5 things we learned from Saturday's Autumn Nations Series encounters
Here the PA news agency examines five talking points arising from Saturday’s action.
Lift off for new England
After the period of gloom that descended as England stumbled through the post-2019 World Cup era, a team refreshed by new faces ran in 11 tries against Tonga to the approval of a noisy and sold out Twickenham. Australia and South Africa will offer far stiffer resistance across the next two weekends, but it was hard not to be enamoured with a relaunch that it is hoped will culminate in success at France 2023. Rising stars Marcus Smith, George Furbank, Freddie Steward and Adam Radwan all shone, while seasoned campaigners such as Courtney Lawes, Henry Slade and Jonny May were equally outstanding.
A solution to the midfield riddle
Owen Farrell missed the autumn opener because of a positive Covid test, but as England ran amok it was hard not to reappraise his place in the team. Smith’s artful 29-minute cameo strengthened the case for him starting against the resurgent Wallabies and now that Farrell’s case has been confirmed as a false-positive, he will undoubtedly feature at inside centre. But Manu Tuilagi and Slade formed a balanced and effective centre partnership and it is hard to see on what grounds either should make way. Jones is loathe to drop Farrell, who is lucky to have escaped the recent cull of old-guard as George Ford has been in superior form, but the fireworks evident against Tonga must surely challenge the Australian’s loyalty to his skipper.
And the issue of who fills the captaincy in Farrell’s absence was settled as Courtney Lawes rose to the occasion magnificently, emptying the tanks for his 62 minutes on the pitch. One of the most influential players in the first-half, Lawes was dynamic in attack but saved his finest moment for a try-saving tackle on Telusa Veainu that was a remarkable feat of athleticism. It was a captain’s performance and while Jones was at pains to stress Lawes is only a temporary appointment, the question was raised of just how indispensable Farrell is.
Ellis Jenkins – Alun Wyn’s heir apparent?
Cardiff flanker Jenkins returned to Test rugby after a three-year absence in Wales’ 23-18 defeat against world champions South Africa – and he performed like he had never been away. He was hurt during Wales’ 2018 victory over the Springboks, suffering a major knee injury that sidelined him from all rugby for 26 months, but he was magnificent in a battling Wales display. When current Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones eventually calls it a day, Jenkins looks primed for the job.
Sexton still going strong
Ireland warmed up for New Zealand by blitzing Japan and while Andrew Conway claimed a hat-trick, captain Johnny Sexton once again stole the headlines. The influential fly-half marked his 100th cap by scoring 16 points, including a second-half try which saw him mobbed by team-mates and prompted a spontaneous standing ovation from fans. But the burning question remains whether Sexton can continue until the 2023 World Cup. He is almost certainly Ireland’s leading number 10 on current form but will be 38 by the time France 2023 arrives.
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