Last Updated on 26 Nov 2021 10:00 am (UK Time)
Autumn internationals are hardly the be-all and end-all of international rugby, but what they do provide is a great way of assessing exactly where a team is when heading into, or coming off the back of, more illustrious competitions. While the northern sides face off annually to compete for the Six Nations, the four big hitters in the south compete for the Rugby Championship, and Japan try to find a team to play that isn’t Namibia or Chile.
Autumn Series are a blessed release from facing off against the same old faces, and for sides separated by the small matter of being in completely different hemispheres, it provides the perfect opportunity to test the rugby waters of more far-flung and unfamiliar shores.
And what a series this years has been. One could justifiably criticise the Six Nations for occasionally veering into a structured, attritional (boring) spectacle, or the Rugby Championship for being too often dominated by the imperious All Blacks, but this Autumn Series has seen such a contrasting mix of ingredients and styles come together that it’s been the rugby equivalent of smashing together a trifle and a vindaloo and then blowing it up with dynamite. It’s been weird, it’s been wonderful, and at times it has been absolutely unbelievable. Test rugby is alive and well.
Aside from the spectacle of it all, fans and pundits will be keen to know where their team now stands on the international stage following this mini proving ground of rugby brilliance. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the winners, losers and nearly there-ers from this year’s electric Autumn Nations Series.
- 20-29 France
- 37-16 Italy
- 7-53 Ireland
Series Rating – 4/10
Tom Hanks could well have been talking about the Argentinian rugby team when he was blathering on about life being like a box of chocolates. With Los Pumas, you really don’t even know what you’re gonna get.
A year ago, it seemed like the whipping boys of the Rugby Championship were establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with, the summit of their gathering momentum a truly remarkable victory against the All Blacks 25-15. The passion, the commitment, the grit, these were the hallmarks of a (re)emerging force on the world stage.
Since then, almost nothing has gone Los Pumas’ way. 2021’s Rugby Championship once more proved an excuse to re-establish the Southern Hemisphere’s status quo as one at which Argentina was placed firmly at the foot, compounded only by Autumn Nations Series defeats to France and Ireland. Of Argentina’s last 10 games, the white and blues have won just two, a 33-11 besting of Wales in July and a routine 37-16 rout of Italy sandwiched between the aforementioned losses to France and Ireland respectively.
The thing about Argentina is that they’re always there, always providing ample competition for anyone looking for a proper test match. Aside from a few anomalies, the Argentines seem to have established themselves as the Scotland of the Southern Hemisphere; always a stern test, always capable of picking up a decent result against a Tier One nation on the right day, but never challenging the established world order for the really elite places on the international rugby ladder.
Los Pumas might’ve pushed the French at the Stade de France but at the Aviva, in Dublin, they were truly woeful; flat, insipid, ill-disciplined and completely lacking in spark. They certainly weren’t helped by Tomás Lavanini being shown a red for a ludicrous foul on Cian Healy. Qué idiota.
Summary – Not much to smile about for the Argentinians from a series that could have seen the South Americans really have a go at some of the Northern Hemisphere’s big boys. A real wasted opportunity.
- 13-15 Scotland
- 15-32 England
- 28-29 Wales
Series Rating – 5/10
And it was all looking so rosy. For a while at least.
Australian rugby fans had every right to go into the Autumn Nations Series feeling quietly confident. The Wallabies had just won five games on the bounce, including significant back-to-back victories over reigning world champions South Africa as well as some convincing displays against Argentina and Japan. Coming to Murrayfield to play a patchy Scotland side should have been a chance for the Aussies to really kick on.
Instead, Australia’s 15-13 defeat in Edinburgh felt like a turning point in entirely the wrong direction. Despite a relatively even affair and the mitigating factor of losing hooker Allan Alaalatoa late in the first half, Australian never quite found their groove, the momentum they had carried into their opening Autumn Nations tie dissipating like Scottish mist.
If a defeat to Scotland was disappointing, losing to old rivals England on the eighth consecutive occasion didn’t so much counter their upward momentum as completely reverse it. Squeezed for possession (40%) and starved of territory (just 37%), the Wallabies can hardly pin the blame on their two yellow cards for such a dismal result.
A final game against Wales seemed like the ideal chance for some sort of redemptive marker to be laid down, and despite the result going against them, scraping a last-minute defeat despite being a man down for most of the game should be a cause for some optimism. Let’s also keep in mind that Australia was operating with half a squad’s worth of missing players including Quade Cooper, Reece Hodge, Semu Kerevi and Sean McMahon (although the same could be said for the Wales side against whom they came up just short).
Summary – A three-game series to forget for Australia, mitigated only by the fact that they spent large portions of each game with key players absent from the field. Wallabies fans will hope their preceding five-match streak was the rule rather than the exception.
- 69-3 Tonga
- 32-15 Australia
- 27-26 South Africa
Series Rating – 9/10
If ever there was a time for Eddie Jones, never a man to shuffle his deck unless he deems it entirely necessary, to bring in new blood, it was now. For all the talk of international test rugby is a different beast entirely to the weekly strains of the club game, England’s new boys and debutants took to the task like proverbial ducks, Joe Marchant, Adam Radwan, Jamie Blamire and Raffi Quirke all impressing when given the chance.
The two names which will have England fans delightedly rubbing their hands until calloused, however, aren’t hard to guess. Harlequins’ ten Marcus Smith has for a while been one of the game’s emerging gems, a man who might have the face of a twelve-year-old but whose composure and instinct seem more befitting of an international test centurion. Leicester’s Freddie Steward, meanwhile, has been the undeniable breakout star of this new-look England squad, a scything threat in attack while offering utter dependability under the high ball, most keenly evidenced against the game’s ultimate aerial bombers, South Africa. Elliot Daly’s neck must be dislocated given how hard he’ll be looking over his shoulder.
It isn’t just the new cast of players who will be giving England fans cause for excitement. Eddie Jones has spoken about a desire for more unity in his squad, and his team’s togetherness and positivity seem not just palpably pervasive but downright regenerative. Courtney Lawes looks as good as he’s ever been coming off the back of an impressive Lion’s showing at 6, while Henry Slade’s performance against the Boks was one of his finest in an England shirt.
It’s not all sweet-smelling roses, though. Ben Youngs’ kicking game lacked direction and accuracy on numerous occasions throughout the series, Sam Underhill was well below his sparkling best, while Kyle Sinckler’s disciplinary issues remain an ever-present concern. If England is to challenge for the Six Nations and beyond, keeping their discipline will be fundamental.
Summary – England’s titanic toppling of South Africa will be immensely satisfying for all concerned, but Eddie Jones will know that his side can be even better if he can get all the pieces to really come together.
- 29-20 Argentina
- 41-15 Georgia
- 40-25 New Zealand
Series Rating – 9/10
Wow. Wow wow wow.
France showed flashes of inspiration against a decidedly average looking Argentina side in their 29-20 victory at the Stade de France, their follow-up rout of an off-colour Georgian outfit more of a routine formality than a genuine statement of intent.
It was France’s monumental victory against the almighty All Blacks which now has the French rugby faithful (and quite a few impartial fans) salivating onto their blue Coq Sportif jerseys, a victory of such dynamism and intent as to rank in tandem with England’s relentless overturning of the most prized scalp in international rugby. The French will be talking about that one for a long, long time. They deserve to be.
The worrying thing for most other teams is looking at this French side and trying to find a weakness in their squad. From pacy wingers to silky ball-players, thumping locks and devastating front-rowers, France have once more managed to marry silk with stone to frightening effect. They also have by far and away from the most exciting, dynamic and devastating 9/10 pairing on the planet in the shape of Dupont and Ntamack. The latter’s run from his own in-goal area to round two players and nearly set up a score at the other end of the field was nothing short of unbelievable. Le Champagne Rugby.
Gone, too, are the cliches about the French attitude problems, the platitudes regarding uncertainty about ‘which French side will turn up’ consigned to a corner of French rugby history many fans will be happy to forget. Against New Zealand, the French turned the screw with intent, showing the greatest finishers in world rugby how to close out a game when the chips are down.
When on song, there are few, if any, better. Serious, serious contenders for the Six Nations and the 2023 World Cup.
Summary – France’s stunning victory against New Zealand may very well hail their emergence as one of the most dangerous forces around. How long that lasts, however, remains international rugby’s perennial question.
- 60-5 Japan
- 29-20 New Zealand
- 53-7 Argentina
Series Rating – 10/10
10/10 is a bold statement, I know, but how can you fault this Ireland side? Everything there was to get right, they got right. And then some. What a time this could be to follow the men in green.
60-5 against a decent Japan side is nothing to be sniffed at, but it’s Ireland perfectly executed victory against New Zealand which will go down in Irish rugby legend. For all the talk of their physicality and structure, it was the mental side of Ireland’s triumph which impressed most. Test rugby is about winning, about holding your nerve to get over the line in the tightest, most intense games in the calendar. As the Kiwis fell apart and their handling went to pot, Ireland made all the might moves at all the right times. A sublime couple of turnovers at the death will have had purists losing their minds with delight.
Ireland will be resigned to at some point losing one of their all-time greats in the form of Johnny Sexton, but like O’Driscoll, O’Gara, Best and O’Connell before him, what’s been so impressive has been their capacity to blood and integrate new talent at just the right time. Ireland’s back line is formidable, but the likes of Furlong, Beirne, Ryan, Doris and Conan in the pack could make them damn-near unstoppable. The present is bright, and so is the future.
What Ireland is doing so well right now is controlling games. At their best under Joe Schmidt, Ireland were the masters of structured rugby, dominating set-pieces, controlling the pack and then picking opponents off from the tee. They were tight, they were focused, and they were clinical. All of those characteristics, it seems, are back in spades.
Summary – Ireland barely put a foot wrong across their three hugely impressive Autumn Nations showings. Bringing such form into next year’s Six Nations will be their next challenge, but the signs right now seem very, very promising.
- 54-16 Wales
- 20-29 Ireland
- 25-40 France
Series Rating – 4/10
Losing two games back-to-back is, for most top sides, never a good thing. For a team with the reputation and expectations of the All Blacks, it’s nothing short of the sky falling in.
New Zealand just hasn’t looked itself of late. Despite a strong showing in the Rugby Championship, a competition in which New Zealand traditionally excel, there’s been something missing for the All Blacks since the passing of their two-time World Cup-winning golden generation and the subsequent departure of talismanic coach Steve Hansen. Simply put, the once-impenetrable aura of invincibility which pervaded New Zealand rugby has been punctured. The most iconic national side of all time has rarely looked so vulnerable.
A 54-16 hammering of Wales might’ve looked like a routine win but it now seems as though it was covering some serious cracks. Against Ireland, it was the men in green, not black, who had the mental fortitude and single-mindedness to close out the win, the Kiwis making uncharacteristic handling errors as they continued to fluff their lines. Just as New Zealand was forcing their way back into the game, a Peter O’Mahoney turnover from a glorious James Lowe tackle swung the game Ireland’s way, a rushed passage of play then gifting another penalty which Joey Carbery slotted seconds from time to give Ireland a stunning victory.
New Zealand’s astonishing tie against a fluid French team, meanwhile, saw the same strange errors creeping into the Kiwi game. With things poised at 30-25, David Havili’s rushed pass was intercepted by Damian Penaud and gifted the French a 12-point lead from which they couldn’t be reached, the All Blacks’ misery compounded by a late Jaminet penalty to give France 40 points to New Zealand’s 25.
The strange thing about these last two games is how they have flipped the conventional script of what one expects of a game involving New Zealand. So often the ultimate clutch rugby side, so often the ones stealing victory from the jaws of defeat, so often the team that simply didn’t know how to lose even when it was inconceivable for them to win, now it is the Kiwis themselves who are on the end of these late salvos, knockout blows and sickening gut-punches.
Summary – Something has gone seriously awry for the All Blacks, especially when one holds them to their astronomically high standards. For a team that expects to win every single game they play, this year’s Autumn Series can be seen as a little short of an abject disaster. Their worst season in 12 years has alarm bells ringing.
- 15-54 New Zealand
- 18-23 South Africa
- 38-23 Fiji
- 29-28 Australia
Series Rating – 5.5/10
A very odd campaign all around for Wales.
Odd primarily due to the fact that the Dragons barely played a game in which their opponents fielded a full contingent of players for the entire 80. Laulala was binned in the 38th for a rampant New Zealand, with Nche suffering the same fate for the victorious Springboks. Against Fiji, however, the Pacific Islanders played 60 minutes with 14 men following a red card for Eroni Sau, while the Wallabies’ Valetini was sent packing after just 14 minutes in a game Wales only scraped by a single point. The amount of time Wales played against a side, not at their full strength was pushing 150 minutes.
The hypotheticals and what-ifs are somewhat academic. It’s impossible to know how Wales would’ve fared against sides at full strength, but one suspects that edging out games against depleted teams isn’t the most encouraging of signs. It’s also not hugely helpful in gauging how your team is shaping up for the near future.
Either way, few could be truly convinced by the Welsh campaign. Yes, this is a side very much in transition and looking for permanent solutions in a number of areas, with question marks raised over whether they have the requisite quality and depth at scrum-half, in the centres and at backup fly-half. With Wales slipping to eighth in the world rankings behind Scotland, it seems that this year’s Six Nations will be a defining one for Wayne Pivac.
Summary – The results are just about ok on paper, but demanding Welsh fans will hope these games are stepping stones to greater things rather than a team already straining at the limits of their potential.
- 60-14 Tonga
- 15-13 – Australia
- 15-30 South Africa
Series Rating – 7/10
Hard, as ever, to judge.
Beating a country with the population of a medium-sized town should be a matter of routine, but a victory against Australia will go down as a genuine scalp, especially for those of us who remember Scotland’s controversial exit from the World Cup at the hands of the Wallabies in 2015.
So often, Scotland plays well for a large majority of a game and still end up losing. Their talent may be exceptional, but their game management is often completely non-existent. Against South Africa, the Scots blasted out of the traps, led going into the first half, and then allowed the Boks to squeeze the life out of them through inadequate wide defensive cover, gifting of penalties and an inability to control the momentum of the game. Good teams know how to play well. Great teams know how to win even when they don’t.
My issue with Scotland is their mentality. They came fourth in last year’s Six Nations but heralded the result as some sort of positive from which they could build. But for what is essentially a golden generation of Scottish talent, shouldn’t the standards be set higher? Shouldn’t players like Finn Russell, Hamish Watson and Stuart Hogg end their international careers with some sort of major championship silverware? Yes, Scotland were facing the world champions. But if they want to be a genuine force on the world stage, they should be as devastated by the result as England, New Zealand or Australia would be at the same hands.
Still, there are always reasons to be positive. Pierre Schoeman and Ewan Ashman, the latter of whom scored with an exceptional finish against Australia, were the standout performers at a time when Townsend looked to introduce a raft of new players. Let’s be honest, two out of three ain’t bad anyway.
Summary – A decent showing from the Scots despite an understandable defeat to a superb Springboks side. The question, as ever, is where are this talented group ultimately headed?
- 23-18 Wales
- 30-15 Scotland
- 26-27 England
Series Rating – 7.5 /10
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. South Africa will share the mentality of their Rugby Championship rivals New Zealand in knowing that only the best will do, holding themselves to nearly the same stratospheric standard as the most successful rugby nation of all time. A harsh assessment of this year’s Autumn campaign is only reflective of the expectation which they themselves will place on their post-World Cup performances.
A 23-18 victory against Wales might not have set the world alight, but against Scotland, the Springboks’ DNA was laid out most starkly. Despite going behind in the first half, the world champions played their unplayable game to maximum effect come the second, overloading the wings to allow Mapimpi a clean run to score, dominating the set pieces, jackling the breakdown and kicking the skin off the ball whenever given the chance. Poor old Scotland was simply starved out of the game.
A conquest of Twickenham might have been a bridge too far, but South Africa might allow themselves to take solace in the face that against England they were utterly dominant in the second half, the hosts haemorrhaging penalty after penalty as the Boks’ bomb squad dominated the scrum and the visitors benefitted by slotting penalty after penalty. Slade’s glorious delayed pass which sent Joe Marchant through to set up Raffi Quirke was by no means undeserved, but it could hardly be said to have been true to the run of the second half’s momentum. Losing captain Siya Kolisi for a clumsy mid-air tackle on Marchant hardly helped matters as the clock ran down and Marcus Smith collected the winning points. As Danny Care rightly pointed out, things could’ve been very, very different.
Summary – A solid showing, but South Africa have to accept they are the most prized scalp in rugby. With things so nearly going their way against England, we could be sitting here hailing the world champions as utterly deserving of their lofty position. As it is, they’re still one hell of a force to be reckoned with, especially at the scrum.