watching the game’s standout figures. Recovered from an ankle problem, the Stormer is a serious ball carrier.

The lifter

Anyone searching for an uplifting rugby tale this week need not go any further than the elevation of former Leinster ten Ian McKinley to the Italy squad for their November opener tomorrow against Fiji. McKinlay will get his test bow from Conor O’Shea six years after losing the sight in his left eye as a result of a blow in a club game for UCD. 

He retired at the time but with the help of specially-designed goggles, he returned to club rugby in Italy three years ago and is now eligible on residency rules for the national team. Imagine what he will feel like running onto the pitch tomorrow.


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