We’ve discussed at length the importance of this year’s Autumn Internationals in the context of the Rugby World Cup next year, and that each of the home nations will be looking for something to build upon at the end of the month before the Six Nations.
With that in mind, we’ve done a quick assessment of the four home nations to see how they’ve been getting on, and what they need to do over the final weekend to salvage anything from the series.
Another ‘good effort but you lost’ against New Zealand was a mixed start to the Autumn – some signs of encouragement but with the reality of another home defeat. Then the world changed against Australia with England’s most impressive performance since the summer of 2003, and suddenly Johnno’s Army are World Cup contenders again.
Or are they? That Australia game was followed by a slightly stuttering victory over a game Samoan side, and the mood at Twickenham was anti-climactic. People knew it would be tough, but deep down, after the previous week’s effort, another convincing win was expected.
This weekend, the Springboks arrive at Twickenham at the end of a long season, and on the back of a defeat by Scotland. England are suddenly favourites to win and the pressure is on. A defeat could spell the end of the minor resurgence we’ve seen, and the public would reflect that two wins out of four wasn’t good enough after all.
On the other hand, a victory over the World Champions would set England up for a confident Six Nations campaign, and on the road to making at least a reasonable fight of it at the World Cup.
A disappointing start against the Springboks was followed by an unconvincing win over Samoa in the wet, and people were questioning Declan Kidney’s approach, and whether Ireland had enough depth to the squad to compete with the best.
When the All Blacks arrived at Lansdowne Road, fans feared the worst, but Ireland competed admirably, causing problems to the best team in the world. Ultimately they lost, but on the back of the first two games, that performance was much more encouraging, and there will be positives to take from the Autumn regardless of what happens this weekend.
Argentina are up next for the Irish, and the main questions to be answered concern the selection policy. Some of Kidney’s decisions have raised a few eyebrows, and supporters will be looking for confirmation that the right people are taking things forward. Nevertheless, a win is expected and a defeat would be something of a disaster.
The Welsh have been decimated by injuries, which have forced Warren Gatland to mix things up a little. There have been some positives, such as the introduction of George North, and the fact that they led against South Africa and really should have won that game.
But since the Boks overturned their lead to win, Wales have been in such disarray that they could only draw with Fiji last weekend. It’s still a year away, but that sort of result does not reflect well on their World Cup chances, and with New Zealand up next at the Millennium Stadium, it will take an incredible performance to turn their fortunes around.
That said, and captain / coach shenanigans aside, a positive performance against the All Blacks will restore some hope amongst Welsh fans. A win is probably out of the question, but if they can exert some pressure and score a try or two whilst keeping the score down, there will be some optimism going into the new year.
Up and down, you might say. Or rather, down and up. A 49-3 defeat at home to the All Blacks, and it appeared Andy Robinson was in for a tough Autumn. But then they go and beat South Africa, and all is looking much rosier.
Samoa represents the final challenge of their three-match series, and should offer another stern physical test. A defeat would send them almost back to square one though, as it did last year when Argentina beat them after their victory over Australia, but they ought to win on last week’s evidence, and two victories out of three does represent progress.
Indeed, their improvement and progress is official – they climbed to 6th in the IRB rankings this week, giving them plenty to be confident about going into the Six Nations, and they’ll be eyeing up winning their World Cup group with England and Argentina as their main challengers.