Autumn Nations Series: Five storylines to watch including a titanic clash at Twickenham

Autumn Nations Series: Owen Farrell runs with the ball for England against New Zealand. Credit: Alamy
Autumn Nations Series: Owen Farrell runs with the ball for England against New Zealand. Credit: Alamy

The Autumn Nations Series has provided exceptional rugby this year, with some of the world’s best players showcasing their skill sets on the global stage.

Into the third round this week, several teams have shown impressive growth, whilst the situation looks ominous for others.

Planet Rugby delves into five storylines to follow ahead of what promises to be another fantastic weekend of rugby.

Massive showdown at Twickenham

A match which could ultimately decide how the respective teams view 2022. For both, it is not a matter of going from good to great but merely from poor to acceptable after underwhelming years so far. The All Blacks’ Rugby Championship victory has somewhat rescued what has been a disastrous year, while England have yet to produce any real performance of note.

Although Eddie Jones will point to the Australia series victory, let’s be honest; it was three average displays against a struggling side. There were signs of development in some aspects, especially the set-piece, but that has so far not been improved on during the Autumn Nations Series. It means that they need at least one win from the last two matches against either New Zealand or South Africa to provide their fans with some hope.

As for the visitors, head coach Ian Foster remains under pressure, but their run of victories has given him a stay of execution until the Rugby World Cup. Again, New Zealand are not entirely convincing at the moment but results have improved and there are facets in their game which are much better. Jason Ryan has done an excellent job with the forwards and you can see signs of Joe Schmidt’s influence behind the scrum, but the clash at Twickenham is another big challenge.

The All Blacks do have a winning record against the Red Rose over the past decade – with six victories out of eight – but the games have pretty much always been tight. In whatever situation the English are in, they often have the pack to cause the Kiwis problems and that should also be the case this weekend. It is therefore set to be a titanic battle.

Can the Wallabies match up to the world’s best?

The Wallabies are currently in a shocking run of form with only two wins from their last eight games, and it is somewhat strange that head coach Dave Rennie has not been more under the pump from fans and pundits.

Irrespective of that, Rennie definitely would have preferred a different opponent this week, as it is going to be tricky to get back to winning ways against an Irish side so polished in their execution and lofty in their ambition to carry their form into next year’s World Cup.

However, despite not being on a good run in terms of results, the Wallabies have come close against some of the world’s best recently, including the controversial Bledisloe I Test, where a time-wasting decision robbed them of a memorable win. Similarly, against France where Australia should have won that game if it weren’t for a moment of Damian Penaud brilliance.

Rennie still seems to be searching for his best combinations, with a few high-profile injuries to the likes of Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi forcing him to try new pairings in the Autumn Nations Series.

The Wallabies’ maul is solid, and the rest of their set-piece is decent enough. They have speedsters at the back with X-factor and can stand up to Ireland but will not have enough to take down the men from the Emerald Isle.

Italy to continue showing their free-running class?

The Azzurri have kicked on from their famous win against Wales in Cardiff in the final round of the Six Nations with two brilliant victories in the Autumn Nations Series, including their first win against Australia last weekend.

A hallmark of their performances this month has been clever, considered attacking play within well-executed structures that opened up space for danger men Ange Capuozzo, Pierre Bruno and Monty Ioane to run riot.

Kieran Crowley’s men have been a joy to watch but this weekend they face a tricky Test against the Springboks, who will give the Azzurri less to work with despite several changes to the squad. The Springboks’ focus on set-piece and sheer physicality poses a different challenge, coupled with their outstanding bench to call on later. However, head coach Jacques Nienaber and his men will be wise to the danger of the Italians and know they will have to put in a solid performance to get a result.

One thing is for sure, Italy is a much more significant hurdle than they once were.

Los Pumas and Scotland thriller loading…

An interesting clash, considering the two sides have faced off three times already in their July series that Edinburgh star Emiliano Boffelli ironically stole late on for Argentina in the third Test.

Much has changed since then, with Los Pumas kicking on from their series win to claim a record victory against the Wallabies, their first triumph against the All Blacks in New Zealand and a memorable win over England at Twickenham a few weeks ago.

Michael Cheika’s men did not produce their best last weekend – in their loss to Wales – and will be eager to bounce back at Murrayfield.

Scotland come off a good showing against the All Blacks despite losing the clash last weekend. The return of Finn Russell proved its worth, as it often does, and Gregor Townsend’s men look to be trending in the right direction.

However, the concern with this Scottish side over the last couple of years is the inability to kick on from good foundations and elevate their game into a different sphere.

All these factors combine to offer what should be a thrilling game against two sides who know how each other plays, and both will believe they can claim the win. So prepare for another enthralling match-up in the Autumn Nations Series.

Wales must respect the Georgian challenge

Despite the victory over Argentina, Wales are some way from being genuine challengers to the world’s best and in fact are vulnerable against supposed ‘lesser’ nations. The loss against Italy in the Six Nations earlier this year – after making several alterations to the side – is a reminder of that.

Wayne Pivac hasn’t made quite as many changes for Saturday’s encounter against Georgia but the visitors will certainly relish getting stuck into that front five. To Wales’ credit, their props and locks put in big shifts last weekend but it is not exactly a high class unit and the Lelos will fancy their chances of putting them under pressure. And although there is quality in the back-row, with plenty of pilfering threats in Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric and Josh Macleod, there are no heavy duty ball carriers.

The backline is also not firing particularly well either so we think the Georgians could keep this one very close. They beat Italy in July, ran Samoa very close last Saturday and are beginning to produce a good all-round team. It used to all be about the pack for the Lelos but, with the likes of Vasil Lobzhanidze, Giorgi Kveseladze and the ridiculously talented Davit Niniashvili in their squad, they have threats behind the scrum as well.

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Seven of the best tries so far including that Lalakai Foketi effort

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