Sir Ian McGeechan
What home nations need to learn from autumn internationals
England Argentina Nov 11, Australia Nov 18, Samoa Nov 25
After a positive summer tour to Argentina, Eddie Jones has a much wider base from which to work and it will be the continued integration of those fringe players, the development of combinations, and the finding out about the third and fourth choices in each position, which will be top of his agenda this autumn.
I am particularly looking forward to seeing how he handles the Dylan Hartley versus Jamie George conundrum. I think Eddie will (and should) switch between them in terms of starts. England have a core group of leaders now with Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw, all of whom can skipper the team if Hartley is not on the field, so I don’t think captaincy’s an issue.
I am also looking forward to seeing what Eddie does in the back three. Denny Solomona has been on fire recently. Ditto Jonny May. Semesa Rokoduguni has been one of the best finishers in the Premiership this year, although there are still questions about his defence and positional play against the top teams. I think a top-class outside-half would target him, but he deserves an opportunity to show whether he has learnt from last year’s experience.
I think after watching what happened on the
Lions tour – when New
Zealand struggled to contain the Sexton-Farrell-Davies combo – Jones will play Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12. The question is, who plays outside Farrell? Although England have a number of injuries, and although Australia beat New Zealand recently, such is England’s strength in depth I think it is fair to say they are favourites to win all three of their games.
Wales Australia Nov 11, Georgia Nov 18, New Zealand Nov 25, South Africa Dec 2
Just as I reckon England will go with Farrell at 12 – having seen from the Lions experience what benefits can be gained by having a playmaker at inside centre
– so Warren Gatland has signalled his decision to change tactics by leaving out Jamie Roberts. A titan for Wales for so long, the selection of Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell, Rhys Priestland and Owen Williams is an attempt to find a new way to hurt teams in midfield.
The other big priority for Gatland, I think, is to find long-term cover for Alun Wyn Jones, who will need to be used judiciously in the build up to the World Cup as he is such an important player. Wales have serious strength in the back row, a mobile front row, a brilliant scrum-half in Rhys Webb, and pace in the back three where – in a reversal of recent seasons – Leigh Halfpenny could find himself playing wing and Liam
Williams full back.
The trick will be to keep their first team fit because
Gatland’s group do not have as much depth as England or Ireland. One thing is for sure, with Georgia and New Zealand both in Wales’s World Cup pool, this is going to be a fascinating month.
Scotland Samoa Nov 12, New Zealand Nov 18, Australia Nov 25
Gregor Townsend got off to a brilliant start with that win in Australia in the summer. But he now finds his squad ravaged by injuries and about to face two of the top four sides in the world this month. Richie Gray, Greig Laidlaw, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland – that is some serious talent missing.
Gregor is a canny coach, though, and one thing he is particularly good at – as he proved at Glasgow – is getting his team to play an effective brand of rugby. I think he will want to go high-tempo. That is when Scotland play their best and that is how Glasgow played under him. To do that, you need clarity, accuracy, and for players to take responsibility.
At the very least, Gregor will look to establish a base from which to work going forward, and to establish a few effective combinations. A win against Samoa in the first game is vital to breed confidence.
Ireland South Africa Nov 11, Fiji Nov 18, Argentina Nov 25
The recommendation of South Africa as the host of the 2023 World Cup has certainly given Ireland’s opening game a little sub-plot. It was a blow for the Irish but it is not over yet. And they can content themselves with the fact that their rugby is in rude health. In many ways Ireland are in the best shape of all four nations. Joe Schmidt’s operation is so well oiled. The players all know what they are doing and they have strength in almost every position. Schmidt has only picked four uncapped players in a huge 38-man squad. Ireland’s set-piece, kicking game, breakdown work and organisation are all of the highest order. And Schmidt’s dossier on the opposition is bound to be exhaustive. The one area I think he will want his team to really improve is their ruthlessness in the final third; they must put teams to the sword when they get in there. With the World Cup now under two years away, Schmidt will also be using these games to establish a pecking order at second, third and fourth choices in each position, giving the stand-ins valuable game time; Joey Carbery at 10, Kieran Marmion at nine and so on.
Key players: England’s Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar of Wales are sure to play important roles