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Five Takeaways from the November Tests and an International stock check

By Alex Shaw
The November Test series will be remembered for generally strong outings by Northern Hemisphere sides

Barring one last Test between Wales and South Africa, the autumn internationals are now in the books and being pored over from Edinburgh to Auckland, as the power shift from the south to the north continues to gather pace.

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New Zealand, England and Ireland all went undefeated and continued their impressive runs over the last couple of years, but it was a much more mixed bag for the other Tier 1 nations. Scotland largely prospered, Australia hit a speed bump and France’s decline as an international powerhouse went on unabated.

We take a look at five of the biggest takeaways we had from the last month, as well as looking briefly at the stock of each of the top tier nations.

 

Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie reinforce credentials

No one needed to be told about the potential of this highly-touted duo, but they have reemphasised over the last month that not only do they have what is necessary to play at the highest level, they have what it takes to thrive in that environment. The pair have not only filled in for Ben Smith and Israel Dagg, they have challenged those veterans for their places in the All Blacks XV.

If Smith returns from his sabbatical in good form, he must surely be one of the first names on Steve Hansen’s teamsheet, but will Dagg be as fortunate? Ioane is taking the rugby world by storm and his wing partner Waisake Naholo is in scintillating form. There will be some interesting selection dilemmas in New Zealand next year.

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At least one of Ioane or McKenzie will have to be dropped if Smith and Dagg are to return to the XV.

The only slight grumble New Zealand – and general rugby – fans might have, is that Asafo Aumua wasn’t unleashed on the world.

 

Scottish profligacy a thing of the past

It is hard to connect the clinical Scotland we have seen over the last month with the side that spent over a decade spurning chances and breaking fans’ hearts. Scotland have, finally, probably, arrived.

There have been several false dawns over the years in Scottish rugby, thus the “probably”, but there is certainly something more solid and reassuring about this renaissance than the ones of past years. One of the more significant reasons behind this might be the improving depth of the national team, with a side down to second, third or even fourth choice players at several positions this autumn doing so impressively against top class opposition.

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After a stuttering but ultimately victorious start against Samoa, Scotland gave the All Blacks all they could handle in their second fixture, before routing Australia in emphatic fashion this past weekend. The test now will be backing it up in the Six Nations, something which has seen Scottish resurgences come unstuck before, but with the likes of Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones spearheading a far more ruthless attack, their prospects look good.

 

Ireland get physical, physical

Two key names come out of Ireland’s autumn campaign. Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale.

Aki was the player drawing the headlines heading into the series and delivered in emphatic fashion against South Africa, more than proving his place in the team was warranted. His arrival at 12 pushed Robbie Henshaw out to 13, a position he was comfortable in from his time at Connacht. Both players dovetailed nicely and Henshaw’s ability to move to outside centre creates more competition for Garry Ringrose in the Irish midfield.

Stockdale may have won his first two caps in the summer, against the USA and Japan, but November proved to everyone that he can cut it against Tier 1 opposition. The Ulster wing excelled against South Africa and Argentina and, along with Aki, provides a physical edge to an Irish back line that has been built to dominate the kicking game.

The only downside to Ireland’s autumn was arguably their narrow win over Fiji, where they made 13 team changes and lost so much cohesion that it may have been hard for Joe Schmidt to accurately evaluate how his new charges went against the islanders.

 

England continue success, but old questions linger

Three wins from three takes England to 22 Test wins from 23 games under Eddie Jones and though they should celebrate that success, two lingering, long-term issues hang over the side and that is their back-row composition and breakdown travails.

With James Haskell not in the best of form and Billy Vunipola injured, England’s back-row had several new looks, with Sam Underhill coming in at openside, Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds playing N8, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje having stints on the blindside and even Chris “he’s not a seven” Robshaw returning to the openside for the final Test.

All five players had good individual autumns, but the loss of Haskell and Vunipola certainly had a knock-on effect on England’s ability to secure attacking ball, most notably against Samoa. It was less of an issue against Argentina and Australia, but the pack did still struggle to deliver the fast ball that the back line has thrived upon these last two seasons.

Lawes has shone in the back-row, but does it upset the balance in England’s pack?

Did Jones find out his best combinations in the engine room and back-row this month? Probably not, but three wins, further experience for Simmonds, Ellis Genge and Elliot Daly (in a relatively new position) and improving depth make it a successful autumn for Jones and England.

 

Winter will be long and barren for Wales

In fairness, Wales still have their final game of the autumn to come, as they host South Africa at the weekend, but it has been a miserable month for them so far.

They were outclassed by Australia in their opener, narrowly – and some might say cynically – avoided defeat against Georgia and then had moments of hope against New Zealand, before the All Blacks’ class showed and they cantered to the finish line, leaving Wales with little to be happy about, despite 60 minutes of competitiveness.

It’s a seemingly age-old story for Wales against southern hemisphere opposition and they desperately need a win against South Africa to take the edge off what could be a grim winter west of the Severn, especially with Six Nations rivals England, Ireland and Scotland all enjoying uplifting international windows.

Josh Navidi and Owen Williams provided Wales with something different and their performances can be offered up as silver linings, whilst Steff Evans showed signs of being a potential difference-maker at international level, but positives were few and far between outside of that.

 

Stock Check

 

New Zealand: Steady

England: Steady

These two nations have been the comfortable number one and two sides of world rugby for a little while now and whilst not blowing anyone away this autumn, they reminded the world why they are considered the top teams in their respective hemispheres.

 

Ireland: Rising

Scotland: Rising

Ireland have been chasing New Zealand and England for a while now and may have closed the gap slightly this month. Neither South Africa nor Argentina are the greatest of challenges right now, but they were dealt with emphatically and professionally respectively.

As for Scotland, their stock continues to rise. They might not be in the same tier as Ireland just yet, but they look to be separating themselves from the rest of the chasing pack.

 

Australia: Falling

After the win over the All Blacks, everything seemed rosier in Australia’s garden, but heavy losses to England and Scotland have seriously marred the Wallabies’ season. They faced adversity in both fixtures and struggled to overcome it.

 

Wales: Steady

South Africa: Steady

France: Falling

Argentina: Steady

Italy: Steady

Wales’ autumn has been poor thus far, but it is no detour from their regular performances in this international window. As for the Springboks, their loss to Ireland was humbling, but they did at least bounce back with wins over France and Italy. It is hard to say either of these two sides is in a better or worse situation following their three fixtures. Maybe their game in Cardiff this weekend will change that.

France keep falling, but at least they have admitted they have a problem. Acceptance is always the first step. What is encouraging are the young players they have turned to and whom they hope to build a team around in the years to come.

The truth of the matter is that Argentina don’t have a great side right now and they were beaten by better sides in England and Ireland. Their win over Italy will provide some succour, but not much.

Losses at home to South Africa and Argentina were mitigated by victory over Fiji, but at least the Azzurri feel as if they are being galvanised by Conor O’Shea and turned into a more formidable side in the long run. It’s hard to say their stock is rising right now, but their slide has been halted.

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Shaylen 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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J
Jon 11 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Ioane is going to be more than good enough to lock up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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FEATURE Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma
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