It’s a big, big weekend of world rugby union this weekend.
The Autumn world rugby internationals promises some interesting contests.
Not only are all the big guns playing, many of them against each other, there is also a host of big matches involving second- and third-tier nations.
And then there is also the little matter of the Rugby World Cup repechage, where four teams are vying for the 20th and remaining spot at RWC 2019.
The headliners, obviously
The top-billing match for most, of course, will be England vs New Zealand rugby; the game that was the most looked forward to about one year ago when the English team were sweeping all before them. But things have changed since then, with Eddie Jones’ team having endured a horrible Six Nations early this year before losing a Test series in South Africa.
So their meeting with the All Blacks, while still hugely anticipated, will not be this November’s top match-up. (That honour belongs to next weekend’s game, Ireland vs NZ: Number 2 vs Number 1.)
Still, it has been a long time since England have played the Kiwis so this will be one game everyone will watch this weekend.
Most eyes will also be on Wales vs Australia. In a nutshell, Wales coach Warren Gatland will hopefully be able to say, upon finally beating the Wallabies (and to misquote tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis): “Because no one beats Wales 14 times in a row!”
Ireland also have a tough assignment, against Argentina, before next week’s All Blacks meeting: steering clear of injury will be the prime objective.
A variety of styles on show
But for this autumn world rugby internationals, the one I’m most keen to watch will be Scotland vs Fiji. Stuart Hogg is back after missing last week’s loss to Wales, while everyone wants to see just how good the new and improved Fijian team can be. A real banana peel of a match for Gregor Townsend’s men against some truly exciting rugby talent.
Another one I’m eager to watch is Italy vs Georgia. The Italians will be keen to bounce back after last week’s thrashing by Ireland’s second-stringers, whose backs ran rings around them. The test this week will be diametrically opposite, with the Georgians boasting a powerful scrummaging and mauling pack. The forwards are also Italy’s strength. So this match, which some see as a de facto playoff for a place in the Six Nations, will be a real wrestling match.
Slipping under the radar a bit this week is France vs South Africa. The Springboks were hard done by last weekend — their own fault and also that of the referee Angus Gardner — in their 11-12 loss to England, but so were France in their last outing when they lost a series to New Zealand; again with no thanks to the referees.
Outside the top tier for this autumn rugby internationals, an interesting one this weekend will be Brazil vs Maori All Blacks. The Brazilians are newcomers at this level and there is no way the Maori ABs will lose — they put USA to the sword last weekend, and can beat most top-tier teams. How fitting it would be if the Maori team puts on a Brazil-football-team-like samba performance, just to show the local fans what to aspire to.
Ulster vs Uruguay: The weekend actually begins with this match, which Uruguay are obviously using to replicate their schedule for next year’s Rugby World Cup, when they will have to also play two matches in a short space of time. The Uruguayans began with a 45-21 defeat to Cardiff Blues on Tuesday and can expect another tough game on Friday before their tour highlight next weekend versus Fiji, whom they will also face at RWC 2019. They finish their tour against Romania the weekend after that.
USA vs Samoa: Samoa have gone down a long way since their 1990s heyday, and are currently ranked below the Eagles. This weekend’s autumn rugby internationals match is a chance for the islanders, under new coach Steve Jackson, to get back on the right track and into the top 10 again. The Eagles will have their top line European-based players back in the team after missing last week’s hammering by the Maori All Blacks. So this will be a cracker of a game, hopefully. Pity that Eagles forward Samu Manoa hasnt been picked to play again against Manu Samoa — that could have tripped up the commentators.
French Barbarians vs Tonga: Not sure who are playing for the French but Tonga always seem to be more than the sum of their parts. Playing the French match could give the Tongans some good intel before their matches in the Pool of Death next year, when they will face the full Les Bleus side, plus England, Argentina and USA.
Chile vs South American XV: Chile is in the world top 30. Let’s hope they — and Brazil — join the party sooner than later. Would be good to see more South American nations involved at the top level of rugby, beyond Argentina and Uruguay.
Russia vs Namibia: Two of the smallest (in rugby terms) at next year’s World Cup. Namibia are actually in a race with world champions New Zealand for the highest number of consecutive games in which they have scored four tries a match. And Namibia could get there first! Both teams are on 12 wins in succession, but Namibia face Russia before the Kiwis face England later in the day. Whatever happens, both team can also look forward to a meeting next year at RWC 2019 in Japan. Another record could fall there too.
Canada, who have played in every previous Rugby World Cup, are understandably favourites to win the qualifiers in Marseilles, and they wound down their preparations for the rwc2019 qualifiers with a handy 31-12 win over English second-tier club side Coventry.
Hong Kong won one and lost one in their warm-up matches in the UK, while Kenya lost to Romania A. Whatever the Germans have done, they’ve done so quietly.
The fixtures have been set up with the two highest-ranked teams playing last, so Canada vs Hong Kong is seen as the decider. Kenya and Germany will hope to upset the apple cart, and they can do so starting with matches against the Canadians and Hong Kong, respectively.
Samoan versus Samoan
An interesting idea doing the rounds in Samoa is the call for a match to be played between Manu Samoa, the national team, and Samoa A, the best of the locally based players.
According to the Samoa Observer, this “could actually be one of the best things to happen in Samoan rugby by a long stretch“.
The newspaper said the idea has been growing legs, and would be a match the Samoan public would like to see: a State of origin match, so to speak.
The Samoa A team, currently coached by Manu Samoa legend Brian Lima, is a pathway for local players so a match against their fully professional brothers would serve as a both a yardstick for the local boys but would also work as a selection match.
With RWC 2019 in mind, this would help ensure the best man is picked for each position – not just those who have made it overseas. In other words, it would pit the established but possibly past the use-by-date incumbent versus the player full of upward potential.
It’s a worthwhile idea.
UPDATE: For an update on developments since the article above was written, have a read of our autumn internationals rugby article.