This weekend of rugby is set to be a big one as the southern hemisphere’s finest are all touring in Europe.
Australia make the journey in full flight bringing with them the brimming confidence a win over the world champions gives. South Africa arrive in Dublin with only one firm foot on the ground.
Their most recent performance ran the All Blacks close, but not close enough leaving many supporters uneasy about the inconsistency of the once feared, infallible Springboks.
Argentina have been left wanting since their demolition of Ireland in the Principality Stadium during the 2015 World Cup. The Pumas have lost a number of key players at a time when their standards were needed in order to kick on the development and head coach Daniel Hourcade will be mourning the loss of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in particular.
However, fresh opposition brings fresh optimism which must be refreshing having trudged through a depressing Rugby Championship. New Zealand will bring with them the same hurt that the British and Irish Lions felt in the third and final summer Test.
However, the Northern hemisphere has no cause to fear. Ireland boast a superb record at home and a squad to continue that rich vein.
England’s momentum will continue in the Autumn with an injection of youth any nation would be envious of. Wales can welcome Warren Gatland back into their setup and for the first time in a long while, have players and clubs that are performing at domestic level.
Gregor Townsend for the first time has a full squad to choose from and it will be interesting to see what level of excitement he can bring from Glasgow to Scotland with his top internationals available.
Although this weekend is littered with international quality, here are five players to watch in particular.
1. Bundee Aki
Never before has a residentially qualified player caused such commotion in Ireland.
Many will agree that the three-year residency rule in World Rugby is defunct, it has diluted the parochial nature of international rugby.
However, it is the rule and as a result, the New Zealand born Aki will start for Ireland against South Africa.
The 27-year-old once again combines with his former teammate Henshaw in the midfield and its hard not to get excited about the combination that helped see Connacht win a Pro12 title.
Aki faces two experienced centres in Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel but has more than enough physicality and nuance to deal their threats. With many doubting his place in the Irish set-up, you can expect a powerful performance from the Connacht man.
2. Steff Evans
Although the Scarlets winger is inexperienced at international level, he is one of many players who has been selected on form.
His pace and creativity is obvious but has a deceptive level of physicality to back it up.
Evans will have his hands full having to deal with Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete but is more than capable of holding his own against the world’s best having fronted up against Toulon and Saracens’ back three in recent weeks.
The 23-year-old is a try-scoring machine as of late and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
3. Michael Hooper
The Wallaby captain is in flying form and is a pleasure to behold.
Although normally one of the smallest flankers on the field, Hooper time and time again stands heads and shoulders above his teammates and opponents.
It’s his fitness levels which are seriously impressive and is capable of playing with composure and physicality until the 80th minute.
The openside was instrumental in Australia’s recent victory over New Zealand and will be just as important if Michael Cheika’s team are to build on that success. At 26 years of age Hooper still has a long career left at the top and one can try to comprehend what player he’ll be by the time of the 2019 World Cup if he continues to improve and perform at this level.
Wales’ new back-row combination will have to be at their best if they’ve any chance of standing up to a reinvigorated Wallaby pack.
4. Sam Underhill
The 21-year-old was just recently made one of two defensive captains in the English set-up, highlighting how highly regarded he is among England’s coaching hierarchy. Underhill’s technique is astounding and is capable of neutralising opposition momentum with his barnstorming physicality.
In order for the Pumas to have any chance, they’ll need their forwards like Matera and Lavanini to power over the gain line. Underhill’s job will be to stop that from happening.
Expect the young openside to put rack up some impressive numbers this weekend.
Hard to believe that the two-time Six Nations Player of the Championship is still only 25 years old.
Hogg had a disappointing summer having had to return home early from the British and Irish Lions tour due to a facial injury. Although he faces lesser opposition this weekend against Samoa, a confident Hogg would be a welcome boost for the Scots who have a tough Autumn fixture list.
The Glasgow Warrior has worked hard during his injury layoff, improving his speed and shedding kilos. Upon his return to playing against Leinster, he showed everyone just what a blow his injury during the summer was to the Lions tour as a whole.
Look for Hogg to create and capitalise off of an exciting Scottish backline.
Billy Keenan, Pundit Arena