In stark contrast to the dreary fare of 12 months ago, this was a life-affirming November for international rugby. There was no echo of players’ voices off empty stadiums, and the rugby was unrecognisable, too.
The final weekend capped a triumphant month for the Northern Hemisphere over the South. Saturday was the first time for 19 years that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have all lost on the same day, before Ireland humiliated Argentina on Sunday, too. That result made it the first weekend that all Six Nations have recorded a win, ever.
Across the month, England, Ireland and France were all unbeaten, notching a statement scalp each; the world champion Springboks, in England’s case; the All Blacks for the other two. Scotland, England and even Wales, who endured a bruising month, all beat Australia.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that the Southern Hemisphere’s powers waned. South Africa, especially, have been bubble-bound for months, playing 13 Tests since July 2. New Zealand were flogged for two extra matches, added to the schedule purely for financial reasons, on successive October Saturdays, in Washington and Wales.
Australia appeared to have turned a corner in the Rugby Championship before a string of influential withdrawals left them undermanned in Europe. All three will be back better.
Still, it is impossible to walk away without the feeling that a Six Nations for the ages lies just around the corner. France continue to build towards 2023, and Ireland look a real force (three matches in New Zealand next summer will test that).
Wales are the defending champions, and Scotland always look a force. And then there’s England. They look the most refreshed, and different since the Six Nations. And given they finished fifth, they needed to.
Eddie Jones’s development of a youngish team that lost the 2019 World Cup Final to a new side to compete in 2023 has been fascinating. For two Six Nations campaigns, he barely made a significant change. Then the Lions provided a low-key summer in which big names were away and new players could be blooded. In the Autumn, Jones combined the two for a New England.
The sense is that Jones would have considered the campaign a success whether Marcus Smith’s decisive kick had sailed through the posts or not on Saturday. But the fact that it did makes it far easier to reflect positively.
Defeat to the Springboks would have been a sickener, given England played pretty well, scored three very fine tries and were undermanned in vital areas, most notably the front-row, and they only got a few minutes out of Manu Tuilagi, which changed the shape of their backline. They leaked kickable penalties at an alarming rate, but there was much to savour. Winning a game like that takes some resilience.
The look of England’s backline has been altered. The glue, suddenly, is Henry Slade, at either inside (as he was after Tuilagi’s withdrawal on Saturday) or outside centre. He had a delicious campaign, capped by three glorious passes — which all led to tries — against South Africa. In 2019, Slade was generally a replacement, but now, after 43 Tests, he appears a guaranteed starter (he was a vice-captain against South Africa) and to be coming of age.
Established, too, is Freddie Steward at full-back. He put in another imperious performance on Saturday, showing his passing ability, solidity and certainty under the high ball, and — when scoring — his power, too. It is some time since England have had all of that.
With a flyer (Jonny May or Adam Radwan) on one wing, and a ball-player (Max Malins, Joe Marchant or Elliot Daly) on the other, England look well balanced in the back three, even with Anthony Watson out for the season.
Finally, we come to Smith. He had a fine campaign, showing glimpses of quite how good he could be. George Ford will keep pushing, and Owen Farrell will not give up without a fight. But Smith deserves time steering the ship if England are to see the best of him in 2023.