The 2022 Autumn International series kicks off in earnest this weekend with a bumper card of mouthwatering clashes for rugby fans to enjoy.
Scotland, who began their series with a bonus match last weekend against Australia, get the action underway against Fiji in Edinburgh before the All Blacks take on Wales in Cardiff. Ireland then hosted South Africa in Dublin before England concluded the opening weekend on Sunday against Argentina at Twickenham. With the 2023 Rugby World Cup now less than a year away, this will be the last opportunity for the home nations to test themselves against their Southern Hemisphere rivals before meeting again in France next year.
There are certainly a lot of questions to be answered ahead of the November matches, and it remains to be seen how much of an impact they could have not only ahead of the showpiece event next year but also the 2023 Six Nations in February and March. The coming matches could very well prove crucial in each nation’s build up to the next two tournaments, so what can we expect to see from the British and Irish sides over the next few weeks?
England: Jones needs to nail down his strongest XV
It’s been a turbulent few months for English rugby with two Premiership clubs entering administration, having a huge impact on the domestic game. As for the national side, they are seemingly on a good platform after their summer series win in Australia and will now hope to kick on and build serious momentum ahead of the Six Nations. The series victory down under was an impressive display of quality and grit from Eddie Jones’ side and competition for places in the starting XV is seemingly at its most competitive in years.
Previously, naming a starting XV for England would have been a fairly straightforward task even with the obvious strength in depth available but so many players have been emerging both in club rugby and on the international stage. Many of the most familiar names that have anchored Jones’ time in charge remain such as the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell but the biggest question marks currently stand over the back three in both the forwards and backs. Having players who have played together regularly and have a strong understanding at six to eight and 11/14/15 is crucial in international rugby and this series is a big chance for Jones to nail down these combinations.
Scotland: Townsend must justify Russell omission
The tumultuous relationship between Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and stand off Finn Russell is no secret but it still came as a huge shock to see the Racing 92 playmaker left out of the squad completely for the Autumn series. The justification that the three fly-halves who were picked (Kinghorn, Hastings and Thomson) were there on form clearly didn’t wash with Russell continuing to dominate games in France week in and week out. Regardless, Russell won’t be featuring in the upcoming matches and it’s now up to the rest of the squad to prove their boss made the right call in leaving out arguably his best player.
Blair Kinghorn, who has been excellent for Edinburgh for some time now, had a very good individual performance in the defeat to Australia last weekend but missing the crucial penalty late on highlighted his most glaring weakness and an international test side can quite frankly not afford to not have a consistent goal kicker in the side. Adam Hastings will get his chance against Fiji this weekend and it’s one he will have to grasp if he hopes to secure the number 10 jersey, which now very much seems up for grabs.
Ireland: time to do away with ‘peak too early’ talk
Ask any Ireland fan about their current position as the number one ranked nation in the world and you’ll get the same answer, it counts for little if they cannot now go and lift the World Cup next year. It’s the same talk that has plagued them for several years now, the Irish always seem to have this peak performance area that comes just before the showpiece event where their form inevitably drops. However, the past does not dictate the future and superstitions could be resoundly dispelled if they can continue their excellent run of results this Autumn.
Winning a test series in New Zealand, as they did during the summer, is an incredible achievement and there are now realistically two massive matches for them to overcome before next year’s finals. The second will be when they face tournament hosts and likely favourites France in the Six Nations in March but the first comes this weekend against the reigning world champions. A dominant performance against South Africa in Dublin would be just the latest in what is now a long line of exceptional results that Andy Farrell’s side have produced over the past couple of years.
Wales: crucial opportunity to build much needed confidence
It’s been a long time since confidence amongst the Welsh support in their national side felt this low, from an outsider’s perspective at least. A Six Nations victory over a more favoured Scotland and test match win against South Africa in the summer series, which they lost 2-1, have been the two high points of a crushing 12 months for the Welsh epitomised by Italy’s victory at the Principality Stadium in March. Wales, quite simply, need some big results to show they are still capable of matching up against the best sides in the world ahead of France 2023.
What better opportunity to do just that than having the All Blacks visit Cardiff this weekend? Wayne Pivac’s side will be underdogs for the match but will fancy themselves against any opponent at home. This Autumn series needs to be the beginning of a clean slate for Wales and a place to build a strong platform ahead of the Six Nations and World Cup next year. Beating the All Blacks and then following it up with subsequent wins over Argentina, Georgia and Australia would be a huge confidence boost for both the squad and the supporters.