30 October 2013

Looking north for the autumn

We are about the entertain the annual arrival of the “Big 3” to this part of the world for the Autumn International Series. The arrival of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa is greatly anticipated by the 6 Nations Unions as it is of huge importance to rugby in Europe.

Apart from the financial benefits of having three or four tests against world-class opposition, the autumn internationals are hugely beneficial from a rugby perspective.

Firstly, it allows the 6 Nations to benchmark where they are against the SANZAR teams. These teams rarely venture outside the top five rankings in the world of rugby.

In fact at the moment the SANZAR countries occupy three of the top four positions on the IRB rankings, with England in 3rd place keeping Australia in 4th position. Obviously New Zealand are in 1st place and South Africa occupy 2nd spot.

Secondly, the Autumn Internationals are hugely important as preparation for the upcoming 6 Nations. Teams that fare well against the SANZAR nations in the autumn usually go on to have a good 6 Nations tournament.

The 6 Nations teams have in general a pretty good record against the SANZAR nations in November. The fact that the SANZAR teams are a bit fatigued coming to the end of a long season and the 6 Nations teams are at home, gives them an advantage which they sometimes avail of. Also, victories over the SANZAR nations will often shake up the IRB Rankings before the end of the calendar year. It is always a great boost if you can finish the year by jumping a place or two in the rankings.

Every 6 Nations team will set their goals and look at the Autumn Series from their own unique perspective, as will the media in this part of the world. But it may be worth looking at the games from the SANZAR perspective to see what they hope to get from their visit to Europe.

New Zealand will arrive into Europe in the best possible shape. The All Blacks have been consistently playing some stunning rugby since the beginning of the summer. Their 38-27 victory, over the Springboks in the final game of the Rugby Championship at Ellis Park, has to be one of the best test match performances seen for many a year. They are so far undefeated in their ten tests this season and despite playing Japan next weekend that statistic is unlikely to change.

Their test schedule in Europe involves playing France, England and Ireland. England is the most hyped of those tests as England secured a famous 38-21 victory last November in Twickenham. From New Zealand’s perspective they will set a goal of finishing the season undefeated with fourteen victories.

They will be wary of France, who in Paris, are always capable of a huge performance. They will target the England game to redress last year’s defeat. So should they arrive in Dublin undefeated there would be just one game between them and the perfect season. Given the All Blacks penchant for ruthlessness, it is hard to see that juggernaut derailing at that point.

South Africa are in pretty good shape as things stand having only lost their two Rugby Championship games to New Zealand so far this year. They face Wales, Scotland and France over the next few weeks. Under coach Heyneke Meyer, South Africa have returned to playing the style of rugby that defines them. They are hugely physical and tend to overpower teams with their size, pace and intensity.

It is hard to see Wales or Scotland coping with the Springbok style of rugby although on a one off occasion, which these fixtures are, it is always a possibility. The Boks will surely see the French as the team most likely to turn them over. For them it is the final fixture of the season and how the French pitch up will depend on how their games against New Zealand and Tonga have played out. If the French are in a good place they would certainly be capable of upsetting South Africa, but as always with the French that’s a ‘big if’. Either way, the Springboks will want to return home undefeated and copper-fasten a great season.

Finally, Australia like they needed it, play four Autumn Tests. Of course that schedule was put in place a long time ago. Long before their form had slumped to where it currently is.

The irony for Australia is when they open their November series against England in Twickenham next Saturday, the following day one of their most talented players, James O’Connor, will be running out for London Irish just a few miles up the M4 in Reading. They could certainly do with a fired up and on form O’Connor for this tour, but his absence is a symptom of where the Wallabies find themselves at this juncture.

Australia are in the worst place they have been for long time. With just three wins from ten tests this season they are on the ropes. They scraped past Argentina 14-13 in their home game of the Rugby Championship. But their second and most comprehensive victory over Argentina by 54-17 in Rosario was definitely their best performance of the season. The victory and while it was regarded by many as a turning point in their fortunes, most people could see that one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

But just two weeks later in the Bledisloe Cup at Dunedin, the Wallabies were summarily put to the sword by the All Blacks. Although there were signs of some green shoots in their performance it still leaves the Wallabies with just two wins so far this year.

Injuries, non-descript performances, off-field indiscipline and a new coach mid-season has made for a fair bit of turmoil in the Wallaby camp thus far. Should they go under to England on Saturday then the remaining teams laying in wait, namely Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, will all feel they are in with a decent shot of a scalp. And Australia, despite their recent woes, are still ranked 4th in the world and will be definitely seen as a scalp worth taking by all of the above.

But the Wallabies are nothing if they are not resilient. They will see this Autumn Tour as a great opportunity to redeem themselves after a terrible summer. Should they win all four tests it would go a long way to turning things around for Australian Rugby. So they won’t go down without a brawl, because if they do it could have huge ramifications for rugby union in Australia.

There is a lot at stake this November for the SANZAR countries, especially when you look at it from their perspective.