With the annual Autumn Internationals just around the corner, eyes are slowly turning from the drama of the Aviva Premiership and Heineken Cup, to the excitement and anxiety of international rugby. Understandably the headlines are stolen by news of injuries to England stalwarts Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, as well as a possible suspension for Chris Ashton who will be required to attend a disciplinary hearing after picking up three yellow cards so far this season.
Considering that England will face all three of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses – Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – as well as a challenging visit from the enigmatic Fijians, it is perhaps time some light was shone on the form and fitness of their upcoming opposition.
Given that momentum is such an important factor in modern international rugby, England have been somewhat blessed by the fact they start off their series of games with their easiest opponent, Fiji. Whilst respect must be given to a side that have a history of upsetting the odds and playing physical, fast-paced rugby, they are a side which England should be able to comfortably beat at Twickenham.
The Fijians have thrown England a curveball with the inclusion 16 uncapped players in their squad, but the dangers that the likes of Vereniki Goneva (Leicester Tigers), Josh Matavesi and Ravai Fatiaki (both Worcester Warriors) pose will be well known to the England squad.
Next up for England is a more familiar foe in the form of Australia. The home side have had some recent success against the Wallabies and will be looking for their third straight victory over them when they meet on the 17th November. Stuart Lancaster will be targeting at least one, if not two victories over the ‘Big Three’ from the Southern Hemisphere, and Australia are the most likely candidates.
In stark contrast to the Fiji squad, Australia have named just one uncapped player, prop Paddy Ryan, but injuries to Will Genia and Quade Cooper have severely damaged Australian hopes of a successful tour. The Wallabies rarely look like world beaters when they are bereft of this pair, and Genia’s absence will be particularly disruptive. It’s not all bad news for Australia however, as captain David Pocock returns from injury. Much of the criticism of their poor Rugby Championship campaign centred around their inability to compete at the breakdown, but the return of Pocock will certainly give the likes of Chris Robshaw something to think about.
Injuries have also taken their toll on England’s third opponents of the series, South Africa. Prolific try scorer Bryan Habana will miss the tour with a knee injury, young fly-half Johan Goosen is also out, whilst experienced Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Andries Bekker will all miss the tour because of injury. This has resulted in a relatively youthful and inexperienced South African squad being selected, and gifts England an unparalleled opportunity to go one better than their last match against the Springboks, a 14-14 draw back in June.
The Boks’ squad is still packed with quality though, not least in the back row. Francois Louw has proven himself to be one of the premiere flankers in world rugby, whilst Willem Alberts showed his prowess as a ball carrier earlier this summer against England, breaking tackle after tackle. Second row Eben Etzebeth has also had a breakout year, with the biggest compliment you can pay him being that the transition from Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield to the next generation has been as seamless as possible. England would also be wise to not sleep on the Habana-less backs division who can score from anywhere on the pitch, especially JP Pietersen, who has a habit of scoring tries against England.
The series culminates in a blockbuster encounter with New Zealand on the 2nd December. Unsurprisingly, the All Blacks will most likely offer the biggest challenge to Lancaster and his team this autumn. They have relatively few injury problems and head into their tour on the back of winning the inaugural Rugby Championship.
England will be well aware of the enviable skill sets of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but it will be just as important to keep the free scoring talents of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane under wraps if they are to upset the odds and beat the All Blacks.
Another player to watch out for is Julian Savea. The 22 year-old winger has scored six tries in his five international appearances and looks set to become the next All Black back to take the world by storm.
Chances are that New Zealand will be heading into the game with England looking to complete an undefeated tour of Europe, and as such will field their strongest possible team.
Although England may have their own injury problems to contend with, and are still growing as a side under the relatively new tutelage of Lancaster, this series offers a very real chances of success. Given the injuries suffered by both Australia and South Africa, England could very well head into their final match with New Zealand having won all three of their matches. Whether that comes to pass or not is yet to be seen, but it certainly offers the potential of an epic showdown with the All Blacks on December the 2nd.
What do you think marks success for England this Autumn? Is winning 2 out of 4 good enough? Is maintaining a place in the top 4 in the IRB rankings ahead of the RWC pool draw all that matters?