Autumn Nations Series: Seven important matches to follow in the end-of-year Tests

Colin Newboult

Ahead of the upcoming end-of-year internationals, we delve into the fixtures and decide which are the most important with the Rugby World Cup on the horizon.

They are some huge clashes between the best sides in the world, while there are a few perhaps lesser heralded games which are significant looking to the future.

Equally, we have picked out some games which may provide the month’s biggest upsets, so it is – as ever – set to be a thrilling November series.

Ireland v South Africa

Although Japan take on New Zealand and Scotland go head-to-head with Australia the week before, this mouthwatering clash really kick-starts the end-of-year internationals. Ireland are currently the top ranked team in the world, with the Springboks in third, and this match may well decide which team is at the summit following that weekend’s action. France face the Wallabies on the same day but, with the visitors so low down in the standings, ranking points will be limited for Les Bleus.

Ireland have shown over the past year that they are the more rounded team and with them being at home, Andy Farrell’s men will be favourites. However, some still question whether the Irish can handle the real gargantuan packs in the sport and the Boks certainly offer that. It was ultimately a frustrating Rugby Championship for Jacques Nienaber’s charges, who will rue their inability to claim the title, but the fundamentals of their game will severely test the hosts.

Wales v Argentina

This match will be a good gauge of where both teams are at. Wales won the 2021 Six Nations title but either side of that success they have been decidedly mediocre. Supporters in the country are still unconvinced as to whether Wayne Pivac is the right man to take them forward and guide them into the latter stages of a World Cup having overseen a number of abject performances. The South Africa tour in July was positive, however, and they have three winnable fixtures in the November series.

We can’t see them overcoming the All Blacks, despite the issues Ian Foster’s men have endured, but the other encounters will be on Pivac’s radar. The clash with the Wallabies is 50/50 but they will be favourites for games against Georgia and the Pumas, with the latter particularly intriguing. Argentina, in Michael Cheika’s first year in charge, have made improvements, evidenced by their landmark triumph over the All Blacks in New Zealand and their record-breaking win against Australia.

It should prove to be a tight clash in a match where plenty is on the line for both. For the Welsh, a victory would ease the pressure on Pivac and give them hope heading into the Six Nations and 2023 Rugby World Cup, while for the South Americans, a win would very much show that they are a team to be reckoned with.

France v South Africa

Another clash involving the Springboks and another thrilling contest to look forward to. They are both filled with massive units but the teams very much approach the game in different ways. Two big packs will go toe-to-toe in what will surely be a fierce battle up front as the Springboks’ set-piece will look to nullify Les Bleus’ carrying and breakdown threat.

The Boks will be conservative and considered in their play, looking to use their scrum, lineout and maul as a weapon, with their scrum-half kicking the leather off the ball to move them into the right areas. Only once they have won that territorial battle will they unleash their backs.

France, contrary to popular opinion, also kick a lot, but they are far more willing to go from deep. Fabien Galthie’s men equally have much better attacking structures and are more positive with ball in hand, often looking to off-load in contact. Their forwards are exceptionally skilful and in their playmakers behind the scrum – Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Matthieu Jalibert et al – the French have a significant creative advantage. If the hosts can get stability in the set-piece and can compete well in the air then they will win, but South Africa have the ability to stifle any team they face.

Scotland v New Zealand

Gregor Townsend’s men remain a frustrating team to watch and, given their talent, ultimately continue to underachieve. With the players they have in situ, the Scots should really be competing for silverware. We should perhaps therefore not expect too much from them when they take on the three-time world champions at Murrayfield but, for our sins, we think they have a shot.

Unfortunately for the hosts, who have never beaten the All Blacks, Foster’s men have improved since their catastrophic defeat to Argentina, but it doesn’t mean all their issues have suddenly gone away.

With Jason Ryan in charge of the forwards they have developed up front, while the influence of Joe Schmidt is starting to become evident behind the scrum, but New Zealand remain vulnerable and should have lost to Australia in their penultimate Rugby Championship encounter. Against a side who have a competitive pack, which contains numerous breakdown threat, and a backline which has a nice balance of creativity, power and speed, it could be another embarrassing day for Foster.

Georgia v Samoa

After the Lelos stunned Italy in July, once again leading to calls for them to come into the Six Nations equation, they have the opportunity to improve their standing even further during the November series. They will find it tough against Wales in Cardiff but at home, roared on by a capacity 50,000 crowd, Georgia will be a fearsome proposition for the Pacific Islanders.

If their clash with the Azzurri is anything to go by, the Georgians have finally regained that set-piece dominance – something which has eluded them for a few years – while they have also found a few talented backs, especially in the decision-making positions. With them able to control games far better, it will be a tough challenge for the Samoans.

However, Samoa under Seilala Mapusua also appear to be an improving outfit. They won the Pacific Nations Cup, beating Fiji, Tonga and Australia A, and have been boosted by the inclusion of former All Blacks Steven Luatua and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen. Both teams are on the rise so it will be a fascinating clash in Tbilisi.

England v New Zealand

The end of the All Blacks’ tumultuous season sees them head to Twickenham to face Eddie Jones’ men. Since the end of England’s golden generation in 2003, New Zealand have always been favourites going into an encounter between these two, but that will possibly not be the case this time around.

Irrespective of whether the All Blacks dispatch Japan, Wales and Scotland convincingly in the previous clashes, it will not necessarily persuade onlookers that they have improved enough to overcome England at the ‘home of rugby.’

The hosts themselves have a number of questions to answer but their series win in Australia was a step in the right direction. The set-piece was better, the breakdown work developed and the attacking shape was slightly more evident. With two matches to prepare, it gives them an opportunity to be match sharp for the visit of the All Blacks.

Jones also likes to target specific matches and this one will have been at the forefront of his mind for some time. These sides have only met twice since 2014 – one of those being a World Cup match – so this will be a special occasion in London.

Italy v Australia

After a promising start to the year which saw the Wallabies beat England 30-28, despite being down to 14 men for most of the match, it has been a disappointing year so far for Dave Rennie’s men. They were abysmal in the record defeat to Argentina and finished the Rugby Championship with three consecutive losses to the Springboks and All Blacks (twice).

They are in their lowest-ever position in the world rankings of ninth and have a lengthy injury list. To make matters worse, Australia now have to face the top two teams in the sport, France and Ireland, on their end-of-year tour. Scotland and Wales will also be tough matches and we think even Italy could cause them problems.

The Azzurri have never beaten the Wallabies but this will be their best chance since 2012 when the hosts were edged out 22-19 in Florence. Although the Italians are inexperienced, there is talent coming through, as evidenced by their triumph over Wales in March, and the likes of Ange Capuozzo and Paolo Garbisi will be a significant threat in November.

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