11222017

Kings in the north, can England close gap on All Blacks in autumn Tests?

Warren Gatland, Eddie Jones., Joe Schmidt, Gregor Townsend

Warren Gatland, Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt and Gregor Townsend will take on the best of the southern hemisphere over the next four weeks

Over four weeks, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland will take the measure of the southern hemisphere’s finest in the autumn internationals.

The action begins on Saturday with new Scotland coach Gregor Townsend overseeing his first game at Murrayfield, against Samoa.

Later in the day, England take on Argentina,Wales play Australia and Ireland entertain South Africa.

Scotland and Wales’ matches, including those against world champions New Zealand, will be live on BBC.

Highlights of England’s matches against the Pumas, Australia and Samoa will also be on BBC television soon after the match, with radio commentary of many games on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra.

Two years and 20-odd Tests to go

Rugby World Cup 2019<!–

The date world rugby’s elite want to ink in their diary – the Rugby World Cup final is less than two years away

The fixtures for 2019’s Rugby World Cup were announced on 2 November, focusing minds with less than two years and around 20 Tests for each country between now and kick-off in Japan.

In the 2015 event, the southern hemisphere filled all four semi-final spots in England, proving an emphasis on individual skills and improvisation could triumph even in less favourable handling conditions.

However there are signs the northern hemisphere have closed the gap since then.

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa occupied the top three places in the world rankings immediately before the last tournament.

Now, with England second, Ireland fourth and Scotland sixth, it seems a more balanced picture.

The results on the pitch have been revealing too. Last November Ireland brought a record New Zealand run of victories to an end, Wales downed South Africa and Scotland came within a point of Australia.

For their part, England have won their last nine meetings with southern hemisphere opposition.

The next four weeks will provide another chance to see how the two halves of world rugby match up.

Meeting of old rivals

Kieran Read and Sam Warburton<!–

Captains Kieran Read and Sam Warburton led their sides in a bruising three-Test series between the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand

It briefly seemed as if the biggest match of the autumn might be the very first.

When New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions could not be separated after three fierce Tests in the summer, the All Blacks’ Twickenham meeting with the Barbarians on 4 November was briefly flagged as a possible unofficial decider.

The idea was soon quashed with the unions unwilling to release their players for the fixture.

Yet the All Blacks remain the biggest draw in world rugby.

Fresh from sweeping to a third successive Rugby Championship, they will play two Tests against France before meeting with Scotland on 18 November and Wales seven days later.

The resumption of hostilities between Wales and Lions boss Warren Gatland and New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen will be especially intriguing.

Hansen said Gatland should quit coaching if he truly hated touring with the Lions, as he claimed.

However the fixtures once again deny number two-ranked England the chance to face the world’s best. They have not played New Zealand since a 23-21 defeat in November 2014, but a meeting is scheduled for next autumn.

New faces keen to shine

Steff Evans<!–

Scarlets’ Steff Evans has beaten more defenders and made more clean breaks (34 and 15 respectively) than any other player in Pro14

With less pressure than during the Six Nations, the autumn internationals allow teams the chance to try out untested players and combinations in one-off Tests.

This year, with all the squads showing wear and tear from a predictably strenuous Lions tour, that is especially the case.

Among those looking to move up the pecking order are exciting wing Wales and Scarlets Steff Evans, who will win his third cap against Australia, Scotland and Glasgow’s livewire scrum-half Ali Price, who steps in for the injured Greig Laidlaw, and Bath and England’s hard-hitting flanker Sam Underhill, who starts against Argentina.

Ireland debutant Bundee Aki is older than all three. The 27-year-old Connacht centre was born in New Zealand to Samoan parents, but qualifies for his new country on residency grounds after spending three years in Ireland.

Law changes may play a part

Wayne Barnes<!–

Referee Wayne Barnes says the discrepancy in laws may be an area for the hosts to exploit this autumn

Home advantage may be particularly marked for the northern hemisphere sides this year, because matches will be played under an updated version of the laws that the southern hemisphere teams have far less experience of.

The changes – the most important of which are at the tackle and scrum – were introduced in the northern hemisphere on 1 August, but will not come into force in the south until January.

“If we get a small advantage up here, I’m sure the coaches will try to use it,” top English referee Wayne Barnes told the Telegraph last month.

Expect at least some confusion for fans, players and coaches alike, and therefore some likely controversy as the best of the north and south go head to head for a month.

BBC Coverage

BBC TV has live coverage of Wales and Scotland’s matches while BBC Two will show highlights of England’s three fixtures.

BBC Radio 5 live’s rugby team will bring you live commentary of every England match plus a selection of other games. There will also be preview shows on Thursday evenings and a podcast every Monday.

The BBC Sport website and app will feature all TV and radio coverage as well as live text commentary and reports of all matches.

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