RORY’S RED GLORY
Scannell’s last-gasp kick saves the day for Munster
NEW ZEALAND won again yesterday. “You want to be out there when the lights are on,” said Australia’s captain Michael Hooper during the build-up to the Test in Yokohama, explaining that the Wallabies’ slump since reaching the 2015 World Cup final was not down to a withering of competitiveness or desire.
The lights will be on for four weekends next month as the domestic programme in Europe yields to the November internationals, but not at full wattage. The southern hemisphere nations will be in the final stretch of a 10-month season and, like their Six Nations opponents, are blighted by injuries: the Vunipola brothers, Anthony Watson, Taulupe Faletau, Tendai Mtawarira, Sam Cane, Conor Murray, Wesley Fofana and Stuart Hogg will be watching from a distance for what may be the last ‘friendly’ Test window before World Rugby introduces a more competitive element from 2020, although it is still to be formulated, let alone agreed.
November’s fixture list is meant to be played over three weekends from November 10, but four extra internationals will be played next Saturday, all for commercial reasons at a time when player welfare is supposed to take priority. New Zealand will play their second match in Japan, against next year’s World Cup hosts, Wales take on Scotland, a fixture stripped of its Six Nations allure holding little appeal, South Africa are at Twickenham and Ireland and Italy will meet in Chicago close to the anniversary of prohibition.
If there is a lot on next month’s menu, the chef ’s specials have been rationed. New Zealand’s matches against England and Ireland stand out. England’s first meeting with the All Blacks since 2014 may not be the bout between the two favourites for the World Cup that it promised to be a year ago, given Ireland’s rise to second in the rankings and their dominance of European rugby at club and international level last season, but it will offer a glimpse into the future.
New Zealand for once have had a hand laid on them before reclaiming the Rugby Championship, losing to South Africa in Wellington before gaining revenge in the final minutes in Pretoria. But the All Blacks made what had become routine fixtures more demanding by taking risks long before victory had been sealed. They kept the door open for South Africa, but will look to slam it shut in the faces of England and Ireland when they are likely to be more tactical, working the scoreboard before indulging themselves.
European tours used to mark a drop down in weight for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but the balance of power has shifted. The All Blacks remain in front but the chasers are led by Ireland, who may need to show the greater tactical variety of Leinster to retain their place in the rankings; Wales, whose greater ambition may see Dan Biggar replaced at out-half by Gareth Anscombe; England, whose head coach Eddie Jones turned from saviour to scapegoat in a few months; and Scotland, whose rise merits more than an underwhelming list of fixtures that culminates with the visit of Argentina.
And there is France, the great unknown who flickered into life last season after a draw with Japan prompted the sacking of their coach, Guy Novès. Their only victory in the last two November windows came against Samoa, but they vexed the All Blacks in the summer’s three-Test series on a tour when they had no more succour from the match officials than they had had in the 2011 World Cup final. Jacques Brunel has engineered a revival based on defence but progress will hinge on making use of possession.
England came under pressure after the series defeat to South Africa in the summer to axe Jones, even though there was no succession plan in place. It was as if it all came down to one man and had nothing to do with the system that underpinned the national side, sloppy thinking redolent of the amateur era. A raft of injuries means Jones will survive the autumn, although if Japan do to England what his Cherry Blossoms did to South Africa in 2015 any last vestiges of goodwill will vanish.
England are hardly in bad shape. They will miss the gainline gatecrashing of the Vunipolas and the slipperiness of Watson, but the return of Manu Tuilagi from a series of injuries offers Jones a dimension he has lacked in his time in charge, one that will help them overcome a weakness, playing off slow ball.
Jones has a decision to make at out-half: Owen Farrell or George Ford. He has mostly used them as a midfield pairing, but Tuilagi’s presence gives him the option of playing Farrell at 10 with Tuilagi outside him and the playmaking Henry Slade at 13. Ford has been dropped twice this year, both after defeats when England’s breakdown problems left him staved of quick ball for long periods; like Danny Cipriani, he needs to be on the front foot.
England’s first match is against a
South Africa side that has been revitalised under Rassie Erasmus, even if energy and organisation have masked weaknesses. They will be under-strength at Twickenham, unable to call on their players based in Europe, such as the influential Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk, and their tour will be an assessment of strength in depth.
Australia, who have slithered to seventh in the rankings, cannot look beyond the present. They start with Wales, World Cup group opponents they have enjoyed 13 consecutive victories against, before facing Italy and England. Strangely for a side coached by Michael Cheika, they have been more individual than collective, stronger on paper than on the field.
More than one-third of the fixtures involve a tier-two nation, part of World Rugby’s programme of giving emerging countries exposure in between World Cups. The most notable is Georgia’s match against Italy in Florence on November 10, Six Nations aspirants against the side that usually finish last in the tournament. Friendly it won’t be.
It is 100 years next month that the lights came back on in Europe. Next month will be no phoney war, with the start of the World Cup less than a year away. Stretcher-bearers will continue to be in demand, but surely there has to come a point when the casualty rate becomes more than a subject for debate.
Australia’s Michael Hooper is tackled by All Black Beauden Barrett during their 37-20 defeat in Japan