2021 Autumn Nations Series: South Clashes With North
2021 Autumn Nations Series: South Clashes With North
New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and a bevy of other nations head across the globe to take on their northern counterparts.
Hardcore rugby fans the world over will be licking their lips as the armada of Southern Hemisphere giants steams north to take on the old world powers of the Six Nations. New Zealand laid down a statement of intent last weekend when they stopped off in Washington DC to cuff around a callow United States Eagles team, shorn of their more experienced European pros. While there will be sterner tests ahead, can anyone from north of the equator stop the southern juggernauts? Let's take a look at the teams..
The Springboks head north as reigning World Cup Champions, world ranked No. 1, and recent Lion tamers. Former Head Coach turned Waterboy Rassie Erasmus is back at the wheel as Director of Rugby (unless World Rugby slaps him with a ban for his hour-long video rant criticizing the refs in the Lions series), so all should be well in Bok land.
But, the team wobbled with three consecutive losses to Australia and New Zealand before righting the ship in an immense Rugby Championship win over those same All Blacks, as seen on FloRugby. The Springboks will bring their trademark blend of confrontation, power and quick strike ability, and one can hope they show the same attacking intent they displayed in the last game versus New Zealand, instead of the artillery barrage of up and unders they threw at the Lions.
Long the gold standard of rugby, the All Blacks have been knocked off their perch by South Africa in the world rankings, and England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinals. Since the sport's return from the COVID shutdown, they’ve looked to be back on their game, going 5-1 in the recently completed Rugby Championship, sweeping Australia and Argentina, and splitting two titanic battles with South Africa.
The crown may have slipped a little, but it would be a brave man to bet on any of the northern teams against this group of Kiwis—they have the bit between their teeth and a chip on their shoulder. The U.S. Eagles felt the brunt of that in a 104-14 shellacking last week, and there will be some nervous fans in the valleys of Wales before next week's encounter.
The Wallabies have gone through a turbulent few years, with infighting in Raelene Castle's Rugby Australia eventually seeing the end of her reign, the dismissal of coach Michael Cheika, and the Israel Folau suspension fiasco. Crying out for world-class players, could the Aussies afford to shed their best in the mercurial but controversial full back? Well, back-to-back victories over world No. 1 South Africa have Aussie fans asking "Izzy who?" and once again you can always spot the Australian in the room. Exciting young talent has come through the ranks, shepherded by stalwart skipper Michael Hooper, and the side has been involved in some belting games since the last World Cup. Their games in Europe should be top notch entertainment as they look to cement their current top 3 ranking.
The Pumas have been on the road seemingly forever, and it looks to have taken a toll. After the immediate post-RWC ’19 euphoria of a first ever win over New Zealand, ties with Australia, and a test series win in Wales, Argentina has come crashing down with 6 convincing defeats in The Rugby Championship. But it's back to traveling for these road warriors as they take on the northern powers. They caught Wales without their front line players in the summer, away on Lions duty, but France, Ireland and England will all be looking to the upcoming Pumas visit to notch a win over Southern foes. Expect the usual committed, scrappy approach from the Pumas, but a win over Italy might be all they take home from this trip.
The Brave Blossoms are an interesting team. Despite essentially no international pedigree, they have climbed the world rankings with some high octane performances, particularly at Rugby World Cups, and now sit at No. 10, one spot behind Wales, a team that beat them 98-0 in 2004. Japan cops some criticism for their model of paying star players big bucks to ply their trade in their domestic Top League, and naturalizing mostly Pacific Islander, South African and New Zealanders for their national side. But, like it or not, it has delivered results and they will be looking for further confirmation of their place at the top table on this tour.
Brutally swept aside 102-0 by the All Blacks in July, Tonga will have some of their many European pros back for this tour. While it may be an exercise in refilling the Tonga RFU coffers, they are definitely capable of putting a scare into some of their hosts. Scotland, be warned!
Los Teros just confounded conventional wisdom and knocked off the USA in a two-leg encounter to cement their place at France RWC ’21. That follows on from a strong showing at the last World Cup, where they defeated much favored Fiji. Will this be the tour that establishes Uruguay as a serious threat? They're well drilled and feisty, and won't lie down for anyone. Right now they are eying what they feel is a winnable game versus Six Nations straggler Italy. Upset alert!
It's something of a rebuild for England as Eddie Jones' men struggle to regain the form that saw them knock off New Zealand and head into the Rugby World Cup final as favorites over South Africa. The Boks knocked the wheels off England's sweet chariot that day, and the men in white have stuttered since. They did take the hastily arranged 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, with an unconvincing final win over essentially a France “B” side, but then performed poorly in the 2021 Six Nations. Jones has rung the changes in the squad for this Autumn Series, leaving out many of his old standby's from the Saracens club in particular. No place then for Billy Vunipola and Jamie George, while skipper Owen Farrell has to be looking over his shoulder at fan favorite Marcus Smith of Harlequins at the crucial fly half position. This would be a great time for EJ to start building toward the next World Cup in France ’23, and one can hope that the high speed thrills of the Gallagher Premiership spill over into the national team. Mark your calendars for Saturday November 20th on FloRugby as England gets their rematch with World Cup nemesis South Africa. Games don't come bigger than this unless it's the RWC final, and they've met in that twice. Huge.
Les Bleus have been coming on strong in the last few seasons as their extremely successful age group teams graduate to senior level. With the excellent half back duo of Dupont and Ntamack pulling the strings, the French can look unstoppable. To this point they have usually stopped themselves, as in the baffling way they fumbled away a seemingly sure test series victory over Australia in the summer. But that was very much a back-up France squad, and we can expect to see a team gearing up to host and potentially win the 2023 Rugby World Cup on home turf. This is an exciting team, and particularly dangerous with that home French cooking.
Always a tough out, Ireland plays with passion and tremendous organization. Head coach Andy Farrell (father of England skipper Owen Farrell) is a defensive specialist with a Rugby League background, so expect to see some stand-up hits from the boys in green, taking man and ball in some big confrontations with potential for yellow cards and outright dismissals. There will be bruising encounters with New Zealand and Argentina, and a chance for redemption against their RWC conquerors Japan. Ireland showed some real attacking flair in a 71-10 summer win over the USA, but that result may need to be reassessed in light of the Eagles 104-14 drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks.
While Six Nations tournaments have generally gone well for Wales recently, with only a last minute loss to France denying them a Grand Slam in 2021, there remains a lingering feeling of dread around this Welsh side. Things have not been well with their four regional sides in the Pro 14, and the national side looks short of depth. Skipper Alun Wyn Jones still leads the charge, but how much longer can the world leader in caps toil at the coalface of international rugby? Questions remain around the fullback and center positions, but a strong set of back row forwards should ensure they stay in most games. This weekend's clash with New Zealand looms as a potentially heavy defeat, given that a short handed Wales team will be without some top players who will not be released from their clubs. The WRU has been accused of chasing revenue with this fixture, but the Welsh game needs the funds, and players like Jonathan Davies at center and Josh Adams on the wing will be up for the battle.
Everyone's favorite dark horse will be looking to make that step up from gallant loser to true contender as they host the southern invaders. Finn Russell is riding a wave of support following his good showing (in a losing cause) in the third Lions test versus South Africa in the summer, and there is always an air of unpredictability around this team. But with fixtures against South Africa, Australia and Japan to come, Scotland will want to be sure to get off to a winning start versus Tonga. Could be a tough few weeks for the Scots, but all fans of running rugby will be pulling for them.
Perennial 6N whipping boys Italy will look to notch a win over up 'n' comer Uruguay, potentially taking down their South American cousins Argentina, and keep the score down against New Zealand. While their 6N place is assured for the foreseeable future, they will want to distance themselves from the likes of Georgia snapping at their heels, and the specter of a Springbok bolting from the TRC to the 6N. If the Bokke ever do make that leap, will someone get pushed out to make room? Looking at you, Italy
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