It’s that time of year again, as rugby’s giants and potential giant-killers head north of the equator to take on Europe’s powerhouses in their own backyards.
The November 2014 Tests that will enthral all us over the next four weekends will have added resonance with a World Cup set to be staged in England and Cardiff getting underway in just 10 months. Which means that time is running out for the likes of Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Australia's new boss Michael Cheika to assess their options and decide on their best XVs to take on the world next September. With the clock ticking, we assess who's sitting pretty, who's best placed to make a great leap forward this autumn and who still has a mountan to climb.
1. NEW ZEALAND
World champions and still the number one team in the world despite losing to the Springboks on the last day of the Rugby Championship. Their epic 29-28 victory over the Wallabies in the third Bledisloe Cup match a fortnight later underlined the never-say-die attitude that denied Ireland a year ago and makes them the ultimate competitors. While last week’s 12-try rout against the USA in Chicago was a mismatch, they way they dismantled the Eagles emphasised their ruthlessness. England this weekend will be their stiffest challenge on a three-game European tour but Dan Carter will be back in harness.
2. SOUTH AFRICA
Their 27-25 home win over New Zealand last month made them the first team to topple the All Blacks since 2011 and head coach Heineke Meyer will look to this tour for evidence the All Blacks are their only serious rivals heading into next year’s World Cup. Beating the Irish, English and Welsh as well as Italy with their power and physicality will tick that box nicely. AUSTRALIA Despite two seasons of turmoil, the Wallabies proved too good last November for Ireland, Wales and the Scots, while this summer they swept the French over three Tests, held the All Blacks to a draw in their Bledisloe Cup opener and were seconds away from victory in game three. A win last Saturday over a Southern Hemisphere-heavy Barbarians team shows they are in the mood to reclaim their credibility.
The Six Nations champions go into the Guinness Series of Tests against South Africa, Georgia and Australia with head coach Joe Schmidt looking to continue the momentum of last spring’s triumph without key frontliners including Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien.And there is the Brian O’Driscoll-sized hole at outside centre that Schmidt must fill with less than a dozen games until the World Cup.
Ranked third in the world but decimated by injury, head coach Stuart Lancaster will have to make do and mend this autumn as he tries to build momentum for a home World Cup without his first-choice pack and with question marks hanging over his midfield. And kicking off November against the All Blacks will hardly serve as a gentle loosener.
Their second Test display against the South Africans in Nelspruit during the summer, when they were denied a famous victory by a 78th minute penalty try, suggests that after a season in the doldrums, Warren Gatland’s team are finding their way back to the sort of form that got them to the World Cup semi-finals in 2011 and successive Six Nations titles in 2012 and 2013. Trouble is, Wales have not beaten any of the big three Southern Hemisphere teams at since 2009 and they face each of them this month.
Ireland’s World Cup pool rivals next year continue to baffle as head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre continues to rail against the increasing foreign influence over the Top14. He should still have the players to compete against the very best but they slumped to 3-0 Test wipeout in Australia during the summer having had a mixed Six Nations which ended in home defeat to the Irish. They face Fiji, Australia and Argentina on home soil and have some convincing to do over the next 10 months.
Vern Cotter’s first home games in charge since leaving Clermont will see him face Argentina, whom they beat in Cordoba this summer, and his native New Zealand as well as Tonga. Scotland must look to rebound from a dreadful Six Nations without captain Grant Gilchrist, the lock going down injured soon after being named skipper.
The Samoans get too little exposure to the game’s best teams and this month must settle for a Test against Italy, Ireland’s other main World Cup pool rivals, this weekend and England a fortnight later at Twickenham. That’s an improvement on last November, when they were hammered 40-9 by Ireland in their only outing. Some great players but it is little wonder their whole is seldom greater than the sum of their parts.
When they are at full strength they are good and when they are good they can be very, very good. The Pumas signed off their Rugby Championship campaign with a home win over the Wallabies, and did not lose to either South Africa or Australia by more than seven points in their other games, which suggests they will be more than a handful for Scotland, Italy and France this November.
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