THE FIVE MUST-SEE AUTUMN TESTS
▶ As next year’s World Cup in Japan looms on the horizon, Paul Radley looks at the key clashes this month
Rugby’s leading Test teams will get some valuable game time in November as they each build towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
The competition is less than a year away, and the autumn Tests will provide some early pointers as to what to expect when the main competition rolls around.
Can anyone stop New Zealand making it a hat-trick of titles? Are South Africa credible contenders, following their revival under Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi?
Is England’s slump under Eddie Jones terminal? And can Warren Gatland sign off after 12 years in charge of Wales with the biggest prize of all?
Ahead of the autumn Tests, here are five fixtures to look forward to.
England v South Africa Twickenham, Saturday, kick-off 7pm (all UAE times)
Familiar foes clashing once again in London. This will be the fourth consecutive Test the two sides have played against each other.
South Africa won the summer series at home, but England did at least finally break a six-match losing streak – including at home to the Barbarians – in the final dead rubber.
Back then, Danny Cipriani played a key role in that win. But the maverick England fly-half has since made the wrong sort of headlines off the field and again been jettisoned from the squad.
Manu Tuilagi is in line to play his first Test in over two years for the home side.
England v New Zealand Twickenham, Saturday, November 10, kick off 7pm
Where England and the Springboks are overly familiar with each other, the home team and the All Blacks are basically strangers.
The two sides have not played each other since 2014 – when New Zealand ran out 24-21 winners at Twickenham – meaning never on the watch of Eddie Jones’.
The coach has apparently been shielding his side from playing the might of the world champions.
The All Blacks have won 32 of the 41 Tests they have played against England, and there is little to suggest the world’s No 1 side will not steamroll their hosts this month, too.
Whether England gain much from the appointment of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell to run their defence remains to be seen.
Wales v Australia Principality Stadium, Saturday, November 10, kick off 9.20pm
This Test match falls 19 days shy of exactly a decade since Wales last beat Australia in a Test match.
Alun Wyn Jones is the only player likely to feature who figured in that 21-18 win for the home team at the Millennium Stadium in 2008.
Wales might not get a better chance to break their Wallabies’ hoodoo. Australia have been in miserable form, winning just two of their past nine Tests, putting coach Michael Cheika’s job as coach in doubt in the process.
Ireland v New Zealand Aviva Stadium, Saturday, November 17, kick-off 11pm
Over the past two meetings with New Zealand, Ireland have an even record. Before that, not so much.
That win in Chicago in November 2016 was momentous, given that it followed no wins in 111 years of trying against the same opposition. A repeat this month would mark the Irish out as genuine contenders for the World Cup next year.
Conor Murray will likely be conspicuous by his absence. No other British & Irish Lions tourist emerged from last year’s tour of New Zealand more admired by opposition fans than the scum-half.
He is expected to miss Ireland’s November programme because of a neck injury.
Wales v South Africa Principality Stadium, Saturday, November 24, kick-off 9.20pm
Wales have won four of their past five meetings with the Springboks, which is a remarkable, given they had only a solitary win in the 30 Tests they had played leading up to that point.
Most recently, they beat them 22-10 in Washington in June – courtesy of a late Ryan Ellis try – but that was realistically before the Bok resurgence under Rassie Erasmus had started.
Three wins and three defeats, adding up to a second-place finish in the Rugby Championship, was not exactly much to write home about for South Africa, but their confidence is definitely returning.
Clockwise from top: Man Tuilagi, right, could play his first Test for England in over two years; South Africa have found some form under the leadership of Rassie Rasmus; New Zealand face key clashes against England and Ireland in November