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Inside the 22

Autumn Internationals Review

I spent the day on Saturday at Twickenham to catch a bumper last weekend of the Autumn Internationals which saw all of the 6 Nations plus the 4 Rugby Championship teams in action (plus most of the Tier 2 nations).
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The day kicked off with Italy taking on the All Blacks in Rome and were swiftly put to the sword. New Zealand were coming off the back of a loss to Ireland and as expected they wanted to prove a point in the last International fixture of 2018. Italy are still struggling to keep up with the other Tier 1 nations but at least they beat Georgia a week before to save their blushes.

Scotland took on Argentina in a game that I was really looking forward to. Both teams are playing exciting running rugby and have pace and skill across the whole back line, they also both have had defensive vulnerability which I thought (and hoped) would lead to a high scoring game. Instead we saw a very solid Scotland team grind out an important victory. As a big Scotland rugby fan, it is very nice to see them grind out a victory. If they want any success at the World Cup then they need to be able to win ugly when the going gets tough. 
Seeing as I was at Twickenham, you could probably guess the game I was most looking forward to. England against Australia was being dubbed by many as make or break for this England squad and especially for Eddie Jones. It was going to determine whether the Autumn Internationals had been a success or not. After decidedly average performances against South Africa and Japan and a narrow loss to New Zealand it was an important game to give the England squad confidence against the Southern Hemisphere ‘Big 4’. 

England did exactly that with a win that was never in doubt despite it being level at half time. It is easy to run down the England performance by saying that this is an understrength Australian side who are coming back off a long international period with injuries to key players (including talisman David Pocock) but the reality is that England also have had a well-documented share of injuries. The fact is that is the nature of sport and especially rugby. Has anyone really played in a full-strength team? Either in amateur or pro Rugby. I know I have not! It is not how good your first XV is. It is about the depth of a squad that wins tournaments.

England opened the scoring early with a May try in the corner and had by far the better of the opening exchanges. Australia finally responded late in the first half with a Falou try. A couple of penalties later and the half time score was 13-13 even though England had all of the possession and looked by far the better side. 

In the second half England blew Australia away with a display of pace and power in the backline. The pick of the tries coming from Cokanisiga on his starting debut. The 21-year-old showed amazing footwork and pace and power to fly through the Australian defence and slide over. He was dangerous through the whole game and with Chris Ashton added to the squad at the start of the series England have some exciting wing options. Israel Falou got on the score sheet again with a consolation try in the 80th minute, saving the Australians from a record defeat at Twickenham with a final score of 37-18.

This is an exciting England team that seems to have depth and can handle injuries. Mako Vunipola has been a key player over the past few years and it seems Sinckler is able to step in and take on the ball carrying and destructive tackling (as a coach we massively underestimate a prop who can carry, pass and tackle, it gives a team an extra man around the park when you compare it to a set piece specialist). Brad Shields had his best game in an England shirt and looks international class. Maybe it was a mistake to questions Jones’ thinking when he got him over from Super Rugby. Manu made his much-delayed return (yes, another return) and actually looked good for the short period that he was on the field. If England can keep building around a young, fit, physical team they may just be able to challenge the top teams in the world i.e. Ireland and New Zealand.

Wales finished a successful Autumn period with a good win against a tired looking Springboks team, to be honest by this point of the day I have a little bit of a hazy memory but it looked like an exciting Wales performance and to beat Australia and South Africa in back to back weekends means we will be looking at a strong 6 Nations next year with all of the home nations in good form.

Ireland capped off an impressive International year with a comfortable win over a spirited USA team. I am excited by the progress being made across the pond (I am talking about the Atlantic not the Irish Sea) but it takes time to build a sport as it has to come from the youth level.

Ireland have been the only team to have performed consistently at a high level. Even New Zealand have had blips. I would say that Ireland have been the best team in the world for the past 12 months but still do not go into the World Cup as my favourites. 

In the final game of a long and heavy day of rugby Fiji pulled off the biggest upset of the year with a 21-14 win over France. It looked for most of the year like we had a new, improved French team. Especially after a big 6 Nations including that win against England. Those observations turned out not to be accurate as we saw the good old French self-implosion on Saturday night. Fiji did play some incredible running rugby from the likes of league convert Semi Radrada and France based Tuisova but still France will see this as a troubling way to end the year.
Also going on this weekend was the final day of the Repechage tournament for World Cup qualifications. As most of you know I am involved with Rugby in Germany and I would have loved to see the national team qualify for their first World Cup but unfortunately the writing was on the wall after defeat last week to Canada. Germany did pick up a big win against Kenya while Canada got the all-important victory over Hong Kong to seal their place in Japan. Canada were the best team over the best team over the 3-week tournament and deserve the spot. It also makes me wonder when Germany will have another opportunity as good as this one to qualify, you may remember the reason they got to the repechage tournament was through the Rugby Europe debacle that took place earlier this year with Romania, Spain and Belgium.

So that brings an end to International Rugby for 2018 (I think?) and where better to spend the day than Twickenham, my wallet is a little lighter but I think there is no better place to watch and chat Rugby. It was some of the most competitive Autumn Internationals for some years and going into a World Cup year we can look at all the home nations plus South Africa, New Zealand and maybe even France if they can get it together as potential winners. Exciting times to come in International Rugby!

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