Elliot Daly’s versatility is clearly valued by England coach Eddie Jones, the legality of the All Blacks’ physicality will be scrutinised against France, Georgia look balanced as they take on Scotland and will South Africa’s youthful side stop the rot against Wales? Composite: Getty Images
1) Daly gets chance to showcase versatility
On one hand, Eddie Jones’s decision to stick with Elliot Daly on the wing again makes sense – he was excellent against Fiji, singled out for praise by the head coach, has the necessary pace and is willing to go looking for the ball. On the other, Semesa Rokoduguni’s omission seems harsh: before last Saturday Daly had not started on the wing since March 2013 and you cannot help but wonder how his overlooked Wasps club-mate Christian Wade might feel. But Daly’s versatility is clearly valued by Jones and giving him more game time there feels like planning for all eventualities in, with the greatest respect to Fiji and Argentina, matches that really matter. It also feels like the transitional phase in moving Daly to full-back, where he has a great deal more experience for Wasps and where he could well end up cementing his place in the England XV. Mike Brown will not give up the shirt without a fight – indeed Jones will relish the very fact the he won’t – but the Harlequins full-back will be 34 when the 2019 World Cup begins whereas Daly will be in his prime. Anthony Watson appeared to be the favourite to take over from Brown not so long ago but having spent a couple of seasons developing into England’s most lethal finisher, it would be a waste to restart his international education in the No15 jersey, especially considering Daly’s ability to run from deep.
2) Will weary Argentina rouse themselves?
It is fair to say that Eddie Jones has started early. Nine days before England complete their autumn internationals against Australia, in what promises to be the toughest assignment of the series, and two days before facing Argentina, the head coach labelled the Pumas as “probably the second best team in the Rugby Championship” in what is no doubt a thinly veiled dig at the Wallabies. That is not to take anything away from the Pumas, who certainly did play some eye-catching stuff over the summer, but for the third Rugby Championship in a row they managed only one win and after narrow defeats by Wales and Scotland, they have now failed to beat one of the home nations in an autumn international since 2012. In short, they look tired – that Daniel Hourcade will not pick players based in Europe is commendable but it puts a strain on the players, most of whom have had long seasons with Argentina and the Jaguares. Jones has singled out the set piece – the bedrock of previous Argentina sides – as key on Saturday and he is probably right. The problem for the Pumas is that it is not quite the weapon it once was and England, seeking a 13th straight victory, will have the bit between the teeth against a side very much looking forward to the end of their season.
3) Inexperienced Springboks could still scare Wales
For two coaches who dare not contemplating losing on Saturday, the contrasting team selections by Rob Howley and Allister Coetzee are fascinating. Howley, but for an injury to Sam Warburton, has picked the same side that beat Argentina, albeit unimpressively, and while there is no Jamie Roberts, it is hardly experimental. Coetzee on the other hand has thrown caution to the wind and selected a team that – no disrespect to those players he has picked – has more than a hint of being a two-finger gesture at his critics. All but one of the starting XV will be playing in South Africa for next year’s Super Rugby competition while the backline is the most inexperienced the Springboks have selected since 1994. It is arguably the side that they should have picked, and properly backed, against England but Coetzee’s selection is not necessarily purely valedictory, even if there seems a chance he will go regardless of the result. Argentina did not have much joy getting in behind, or around, Wales but Japan most certainly did and with Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies chosen at half-back, the Springboks may fancy their chances of exploiting similar weaknesses in the Welsh defence. With his team selection Coetzee had also heaped that little bit more pressure on a Wales side who have looked anything but confident so far this autumn.
4) Pocock and Hooper will test Ireland’s resilience
Before Ireland’s rematch with New Zealand last Saturday, their captain, Rory Best, spoke of the need to back up their historic win in Chicago; to avoid what happened in the summer when a first ever win in South Africa was followed by back-to-back defeats and the series slipping through their fingers. Ireland gave it a damn good go but in the end the All Blacks, through methods that have been criticised, claimed victory and so a final autumn match against Australia assumes added significance. The good news for Ireland then is that CJ Stander is fit and how he and Sean O’Brien fare against David Pocock and Michael Hooper will be pivotal – a second-string Wallabies side got the better of France last week, largely due to the influence of the former. Dean Mumm joins the back row with Michael Cheika admittedly concerned by Ireland’s strength at the lineout but after three wins from three and a trip to Twickenham to come, Australia will not find it hard to motivate themselves in Dublin. Whether Ireland can again, after two hugely intense matches against the All Blacks in a fortnight, remains to be seen but as Best says, the need for consistency is clear.
David Pocock is still a formidable threat for Australia. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
5) Perenara gets a deserved chance in France
Without wishing to dwell on the legality of New Zealand’s tackling and, as Steve Hansen was so prickly in asking after the All Blacks’ victory in Dublin, whether they are a dirty side, it does not seem right that Joe Launchbury’s punishment for his indiscretion against Fiji was double that handed out to Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa. Not that that is New Zealand’s fault. And nor shall we expect the All Blacks to change their approach in France, who boast a monumental pack at present, in another match that will undoubtedly be physical. The truth is, for all the mystique that surrounds New Zealand, the endless superlatives to describe their talents, the All Blacks will always sail close to the wind. It should not come as a surprise that their players are capable of overstepping the mark – they may often be built up as being able to do no wrong but both on and off the field they are not. One of those to cross the line off the field, Aaron Smith, has been unable to regain his form on it of late so makes way for TJ Perenara against France in a change for which Hansen should be lauded. Not because of Smith’s off-field issues, but because he has recognised that a player so comfortably the best in his position in the world not very long ago is off the boil and his past form does not justify selection. Not least when Perenara – arguably the second best scrum-half in the world over the last 12 months – is playing as well as he is. Say what you like about the All Blacks’ tactics against Ireland but they sure know how to churn them out.
6) Georgia need to prove themselves against Scotland
A year since Georgia’s performances at the World Cup reignited the debate over whether they should be allowed into, or at least closer to, the Six Nations, they now have a chance to make it an altogether harder argument to ignore. Georgia arrive with a settled side, benefiting from the continuity brought about by Milton Haig remaining in his post as head coach, and while they did feature in an autumn international two years ago, you get the feeling they are far better equipped to handle the occasion this year. For a start, the week before Ireland hammered them 49-7 at Lansdowne Road they were beaten comfortably by Tonga – and so were hardly in form – but this time around they have just beaten Samoa and really ought to have beaten Japan seven days previously. Their pack, led by the irrepressible Mamuka Gorgodze, is unchanged from the win over Samoa with only a couple of tweaks to the back line as Haig’s side continues to gain experience. This side includes the scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze, who became the youngest player to feature at a World Cup last year. They run into Scotland at the wrong time though; Vern Cotter has picked a strong side that includes both Gray brothers and Scotland will be buoyed after finally coming out of a tight finish on top, against Argentina. Haig and his fellow Kiwi Cotter have bet a bottle of whisky on the match but for the future of Georgian rugby that the stakes appear to be somewhat higher.
7) O’Shea knows Italy must build on Springboks upset
At the risk of trying to save face, having predicted a comfortable if uninspiring victory for South Africa last week, we have been here before. Granted, it was Italy’s first ever win over the Springboks but this is a South Africa side unravelling at a rate of knots and the Azzurri can boast wins over Ireland, Argentina, Scotland and France in the past eight years. The problem in the past has been building on these victories and Conor O’Shea is evidently already having an impact. There is the danger that Saturday’s win now becomes the yardstick against which Italy will now be judged. The first thing then, is for Italy to get their feet back on the ground and put a Tonga side, who edged past the USA last time out, to the sword. “There’s so much negativity about Italian rugby that this one result has changed a huge amount of people’s belief and perceptions,” says O’Shea. “But there is a long, long way to go before we can be competitive on a really regular basis. But that result will kick off a huge movement over here, there’s no doubt about that.” Defeat to Tonga would take O’Shea back to square one.
Italy celebrate beating South Africa but Conor O’Shea knows defeat to Tonga will take the shine off their famous victory last week. Photograph: Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images
8) Japan should end their autumn on a high against off-key Fiji
On the face of it, Fiji and Japan will lock horns on the back of losing matches they were expected to lose but that does not tell the half of it. England were beating the clock for a fair bit of the first half against Fiji, such was their dominance while Japan will lament an untimely missed penalty by the otherwise excellent Yu Tamura that may well have swung the three-point defeat by Japan in their favour. As Rob Howley acknowledged afterwards, Japan were the better side and can hope to end their autumn on a high, despite their poor record against Fiji over the past decade. For all that Japan have impressed, Fiji have been poor and while their financial problems have been well-documented they badly need a victory. If it were to come as it did in 2009, when prevailing 40-39, then all the better for the neutrals but if Japan can reproduce the form they showed in Cardiff, it is hard to see past Jamie Joseph’s side.
9) McLean’s absence makes task harder for England women
Three matches so far for England, and all three decided by late scores – though last Saturday’s defeat by New Zealand was the first to go against Simon Middleton’s side. England can take heart from the way they played against the Black Ferns and in particular they way they created, if not necessarily finished a number of chances but while New Zealand are ranked No1 in the world, their task at Twickenham on Saturday gets no easier. Canada, after thumping a much-changed Ireland side last week, have now leapfrogged Middleton’s side into second in the world rankings and while England prevailed when the two sides met in the 2014 World Cup final, Canada ran out 52-17 winners in the most recent encounter in the summer. England’s task is made all the more difficult in the absence of Katy McLean from the matchday squad but with a couple of players on both sides having taken part in the Rio 2016 sevens bronze medal match, won 33-10 by Canada, there should be some added spice.
10) More brazen kit change cash-ins
One can only imagine that the reason the navy blue kit worn by England last week retails at £90 is because it will be worn so rarely it will become a collector’s item. It was indeed the eighth kit worn by England – who have also tweaked their home strip – in the past two years. And they were not the only offenders. Wales squeezed past Japan in their antracite (dark grey in plain English) kit and now New Zealand, who never waste an opportunity to play up the aura of the black jersey – the kit for the World Cup was supposedly blacker than ever – will wear a puzzling, predominately white with black shoulders strip against France. The All Blacks against Les Bleus, wearing kits that those names would suggest, is among the more iconic images in world rugby, provoking memories of their 1999 World Cup semi-final or the try from the end of the world. It may seem an irrelevance, and it is unlikely that the players are particularly bothered by it, but the fact it will not happen on Saturday is unfortunately further evidence of every last penny being squeezed out of this bloated autumn series.