By Will Maddock
The Autumn Tests are upon us, bringing rugby fans their first glimpse of the home nations in international action since the thrilling British and Irish Lions decider at Eden Park, Auckland, little over four months ago. With the All Blacks, Australia, Argentina and South Africa all visiting, it is set to be a fascinating month of rugby.
England welcome Argentina, Australia, and Samoa this November after a successful 2-0 series victory against Argentina in June. These Autumn fixtures may seem underwhelming for those who hoped to see the first showdown between Eddie Jones’ men and the All Blacks under his tenure.
The most noticeable omission from the squad is James Haskell, who, according to Jones, is simply not playing well enough to get into the squad. He insists, however, that this does not signal the end of Haskell’s international career.
Instead, Jones has opted for Sale Sharks’ Tom Curry (19), Exeter’s Sam Simmonds (22) and Bath’s Sam Underhill (21) to battle it out for the number 7 shirt, assuming that Nathan Hughes and Chris Robshaw are picked at number 8 and blindside, as expected.
The rest of England’s pack boasts plenty of experience, with Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley expected to be included. The next dilemma for Jones is to decide whether to start Hartley and give him the captaincy, or whether Jamie George will oust the Northampton captain from his starting spot.
Although Hartley’s physical and playmaking ability has been brought into question when compared to George’s, there is no question that Hartley’s leadership has been the centrepiece of a magnificent two years for England since their horrendous 2015 World Cup. He boasts 19 wins out of 20, two Six Nations Championships including a Grand Slam, and whitewashes of both Australia and Argentina away from home.
The backs provide the England management with something of a selection headache. Many are calling for Anthony Watson to start at fullback to make room for Johnny May on the wing, who has rekindled his try-scoring form since moving to Leicester Tigers this season, scoring 10 tries in 9 appearances.
Other questions for the England management include whether Denny Solomona is defensively too weak to start at wing, and whether Henry Slade has shown enough form this season to be selected at outside centre in place of Jonathan Joseph.
Jones has borrowed the technique of placing two apprentices in the squad from the All Blacks; Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith and Bath backrow Zach Mercer. Although these two aren’t expected to be given game time, this will provide them with invaluable experience in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
South Africa, Fiji and Argentina are the visitors for Ireland this month. France-bound Simon Zebo misses out as Joe Schmidt and his team continue to favour selecting players who ply their trade in Ireland.
New Zealand-born Bundee Aki is expected to make his first appearance for Ireland having qualified under residency rules, and the potential centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw will be imposing, having already helped Connacht to the Pro12 title in 2016. High-profile absentees include Garry Ringrose, Jared Payne and Jamie Heaslip, who are all injured.
Heaslip’s injury opens up a battle for the number 8 position between CJ Stander, who was immense on the Lions tour this summer, and Leinster’s Jack Conan, who impressed on Ireland’s summer tour. These two will have competition from Peter O’Mahoney, Sean O’Brien, and Rhys Ruddock, making Ireland’s back row options very strong.
A number of young players who won their first caps on the tour to the USA and Japan this summer, such as Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Kieran Treadwell (all 21), are included and expected to make their home debuts.
Scotland’s principal challenge is the All Blacks this autumn, with Samoa and Australia also visiting. After beating Australia in Sydney this summer, the Scots come into the series with a lot of confidence. Gregor Townsend is expected to continue with an attacking and open style of play, which was successful during his years as head coach at Glasgow Warriors.
Greig Laidlaw’s injury means that Ali Price is likely to take the 9 shirt, which suits Scotland’s fast style. This also means that Finn Russell is likely to take on kicking duties.
With 10 uncapped players in the squad, and Scotland missing key men Laidlaw and hooker Ross Ford, it will be fascinating to see if Scotland can maintain their summer form whilst facing the potent All Blacks threat.
Stuart Hogg has called for senior players to step up as leaders in the Scotland team. With two Lions tours under his belt already at the age of 25, he himself will play a crucial role in guiding the uncapped players through a tough set of fixtures.
It’s been 18 months since Warren Gatland last selected a Wales squad, and his side face Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa in arguably the toughest schedule for any of the home nations. Wales’ summer tour was underwhelming, narrowly beating Samoa, followed by a more comfortable win over Tonga.
Neither Jamie Roberts nor Scott Williams have been picked in the squad, which signals an end to Wales’ hard-running centres. Owen Williams is a possible option at 12, which would add another playmaking option in the back line. George North’s ligament injury, which has put him out for nine weeks, opens the door for Steff Evans, who impressed in the summer and for Scarlets this season.
Wales’ new selection policy – only picking players outside of Wales with over 60 caps, replacing ‘Gatland’s Law’ (only selecting three players outside of Wales) – means that Rhys Webb, headed to Toulon next season, won’t be available for the 2019 World Cup. He has still been picked in the squad, despite a recent knee injury which has sidelined him for a month. If fit, he is expected to start alongside fellow Osprey Dan Biggar.
A long-term injury for former captain Sam Warburton means the blindside flanker position is unoccupied. Scarlets’ Aaron Shingler has been immense this season, and could pack down with the experienced Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric.
Photograph: DIALLO 25 via Wikimedia Commons