The upcoming autumn internationals are set to be the most intriguing in a long time, due to the lack of games between the best of the north and south in the last two years.
New Zealand last played against northern hemisphere opposition at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, while Australia’s only encounter with European opposition in the last two years was against a young and inexperienced France side this summer.
South Africa played against the British and Irish Lions this summer, but their last game against a full-time northern hemisphere side came in their World Cup final win against England.
Argentina played a Wales side that was missing the bulk of its starting team due to the Lions tour this summer, which means that no full-strength Six Nations sides have played against Rugby Championship opposition in almost two years.
As a result, it’s hard to predict how the best teams north and south will compare with one another, with a number of teams looking to show where they stand on the international stage ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Can Johnny Sexton continue to produce the goods for Ireland?
Ireland have improved since their disappointing showing at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, having ended this year’s Six Nations on a high note with a win over England, but concerns remain over the number of key older players in their squad.
Johnny Sexton remains as his country’s captain and first-choice fly-half, but at the age of 36 he is a major doubt for the next World Cup, yet younger fly-halves are unlikely to get many starting opportunities with him around.
The Leinster and Ireland stalwart is still performing at high level, but he is quite injury prone, which led Warren Gatland to omit him from his Lions’ squad for their tour of South Africa.
34-year-old Keith Earls also looks likely to start for Ireland this autumn, while Conor Murray is expected to retain the number nine jersey, despite his waning performances in recent years.
Murray and Sexton will almost certainly start against the All Blacks next month, and while a third ever win against New Zealand would obviously be a major positive for Ireland, it does feel as though head coach Andy Farrell is running out of time to blood new talent in crucial areas.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) October 20, 2021
Wales hope to build on Six Nations success against the odds.
After a fourth-placed finish under Warren Gatland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Wales looked to be in good shape heading into 2020 under new head coach Wayne Pivac.
Pivac experienced a horror first year in charge however, as Wales finished in fifth place in both the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup, having won just three of their 10 test matches that year.
Wales turned their fortunes around in 2021 with an unlikely Six Nations triumph, having narrowly missed out on a Grand Slam due to a last-gasp try from Brice Dulin in their final match against France.
They look unlikely to perform as well in the coming weeks however, in an autumn schedule that is admittedly more challenging than any other country’s in the world.
The Welsh will be without many of their first-choice players in their first game against the All Blacks, which takes place outside of the official international window, as English-based players such as Dan Biggar, Louis Rees-Zammit and Taulupe Faletau won’t be released by their clubs.
Pivac’s side are also experiencing a bit of an injury crisis at the moment, as the likes of George North, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny have been ruled out, while Liam Williams is currently recovering from having his appendix removed.
A largely second-string Wales were hammered in Cardiff this summer by an Argentina outfit that went on to lose all six of their Rugby Championship matches, and many of those same Welsh players will feature in the coming weeks against the world’s top three ranked sides in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Australia look to continue their recent impressive form.
The Wallabies have largely underwhelmed since reaching the 2015 Rugby World Cup final and that trend looked set to continue after suffering three back-to-back defeats against the All Blacks this year.
However, largely thanks to the re-introduction of Quade Cooper and Same Kerevi, Australia have won four games in-a-row, two of those coming up against the world champion Springboks who had recently won a test series against the Lions.
Australia’s improvements have come off the back of the loosening of the country’s eligibility requirements, with players such as Cooper and Kerevi, as well as the imminently returning second row duo of Will Skelton and Rory Arnold, allowed to line out for their country despite playing their club rugby abroad.
South Africa also starting selecting overseas-based players in 2018, and in the space of two years went from arguably the worst Springboks side in history to world champions.
While suggesting that Australia are now favourites to win the next World Cup would be premature, they are certainly much better placed to be proper contenders now than they were just two months ago.
The Wallabies kick off their autumn schedule this Saturday against Japan, before travelling to Europe to play Scotland, England and Wales, and four wins from four is looking like a very real possibility for the world’s third-ranked side.
🗣️ “Quadey on the bench put me at ten!” – Taniela Tupou when asked who should play flyhalf this week
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) September 18, 2021
France aim to finally realise their potential.
France have arguably the most talented squad in the world at the moment, and while they have put in some outstanding performances since the last World Cup, they have largely failed to live up to their potential.
Les Bleus looked likely to win the Six Nations after three rounds in both 2020 and 2021, and maybe even win a Grand Slam, but they eventually fell short of the title to England and Wales, both of whom they had actually beaten in their triumphant years.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has become a speciality for the French, as seen in Brice Dulin’s late brain implosion against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations, before the comedy of errors that saw Australia claim a late win against them this summer.
Although France certainly do have areas to improve on, at their best they are simply irresistible, and have shown that they have extraordinary strength in depth as a second-string side almost beat England in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup final, before a similarly young and inexperienced team came agonisingly close to winning a test series against Australia.
They have the world’s best scrum-half and arguably the world’s best player in Antoine Dupont, and they have not one, but two extraordinarily talented young fly-halves in Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert.
England hope to begin a new era with Marcus Smith at the helm.
Speaking of extraordinarily talented young fly-halves, England have one of their own in Marcus Smith, who Eddie Jones will hope can return his team to form after a disappointing Six Nations.
England will have been the most disappointed of all the teams in the Six Nations after finishing fifth (a bottom-placed finish is unfortunately now expected of Italy) which has prompted Jones to introduce a number of new faces since then.
Experienced players such as George Ford and both of the Vunipola brothers have missed out on England’s November squad, with four uncapped players and eight who made their debut this summer included in their place.
While there will still be a number of familiar faces playing for England next month, Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs for example, starting Smith at fly-half would represent a major change for a team that has almost solely relied on Ford and Farrell at 10 under Jones.
Inexperienced youngsters Adam Radwan, Freddie Steward, Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke could all make a significant impact in the backs, while forwards such as Alex Dombrandt and the returning Sam Simmonds will add plenty of pace to the pack.
South Africa will look to slow down England when they play them next month, but Jones’ men should have plenty of opportunities to play an expansive style of rugby against Tonga and Australia.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 8, 2021