Autumn Nations Series: Five storylines to watch ahead of the final week’s action as teams hunt much-needed victories

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Planet Rugby delves into some of the big talking points ahead of the denouement of the Autumn Nations Series as England face South Africa and Wales host Australia.

Matches to save the respective teams’ Autumn Nations Series

While the likes of Ireland, France and New Zealand will have been relatively content with their end-of-year campaigns, the four sides playing this weekend all have something to prove. For the teams going head-to-head in London and Cardiff, the success – or not – of their Autumn Nations Series rests on the result and performance on Saturday.

For Wales and Australia in particular, a victory at the Principality Stadium is vital having endured a woeful month. Wayne Pivac’s men have succumbed in two of their three matches, with those two losses coming against New Zealand and, most shockingly, Georgia. The Welsh were dreadful in that reversal at the hands of the Lelos, leaving their head coach under massive pressure. Dave Rennie is also feeling it and, after successive defeats to France, Italy and Ireland, they need a result to give their supporters some hope.

England and South Africa aren’t quite as desperate but they have both had a frustrating few weeks. The Red Rose were abysmal in going down to Argentina before they found themselves 25-6 behind to New Zealand in their third match. Although they responded superbly to somehow draw, they need to produce an 80-minute performance against a top-tier side.

That will also be the Springboks’ plan, who should be the most happy with their campaign so far – even if their very demanding public aren’t. Despite the losses to France and Ireland, they have made important strides, especially in their attacking game, but Jacques Nienaber’s men need to beat the Red Rose to confirm that progress.

England releasing the shackles

Former full-back Mike Brown suggested recently that Eddie Jones’ side are currently playing with ‘fear’, and it is an opinion held by a number of observers. However, that was not in evidence in the final 10 minutes of the game against New Zealand. In a seemingly impossible situation at 19 points in arrears, they suddenly started to play and left the All Blacks stunned.

Marcus Smith stepped up alongside Owen Farrell and dictated play, while the skill levels, especially from replacements Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola and David Ribbans, were exceptional, but that was a unique scenario. It is almost certain that style will not be repeated against the Boks, but supporters will demand far more intent than they showed in the opening 70 minutes last weekend.

Jones has always stated that he is to be judged on the World Cup, but there still needs to be progress and, at the moment, they have yet to convince. There are signs that the Smith-Farrell axis is starting to find its feet, while there is talent aplenty in most other positions, but they appear to be constrained by the game plan.

A chance for Evan Roos to shine

While the exciting Stormers number eight made his debut against Wales earlier this year, it was difficult to judge his performance given that he featured in a much-changed side. Saturday’s outfit is a far stronger unit which looks cohesive and well-balanced, and as a result that will give him the platform he needs to display his talents.

Roos is an outstanding athlete and superb ball carrier and will give England problems should the Springboks set-piece run smoothly. With workhorses Siya Kolisi and Franco Mostert alongside him doing the donkey work, the 22-year-old has a great opportunity to nail down a place ahead of a huge 2023. He is one of the best young back-rows in the world so it will be fun to watch him rampaging around Twickenham on Saturday.

Pressure ever-increasing on Wayne Pivac and Dave Rennie

As has been intimated already, this is a massive game for the Welsh and Australian head coaches, who have yet to convince in their roles. They took charge following the 2019 Rugby World Cup but it has been a struggle for both Pivac and Rennie.

Wales have actually claimed a title under their boss but, other than that remarkable 2021 Six Nations triumph, they have been pretty abysmal since that last global tournament. Their bad run of form culminated in a shambolic 13-12 defeat to Georgia – one of the biggest shocks in the sport’s history – and you wonder whether his job is under threat.

The same could be said of his Australian counterpart, who has come under pressure in 2022. There have been some promising signs but the victories have not been forthcoming and the reversal at the hands of Italy raised concerns within Rugby Australia. Rennie has not been helped by a plethora of injuries, which has left them down to the bare bones, but ultimately it is only results that matter.

The Wallabies actually fielding a team

Australia are in the midst of a hugely concerning injury crisis, which has left them with just 25 available players ahead of their game with Wales. Following a hugely attritional contest against Ireland last weekend, seven players have been forced to head home, including former captain and forward linchpin Michael Hooper.

Rather remarkably, despite all the issues they have endured, the Wallabies have been competitive throughout the Autumn Nations Series, only narrowly going down to France and Ireland over the past month. Providing there are no more setbacks, Rennie will also be able to field a talented team in Cardiff, but one more injury behind the scrum will leave them in disarray.

There are only 10 backs remaining, which means they have just enough to fill a 23. Should two more go down in training, they will be forced to field a 7-1 bench, so it is an unprecedented situation in international rugby. In hindsight, it was probably not the greatest idea to schedule a five-Test tour at the end of an already gruelling campaign.

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