For rugby fans, late October and the clocks going back usually means just one thing: the return of international rugby with the Autumn International series, a sequence of test matches taking place in the Northern Hemisphere throughout the month of November. These matchups are almost always highly anticipated anyway, yet this year’s edition will have a particular edge. This is because of the looming spectre of the World Cup that commences in Japan in September of next year. Indeed for some nations there are less than 10 games now before the big event commences, and these fixtures are therefore one of the last chances for them to fine tune tactical approaches and test their strengths in relation to other nations before the four-yearly calendar culminates in the land of the rising sun. This will be the focus for all of the British teams heading into next month.
For England, the stakes this November are perhaps the highest of any home nation. This year’s abysmal Six Nations performance abruptly ended Eddie Jones’ honeymoon period and things were not made any better this summer, courtesy of a series defeat in South Africa. It is easy to forget, however, that just last year they were regarded as joint favourites to lift the next World Cup alongside New Zealand, and they desperately require a strong November showing to attempt to get back to that level. However boasting a raft of injuries, especially in the back row, that will be no easy task. By the time this goes to print they will already have played South Africa on 3 November before a mammoth tie against New Zealand the following Saturday. They then wrap up the month with clashes against Japan and Australia.
Ireland will enter the month with a swagger not seen for a long time. They of course won just their third ever Six Nations grand slam earlier this year and backed that up with an impressive series victory in Australia. They are ranked as the second best team in the world and with very good reason; no doubt they will look to consolidate that position this coming month as well as bolstering themselves ahead of the World Cup, a tournament they have consistently underachieved at over the years. Next month sees them start out by facing Italy in Chicago before heading home for matchups against Argentina and New Zealand (which is generally accepted to be the most eagerly awaited game of them all this autumn) before finishing off with what should be a routine victory over the USA.
Seemingly forever, the Scotland team was regarded as the whipping boys of the home nations, yet their performances in this current World Cup cycle have proved that to be anything but true. In particular, Gregor Townsend’s men have done a fine job of turning their home stadium Murrayfield into something of a fortress, as shown by their now six consecutive home wins in the Six Nations and also the manner in which they ruthlessly dispatched a quality Australia outfit last November as well as coming agonisingly close to a first ever win over New Zealand. For some therefore, their November slate of games which includes home matchups against Fiji, South Africa, and Argentina as well as a novel visit to Wales (the first time two British nations have met in the Autumn Internationals) won’t be a success unless it is met with four wins. Ahead of a tough looking World Cup group, this November could be just the inspiration they need.
Wales’ second-place finish in the Six Nations has also led them to approach the coming month in a quietly confident mood. After a lean few years, they now boast surely their strongest line-up since they secured back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2012 and ’13. Ahead of his final season in charge, Warren Gatland has also tweaked his tactical approach, having been seen to ditch his famously direct “Warrenball” approach in favour of a more expansive philosophy. It’ll be interesting therefore to see if this pays dividends this autumn, and with home clashes in the headlights against Scotland, Australia, Tonga, and South Africa, they will not be short of challenges.
Moving away from specific nations, it’s worth noting that this could be a defining time for international rugby itself. Traditionally, the balance of power in the international game lies in the Southern Hemisphere, with Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa generally dominating all challengers. However recent years have seen something of a change, with the struggles of Australia and South Africa leading to a consensus that it is now just New Zealand who stand alone as the prominent world rugby superpower. However even the All Blacks have been somewhat patchy recently. They were stunningly defeated on their own turf by South Africa in the Rugby Championship this September, with the Springboks very nearly repeating the trick a few weeks later. This autumn could therefore see another realignment at the top of the world rugby pyramid. Aside from this, the issue of club/country divisions has once again reared its ugly head with club sides across Europe expressing distaste at the scheduling of certain international fixtures outside of the designated international window. This has led to the somewhat farcical situation facing the likes of South Africa, who will have to take on England in their first match of the autumn shorn of some of their most talented players who weren’t released by their clubs. This is certainly an issue that must be resolved, however once again it promises to be a thrilling few weeks of international rugby throughout Europe and indeed beyond.