Autumn Nations Series: England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland


The Rugby World Cup is just over 10 months away

The countdown clock has lost a column.

The arrival of the World Cup is no longer a matter of years, but of months and days.

On September 8, Paris will shake up hosts France as they host three-time champions New Zealand in their tournament opener.

In theory, this fall should be the time to downsize; minor change rather than a major rethink.

In practice, it’s never that simple.

Eddie Jones, Wayne Pivac, Andy Farrell and Gregor Townsend will enter these southern hemisphere battles with combinations to unlock and hide the cracks.

England

Manu Tuilagi
Managing Tuilagi’s fitness is a constant source of conversation between England and his club side Sale

Manu zain is the ongoing psychodrama of English rugby.

A meteor of midfield power and pace, the 20-year-old Tuilagi burst onto the Test scene in the run-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Injuries have limited him to just 33 Test starts in more than a decade.

This fall, niggles permitting, he should see a run in the harness with Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell.

On paper, it’s a 10-12-13 combo with brains, brains, guts and guts. On the field, it is still untested.

Eddie Jones hopes his patience game will finally pay off. The amount of shuffling at the back over the past three years, especially on the wing, suggests little in the way of a Plan B.

Up front, things are more settled. Mako and Billy Vunipola look to make their comebacks stick after freezing and then re-entering. Northampton’s South African-born David Ribbans can squeeze into the established second-row.

wales

Gareth Anscombe
Anscombe was ruled out of Japan in 2019 after a knee injury ruled him out for more than two years

Wales have been between feast and famine under coach Pivac. Winning the 2021 Six Nations title benefited from a bit of luck, but also showed a lot of passion.

Remember, they were an injury-time effort by Brice Dulin, a win for France and a Grand Slam.

But 2022 began with a miserable Six Nations defence, ending with a defeat by Italy, facing the South African Springboks, ending with a historic win in Bloemfontein and a series defeat.

then what?

The 10 is empty after captain Dan Biggar was ruled out with a knee injury.

Gareth Anscombe is the preferred option and will start against New Zealand on Saturday. But could old set-piece Rhys Priestland, who has enjoyed a good relationship with Cardiff, play into Pivac’s plans? Or is it time to blood Scarlets’ bright youngster Sam Costelow instead?

The return of Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny provide the experience missed by Biggar’s absence, while English flankers Tommy Reffell and Christ Tshiunza are part of an intriguing back-row conundrum.

Also watch out for Rio Dyer, his electric foot given a first chance against the All Blacks on the Test dance floor.

Pivac’s challenge is to blend new talent with an aging golden generation, all while keeping the wins rolling. Alchemy is necessary, but difficult.

Scotland

Blair Kinghorn
Kinghorn missed a last-minute penalty that would have robbed the Wallabies of victory last weekend.

After pulling the strings in Racing 92’s win over Top 14 champions Montpellier last month, Finn Russell, who was not wanted by Scotland, played superbly.

“Going back and forth can be tough, so it’s good for me to be here and enjoy the rugby,” he told French television.

It’s another thing about Scotland fans being shut out of the international scene by the end of this autumn.

Russell’s absence puts pressure on Adam Hastings and Blair Kinghorn, who will look to fill his boots.

For anyone who plays 10, there are some exciting options out there to try. Cameron Redpath is back after 18 months out with injury, while Sione Tuipulotu hit the touchline regularly in Australia’s defeat last weekend.

The biggest change, however, is philosophical rather than personal.

Jamie Ritchie taking over the captaincy of a “disappointed” exile Stuart Hogg and Russell, Townsend has made some big calls.

He and we wait to see if his team will rally behind them.

Ireland

Dan Sheehan
Sheehan started all three Tests against the All Blacks in the summer

Ireland’s main test this autumn will be whether they can withstand the close-fought Springboks.

The formidable power forward has proven the way to topple Leinster, from whom Farrell has drawn the majority of his squad on several previous occasions.

It will be another chance for hooker Dan Sheehan, who has made the most of his opportunity due to Ronan Kelleher’s injury, to prove himself on the big stage against the biggest front-rowers.

With James Lowe, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway all out injured, there is also a chance for Ulster’s Rob Baloucoun to add to his two caps and stake a claim for France 2023.

After the physical challenge comes the psychological one. Ireland is at the top of the world rankings.

But they were also named World Rugby’s Team of the Year in 2018 after 11 wins in 12 Tests, including a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and an autumn victory over New Zealand.

Less than a year later, they stumbled out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals.

Farrell and 37-year-old captain Johnny Sexton, a veteran of three previous last-16 appearances, will be determined that the momentum is not wasted this time.