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Autumn Internationals: England’s selection dilemmas, Ireland seek continuity, Wales need boost


Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, England’s Maro Itoje and Wales’ George North will be key players this autumn…

In the wake of July’s dramatic Test series, and with the next Rugby World Cup less than 11 months away, we look at the key questions facing the northern hemisphere sides this autumn…

We previously profiled what we learned of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina from the most-recent Rugby Championship, ahead of November’s key North vs South Tests.

Now, their northern counterparts come under the microscope…

England’s selection dilemmas

Ranked down at No 5 in the world rugby rankings, but off the back of a 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in July, England will look to make a statement this November.

England head coach Eddie Jones will look to solve key questions this month, as his side look to make a statement

England head coach Eddie Jones will look to solve key questions this month, as his side look to make a statement

With fixtures to come at Twickenham against fellow Pool D World Cup outfits Argentina – experiencing something of a resurgence under Michael Cheika – and wildcards Japan, an unpredictable All Blacks side and the defending world champions South Africa, this is an important month for Eddie Jones.

England will be targeting four wins, which would force the rugby world to look up, take notice, and consider England something of a threat again.

England’s Autumn Internationals

Sunday, November 6 England vs Argentina 2.15pm
Saturday, November 12 England vs Japan 3.15pm
Saturday, November 19 England vs New Zealand 5.30pm
Saturday, November 26 England vs South Africa 5.30pm

A poor 2022 Six Nations showing saw Jones’ side lose three of five fixtures for the third time in five years (2018, 2021, 2022) and second year in a row, placing them some way off title contenders France and Ireland.

For the richest union in the world, with incredible player resource to choose from, that is a below-par return, and one which has seen Jones’ position called into question.

This November, pivotal to England’s success will be nailing down consistent team selection and partnerships on the pitch.

Highlights of the third and final Test between Australia and England in Sydney as the visitors wrapped up the series

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Highlights of the third and final Test between Australia and England in Sydney as the visitors wrapped up the series

Highlights of the third and final Test between Australia and England in Sydney as the visitors wrapped up the series

Can Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith function positively alongside one another in a dual-playmaking 10/12 axis? Or is it a case of one or the other?

What is England’s ideal centre pairing? Farrell at 12? Manu Tuilagi, Guy Porter, Henry Slade at outside centre? Slade was left out of Jones’ initial England squad, so is he on the way out?

Should Courtney Lawes be playing in the second row or at blindside flanker? What is the best back-row make-up? Is Billy Vunipola a permanent fixture at No 8 again?

Who is England’s No 1 scrum-half? Jack van Poortvliet, Ben Youngs, Raffi Quirke? Danny Care started two Tests in the summer but has failed to make the most-recent squad.

There are plenty of questions for Jones and his coaching staff.

Will Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell be paired together in each Test this November?

Will Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell be paired together in each Test this November?

Much of England’s 2019 success stemmed from powerful, dynamic carries, but injuries and a lack of consistency within forward units in selection seems to have stifled that in recent years, as it did scrum and lineout set-piece solidity and superiority. England need to rediscover that to become a force again.

Can Ireland answer those who say they peak too soon?

The No 1 ranked side in world rugby currently, Ireland have been hugely impressive over the last year-and-a-half or so.

This time last year, Andy Farrell’s charges dispatched Japan, New Zealand and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in swashbuckling fashion, plundering 19 tries and 142 points across three spectacular performances.

Ireland’s Autumn Internationals

Saturday, November 5 Ireland vs South Africa 5.30pm
Saturday, November 12 Ireland vs Fiji 1pm
Saturday, November 19 Ireland vs Australia 8pm

They followed up an impressive autumn by clinching a Triple Crown success in the Six Nations, ultimately just missing out on the title to France due to a tight and entertaining six-point Round 2 defeat in Paris, minus Johnny Sexton.

Comprehensive victories over Wales, Italy, England and Scotland were registered, with nobody – including France – scoring more points (168) or tries (24), and conceding less points (64) and tries (4).

July then saw Ireland embark on the toughest tour imaginable, travelling to play five games in New Zealand: three vs the All Blacks, and two midweek games vs the Maori All Blacks.

Having never won on Kiwi soil before, Ireland recovered from an opening Test defeat to beat the All Blacks in successive weeks, playing more stunning rugby, recording a historic 2-1 series victory, while also landing a win vs the Maori All Blacks too.

Highlights of Ireland's historic third Test win over New Zealand in Wellington, clinching the series

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Highlights of Ireland’s historic third Test win over New Zealand in Wellington, clinching the series

Highlights of Ireland’s historic third Test win over New Zealand in Wellington, clinching the series

Performances over the last 12 months could hardly have been better, but it has led to some now-familiar suggestions that Ireland have peaked too soon.

Back in 2018, a year out from the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Ireland under Joe Schmidt recorded one of the most memorable years in Irish rugby history, as a Six Nations Grand Slam, 2-1 series victory vs the Wallabies in Australia, and unbeaten autumn which saw them beat the All Blacks in a clash billed as No 1 vs No 2 in the world, had the world purring about them.

Yet 2019 proved an altogether different affair, with Ireland’s performances stagnating to such an extent they suffered demoralising defeats to England at home and Wales in Cardiff during the Six Nations, a disastrous 57-15 World Cup warm-up loss at Twickenham, and then World Cup defeats to Japan in the pool stages and New Zealand in the quarter-finals – the latter a game they never looked likely to win.

Prior to the 2015 World Cup, Ireland picked up back-to-back Six Nations titles, a series win in Argentina and had consistently beaten South Africa and Australia in autumn campaigns, only to suffer horrifically from injuries at the tournament and lose to Argentina in the quarters.

Before the 2007 World Cup in France, Eddie O’Sullivan’s so-called ‘golden generation’ had come within two minutes of a Grand Slam in the previous Six Nations, and gone the autumn unbeaten against South Africa and Australia, but were swallowed whole in a pool of death with the hosts and a brilliant Pumas side.

Andy Farrell has overseen a superb 2022, but must will face questions again as to whether Ireland have 'peaked too soon'

Andy Farrell has overseen a superb 2022, but must will face questions again as to whether Ireland have ‘peaked too soon’

Farrell’s squad have already achieved more than those sides in their exploits down in New Zealand, while their brand of rugby and performances are the best Ireland have ever produced. Now they need to show consistency this month to avoid the pressure and noise that will otherwise come their way.

Will France continue to kick on?

Ireland may the current world No 1 side based off rankings, but for many, the premier side in international rugby at the moment are Les Bleus.

Fabien Galthie’s side are a phenomenal outfit, blessed with an ideal blend of quick, skilful backs, and enormous, powerful forwards.

France’s Autumn Internationals

Saturday, November 5 France vs Australia 8pm (GMT)
Saturday, November 12 France vs South Africa 8pm (GMT)
Sunday, November 20 France vs Japan 1pm (GMT)

Reigning Six Nations Grand Slam champions, a largely dominant campaign saw them blow away England in Paris and Scotland in Edinburgh, do the job vs Italy at home, edge Wales to win in Cardiff and come out on top in a superb Test vs Ireland at the Stade de France. France also put the All Blacks to the sword last November.

A summer tour of Japan and 2-0 series victory went largely unheralded, with Ireland and England’s exploits in New Zealand and Australia respectively, in addition to Wales in South Africa and Scotland in Argentina more high profile match-ups.

But make no mistake, France are a sensational side, and with the next Rugby World Cup on home soil, they are slowly becoming favourites to lift rugby’s greatest prize for the first time.

France clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022, playing brilliant rugby

France clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2022, playing brilliant rugby

Fixtures this month against Australia, South Africa and Japan are arranged, and those teams will do exceptionally well to pick up victory on French soil.

The key question for Galthie and co is can they keep building? And can they also completely eradicate moments of absent-mindedness and sluggishness within Tests which do still occur – albeit far more infrequently than before. The talent is there for them to be near unbeatable.

Wales need a boost after year of struggle

Off the back of an immensely disappointing 2022, Wales head into these autumn internationals firmly in need of a boost.

Wales have suffered defeats to Ireland, England, France, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand over the last 12 months

Wales have suffered defeats to Ireland, England, France, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand over the last 12 months

Rarely in history has a Welsh rugby public had such disillusionment as the present moment, with last autumn seeing defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, a very fortunate win vs Fiji and a last-gasp one-point success over Australia.

The 2022 Six Nations then saw them begin with a heavy defeat to Ireland in Dublin, before losing three of their remaining four Tests too: away to England, home to France and, for the first time in history, a hugely embarrassing loss to Italy at the Principality Stadium.

Wales’ Autumn Internationals

Saturday, November 5 Wales vs New Zealand 3.15pm
Saturday, November 12 Wales vs Argentina 5.30pm
Saturday, November 19 Wales vs Georgia 1pm
Saturday, November 26 Wales vs Australia 3.15pm

Their summer Test series vs South Africa saw them emerge with some credit, winning the second Test via a final-minute conversion as part of a 2-1 series defeat – albeit this came against a much-changed Springbok XV – and pushing an overconfident Boks side close in the other two matches.

Highlights of the series deciding third Test between South Africa and Wales in Cape Town

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Highlights of the series deciding third Test between South Africa and Wales in Cape Town

Highlights of the series deciding third Test between South Africa and Wales in Cape Town

But under Wayne Pivac, Wales won a single Test match in 2020, and have won just two in 2022. Their form in 2021 was masked by the strangest Six Nations title win in history, in which red cards saw them past Ireland and Scotland despite being outplayed, and a shocking refereeing display saw them beat England in Cardiff.

Pivac and Wales need a big result, and a change in performance and energy to gain some belief again. This month they face New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia and South Africa in successive weeks.

They haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953, and victory in that game would go some way to restoring customary optimism.

Wayne Pivac has largely struggled as Wales head coach, and is in need of a morale-boosting victory

Wayne Pivac has largely struggled as Wales head coach, and is in need of a morale-boosting victory

Without skipper Dan Biggar (knee) through injury, however, Wales may turn again to 37-year-old second row Alun Wyn Jones as a key man. Despite his incredible career and success, there remains a clear sense an ageing squad needs refreshing.

Scotland’s changing of the guard?

The headline news out of any camp this autumn came from Gregor Townsend’s Scotland, as the head coach left Finn Russell out of the entire squad, and stripped full-back Stuart Hogg of the captaincy.

Finn Russell was left of Scotland's autumn squad, while Stuart Hogg has been stripped of the captaincy

Finn Russell was left of Scotland’s autumn squad, while Stuart Hogg has been stripped of the captaincy

Russell and Hogg have been vital performers for Scotland in recent years, and responsible for much of the excitement and enterprising play Townsend’s side have produced.

Scotland’s Autumn Internationals

Saturday, October 29 Scotland 15-16 Australia 5.30pm
Saturday, November 5 Scotland vs Fiji 1pm
Sunday, November 13 Scotland vs New Zealand 2.15pm
Saturday, November 19 Scotland vs Argentina 3.15pm

Yet, Russell was omitted from the squad for every Test Scotland played in 2020 due to a previous fallout, and though he returned in 2021, Russell – and Hogg – were then part of a group of six highly-experienced squad members who defied protocol to go out in Edinburgh after Scotland’s Six Nations Round 4 victory in Rome.

The result of that saw Russell dropped to the bench vs Ireland in Round 5, and even with the game going against Scotland, he was not introduced until the final 14 minutes.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has taken firm action, but his side continue to be inconsistent on the pitch

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has taken firm action, but his side continue to be inconsistent on the pitch

The debate over Hogg remaining as captain was then further intensified by his behaviour during post-match duties in Dublin.

Neither player toured with Scotland on their three-Test series in Argentina during the summer – a tour which took on something of must-win status after Scotland failed to deliver on previous promise, only for them to throw the series-deciding third Test away from 15 points ahead, losing 34-31.

The best of the action from the series-deciding final Test between Argentina and Scotland, as the Scots threw it away

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The best of the action from the series-deciding final Test between Argentina and Scotland, as the Scots threw it away

The best of the action from the series-deciding final Test between Argentina and Scotland, as the Scots threw it away

So often in recent years, Townsend’s Scots have picked up marquee victories, only to fail to take advantage by losing when opportunity next knocked. And that trend has continued, with a distinct lack of consistency in their performance.

This Test window saw Russell omitted entirely and flanker Jamie Ritchie named captain in place of Hogg – the latter does keep his place in the squad, albeit he did not play in their opening loss vs Australia last Saturday (Scotland the only northern hemisphere side in action a week before the official Test window, meaning Hogg played for club Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership.)

A changing of the guard somewhat then – will it work out for Scotland or will they miss the quality they have excluded? They face Fiji, New Zealand and Argentina, having already lost to Australia.



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