The autumn rugby internationals are almost upon us and for the home unions it is the chance to once again flex their muscles against the might of the four southern hemisphere powers (and yes, I include Argentina here) as well as the fast emerging nations from the Pacific and Eastern Europe. It all begins this weekend when Wales take on Australia in Cardiff and, of particular interest, Ireland face New Zealand at Soldier Field, Chicago.
Rugby is reported to be the fastest-growing sport in the US at school level and it would be of no surprise to me if, assuming the sport wants to globalise further, the rugby world cup does not end up in America in 2023 or 2027.
This will be of little importance to the Irish, however, who get another chance to record a first ever win against the mighty All Blacks. So far their record stands at played 28, drawn 1, lost 27. New Zealand, on the back of winning yet another Rugby Championship, will have no intention of breaking that duck.
Wales have failed to beat Australia since 2008 and will be keen to put that right at a Millennium Stadium that almost always sees tight encounters between the two nations. They will be without newly-appointed Lions coach Warren Gatland, with Robert Howley stepping up to take temporary charge, but will be desperate to emulate the success many of their squad experienced when the Lions won down under three years’ ago. And with every test performance now closely analysed by Gatland wearing his Lions cap, there will be even more onus on the players to perform, that’s if they want to spend next summer in New Zealand!
Next week England come to the party against a Springboks’ side seemingly riddled with internal battles and external consequences. Rarely do an England team fancy themselves against the physical South Africans but even though England will miss a number of key players – headed by Maro Itoje, George Kruis and James Haskell – their strength in depth and confident run of wins so far this year will make them favourites at HQ.
Scotland have the chance to notch up another win over the Wallabies too, whose mindset will be moulded by what occured the week before in Cardiff, and Wales will take on the increasingly difficult Argentina, again either buoyed or hurt by their Australian encounter.
Week three throws up some more interesting match ups. England entertain Fiji at Twickenham, a repeat of their world cup opening group game last year when everything at first appeared rosy in the England garden. This is the test where England, traditionally, like to try other players before the supposedly harder fixtures involving the big four from the south, but every player will tell you they know they have faced a Pacific Island nation when they can barely move the next day.
Wales play Japan, the stand out team in many ways of last year’s world cup, and a nation that looks to continually improve as we head at some speed towards the 2019 world cup in Japan. They will not be coming to Cardiff just to say they played there. Scotland have the chance to make a further statement against the Pumas and Ireland v New Zealand part two takes place, this time in Dublin where Ireland may, just may, believe they can achieve something.
Weekend four sees England play Argentina, which has rarely proved an easy fixture for the home side, Ireland take on Australia, Wales face a South African team who so narrowly beat them in the world cup quarter final last year, and Scotland play a Georgian side who I believe deserve the right, if they win the 2017 Six Nations second tier, to play the Six Nations top tier bottom club in a play-off to determine the make up of the 2018 Six Nations.
Finally, on December 3rd, England play an Australian team who, if they can get past Wales, Scotland and Ireland, will be looking for a Home Nations Grand Slam. England will be looking for their own Slam, however. Under Eddie Jones England have played played nine and won nine in 2016, including a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and a 3-0 whitewash in Australia in the summer.
Four wins in the autumn will make it 13 and 0 for 2017, some achievement by the nation’s favourite Australian. He and his players will not be looking beyond South Africa on November 12th, though. I have the luxury of predicting England will pull it off. But that can wait. First up is Saturday, and in the streets of Cardiff and, impressively, Chicago, we get under way.
Written by Ian Stafford