Twenty questions for rugby union’s autumn internationals | Robert Kitson

Robert Kitson
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Will England go unbeaten against Argentina, Australia and Samoa?</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Rex Shutterstock</span>
Will England go unbeaten against Argentina, Australia and Samoa? Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Rex Shutterstock

1 Can Wales defeat the All Blacks?

The last time it happened was in 1953, so don’t hold your breath. But Warren Gatland’s Lions have given everyone hope by losing only one of their three summer Tests and Wales, at the very least, should be fresh and competitive. Do not underestimate Shaun Edwards’s motivational influence when he has a point to prove.

<span class="element-image__caption">Wales last beat the All Blacks in 1953, when they won 13-8/</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Daily Mail/Rex Shutterstock</span>
Wales last beat the All Blacks in 1953, when they won 13-8/ Photograph: Daily Mail/Rex Shutterstock

2 Will England go unbeaten?

Three theoretically winnable games, against Argentina, Australia and Samoa, really should extend England’s unbeaten home record under Eddie Jones, who is bluntly challenging his players to crank up things. Scraping past the Pumas and losing to the Wallabies may prove terminal for one or two Test careers.

3 Will Ireland get to host the 2023 World Cup if they beat South Africa?

No, but there will be extra incentive to show Irish rugby should not be judged solely on technicalities. It is a year since Joe Schmidt’s side turned over the All Blacks in Chicago and, like England, they will be keen to produce another resounding message.

4 When will the Pacific island nations get a fair deal?

This autumn the longstanding moral argument will intensify. When individual players earning thousands per game start urging team-mates to donate to the opposition, it grows ever harder to pretend rugby’s family is not dysfunctional. Would 80,000 people turn up at Twickenham to watch England play themselves?

5 Who, in terms of attacking verve, will be November’s shining star?

If it is Damian McKenzie or Beauden Barrett no one will feel short-changed. But how good it would be to see some twinkling northern lights as well: Henry Slade, the flying Welsh winger Steff Evans, the highly watchable Joey Carbery and the clever Finn Russell all have the ability to prosper.

6 Will players suspected of having concussion be permanently removed?

It should not be remotely in doubt but there have been too many worrying examples of visibly dazed players passing HIA tests and returning to games they should have taken no further part in. If in doubt, sit them out.

<span class="element-image__caption">Henry Slade should surely start at least one Test for England at Twickenham this month.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters</span>
Henry Slade should surely start at least one Test for England at Twickenham this month. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

7 Are France regrouping?

Assuming Jupiter and Mars are aligned – or whatever it is that shapes the mood of French rugby players – the signs are slightly more encouraging. They have some exciting fresh young talent, not least at half-back, but their fitness will have to improve if they intend to go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks for 80 minutes.

8 Which is this autumn’s most enticing fixture?

Aside from the obvious contenders – Wales v New Zealand and England v Australia – keep an eye on Scotland v Australia. Scotland beat the Wallabies in Sydney in June and Gregor Townsend’s side will be up for it again.

9 Who should be England’s starting centres?

Jones’s current preferences will be revealed shortly but if or when Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi regain full fitness, England’s midfield picture will become very interesting. Owen Farrell at 10 alongside Slade and Elliot Daly? Or George Ford, Farrell at 12 and Jonathan Joseph? Slade simply has to start at least one Test at Twickenham this month.

10 Will there be a new-cap story to rival Ian McKinley’s?

To have lost the sight in one eye and still make it to Test level is remarkable enough. To do so having started from scratch in a different country makes it even more impressive. If there is one player who absolutely deserves a successful autumn it is Italy’s latest option at fly-half.

11 Which area of the game will provoke the most interest?

The breakdown. After changes to the laws around the tackle area it is once again proving harder to wrest the ball back from the team in possession. The value of turnover specialists is being further enhanced. Sam Underhill is arguably England’s key man this autumn.

Keep an eye on Scotland v Australia. Scotland beat the Wallabies in Sydney in June and will be up for it again

12 How heavy will the injury toll be?

One theory was that early season vulnerability and harder pitches contributed to the glut of injuries at domestic level in September; an increase in ball-in-play time, however, has inevitably led to more collisions. It will be interesting to see how many of last summer’s Test Lions look at their sharpest

13 What next for England’s women?

The women’s World Cup has been and gone and England’s 28-strong squad for a three-Test series against Canada contains seven uncapped players. The first fixture is at Allianz Park on Friday 17 November, the second at the Stoop on Tuesday 21 November and the third at Twickenham – entry is free – following the men’s game against Samoa on Saturday 25.

14 Will this autumn shape the men’s 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan?

Not directly but Argentina’s form will be of particular relevance to England and France, who share the same pool. The sense remains that the Pumas are a decent team merely having a bad trot. Wales, Ireland and Scotland can also make psychological progress.

15 Who will be the most influential overseas forward?

David Pocock and Brodie Retallick are sitting out this autumn, which leaves some vacancies in everyone’s world XV. Beyond the All Blacks’ usual suspects, there are two strong contenders: Fiji’s outstanding lock Leone Nakarawa and the 23-year-old Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx.

<span class="element-image__caption">Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa runs to score a try against Uruguay during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa runs to score a try against Uruguay during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

16 Is 32 the new 30?

According to Eddie Jones, improvements in sports science have made it feasible for today’s players to keep improving beyond the age of 30. Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley will all be hoping to bolster that theory, as will Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones.

17 Which tier two nation will fare best?

Nothing will improve rugby’s global reach more than a higher number of genuinely competitive national teams. If Georgia’s forwards can turn the screw on Wales in Cardiff it would certainly strengthen their long-term claims to join the Six Nations.

18 What, if any, music should be played to enhance the Twickenham experience?

Changes are afoot, thankfully for those of us who would have sent Sweet Caroline to Room 101 years ago. No one enjoys artificial in-game rubbish but a quick burst of the Ramones, the Clash or Kasabian followed by some acoustic Billy Bragg or cleverly chosen reggae before kick-off would be OK by me.

19 Will attendances be healthy?

The early signs are encouraging, with 60,000 tickets already sold for Scotland’s home game against Samoa. A record crowd for a home Test in Japan – 43,621 – watched the Brave Blossoms’ 63-30 defeat by Australia in Yokohama last weekend.

20 What would improve the autumn series for all?

Closing stadium bars from 10 minutes before kick-off until half-time and then shutting them again until five minutes prior to the final whistle. It would be far more pleasurable for those who simply want to watch the rugby.

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