Autumn International Series: Springboks lay down World Cup marker

Autumn International Series

The Springboks have roared back into being one of the favorites for the World Cup next year. They utterly destroyed England at Twickenham on Saturday despite being at half-strength. They join Ireland and France as genuine contenders. There were upsets, led by Georgia’s memorable win over Wales, last-minute thrillers, and plenty of controversies. Charlie Inglefield looks over the contenders and the teams who have some serious work to do following the Autumn International Series.

Springboks lay down World Cup marker

South Africa’s performances leading up to the England clash hinted that they were getting back to their crushing best. If it wasn’t for a decent place-kicker they would have probably beaten Ireland. The same could be said against France despite being 14 men down for most of the game. Italy were then smashed giving the Springboks impetus and confidence going into Twickenham. What will please all South African fans is that they played a lot this autumn without some of their biggest stars.

Lesser lights like Damian Willemse and Kurt-Lee Arendse came of age in the international arena after their respective performances against England. Franco Mostert, an ever-present for the Springboks but playing out of position was magnificent in the openside jumper. The experienced brains trust of Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, and Wille le Roux guided their team around to perfection. The Springboks mirrored their 2019 World Cup Final performance and it is an ominous warning for France next year.

Jacques Nienaber, South Africa’s coach has done a decent job of keeping his men focused despite disruptions off the field. His team looked settled with an enticing mix of experience, youth, and talent to pick from.

Ireland and France tracking along nicely

Neither Ireland nor France set the world alight in November but they both won ‘ugly’, which is always a positive sign going into a World Cup campaign.

France were behind to a brave Wallaby outfit in their first outing of the autumn but kept in touch via Tomas Ramos’ unerring accuracy from the kicking tee. Everyone could see the influence of Shaun Edwards through the game (England have missed a beat not recruiting this man) as the French hung on through their defence. Damian Penaud then produced a bit of stardust at the end to get the Tricolores home. The French looked rusty but they still found a way to win.

It was a similar performance against South Africa, not pretty but staying in the fight, which is what we would not associate with the French a few years ago. France are an extremely difficult team to beat, particularly on home soil, and they will be delighted to carry on their unbeaten run. They remain favourites for the World Cup.

Ireland, like France never truly got going in November. Fiji and were dispatched but it took some time. The Wallaby game was horrendous viewing but Andy Farrell would have loved the way they got over the line having not played well. The pick of the performances was Ireland’s win against the Springboks. The intensity and ferocity that Siya Kolisi’s men played at was eventually repelled by Ireland. It was brave and brutal, but crucially Ireland found a way to win.

A concern for both Farrell and Fabien Galthie, is their respective fly-halves. Johnny Sexton remains absolutely key for Ireland’s hopes. He picks up a fair share of injuries and Farrell may want to give his back-ups a go in the Six Nations. For France it is different, they have a plethora of talent to choose from in the number ten jersey. The mercurial Romain Ntamack had a quiet autumn series whilst his rival Matthieu Jalibert had a sensational cameo when coming on against Japan. The question is, who does Galthie go for.

Autumn International Series nosedivers

Wales’ defeat against Georgia was one of the worst in their proud history. The last-minute defeat to the Wallabies having been 21 points up in the second half, was not far behind. It has heaped huge pressure on coach Wayne Pivac and undone some of the positives that came out of the summer tour to South Africa.

The talent is there and is the experience but effectively combining the two remains a problem for Welsh rugby. The likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Ken Owens are confirmed legends of the game but can they last through a World Cup campaign? Wales looked shot in the final quarters of the Italian defeat in the 2022 Six Nations, then Georgia and the Wallabies in the last couple of weeks.

England have not just been disappointing during the Autumn International Series but for the last three years. The narrative coming out of Eddie Jones is confusing and repetitive. For too long England have been swimming in mediocrity and inconsistency. The performance against South Africa was horrible and again they lacked a workable game plan. It feels like Jones has lost the connection with the fans and change is surely needed. The literal million dollar question is whether the RFU will back him through to the World Cup.

On this November’s evidence, both Wales and England are miles off from being genuine contenders for the 2023 World Cup.

Scotland flirt as do Australia, Italy show progress

Scotland once again showed flashes of what they could do. Consistency and getting the job done remain two obstacles for Gregor Townsend and his troops. The farce around not picking and then picking Finn Russell did not help Townsend’s cause. They clearly don’t see eye to eye, so what, make it work because Russell is one of the best in the business.

Scotland should have beaten the Wallabies. Blair Kinghorn was one of Scotland’s best on the night, but Russell’s kicking boots would have probably got them home. Russell came back to great acclaim against the All Blacks and for fifty minutes all of Scotland dared to believe that they were about to beat the All Blacks for the first time in their history.

It was a terrific performance, perhaps inspired by the last, heartbreaking appearance of the late, great Doddie Weir before kick-off. All of Scotland’s big guns were on it. Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Darcy Graham in particular were terrific from start to finish. Once again Scotland flirted with us that they can go to the next level with the big boys. They duly dispatched an indisciplined Argentina to round off a frustrating November for them.

As for the Wallabies who knows what we will see in 2023. They started off their Autumn International Series with an ugly but important win over Scotland. We then saw more encouraging signs in their losses against France and Ireland only to then lose against Italy. The ‘come from behind’ win against Wales was absolutely critical for their embattled coach Dave Rennie. It means they have something to work off when they get going in 2023.

One thing remains for certain and that is you can never discount the Wallabies when they get into a World Cup environment. They have a very decent and proud record of performing in World Cups.

A special word to the Georgians and Italians. Georgia can no longer be denied access to the Six Nations. It remains for the powers that be to include a promotion/relegation place for the 2024 Six Nations. Georgia were superb in Cardiff and it wasn’t just down to their behemoth pack. They are evolving and will only get better with more high-profile matches.

Italy also showed great signs of progress under Kieran Crowley in the Autumn International Series. They first dispatched a talented Western Samoan outfit and then thrillingly held on against Australia a week later. We have seen plenty of brave performances by Italy over the years but rarely do they end up victorious. Crowley is just beginning the revamp of Italy and the challenge for him is to keep the momentum going into the 2023 Six Nations.

The last word – watch out for Italy’s Ange Capuozzo – he is some talent.

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