Who will step up in the Autumn Internationals?

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    England celebrate their win over Australia in their 2nd Rugby Union test match at ANZ Stadium, Sydney, June 19, 2010. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins

    The Autumn Internationals take on an added hue of colour this year as the European teams, as well as Argentina, Samoa and Fiji, look to see how far they’ve traveled under the new law interpretations compared to their experienced SANZAR colleagues.

    And it’s always good preparation for the Six Nations in the New Year, which looks likely to be one of the most hotly contested championships for some time.

    By the look of this year’s Tri Nations, the signs are promising for the host nations to grab some psychological bragging points.

    Only New Zealand look the real deal with their end of year tour seeking to match their clean sweep of their SH brethren. Australia and South Africa are the more likely targets for getting some points on the win register. Argentina, Samoa and Fiji are likely to be in the mix as well.

    Who knows if France will have the wobbles or Wallabies on their minds when they meet up in the final game of the tour. First, they’ll be focusing on Fiji and Argentina.

    No doubt the French will be planning some revenge for their disastrous tour to South America in the summer, and given they know most of the Argentine team from their club rugby each week, it should be a tasty and tempestuous affair. Argentina can run with the ball when they want to as they showed in their last match against France.

    Felipe Contemponi will likely set the pace for this one, if he plays.

    England play New Zealand first up. The Hong Kong dead rubber on the previous week against Australia will have little bearing on the outcome. A loss against the Wallabies will see the All Black unbeaten run record broken.

    And the All Blacks seeking revenge as a result. Or a likely win for the men in black, and the All Blacks juggernaut rolls on – nearly unstoppable – into London. Neither result is a heartening prospect for MJ and the team.

    Still Johnson has taken to making some more positive chest-beating noises of late, claiming that England’s players are up for the task in terms of fitness and stamina. The Premiership has certainly been enlivened this season with tries flowing in most matches. Whether they have the skill set to match is the challenge, he believes.

    Of their four matches – Australia, Samoa and South Africa are the others – Johnson could be targeting this one for a result. With the All Blackss reported as saying they want a real match against England this time – a wind-up comment that should have every red-blooded English player on his toes.

    Wales need a win – badly. Australia at the Millennium will be their first task. After their June hammerings by the All Blacks, some Welsh pride needs to be restored in the team and Warren Gatland has a long road to travel towards the World Cup next year to deliver some welsh wizardry. If WC pools work out as many predict, the Wallabies are who they’ll face in the quarter-finals. The Welsh clubs have been running hot and cold in the Magners to date, and there mightn’t be enough time to get them gelling for this first match.

    Scotland wrecked one Grand Slam tour last season, and a Triple Crown. Andy Robinson will be looking to build on their successful Argentina tour by bloodying the noses of another Grand Slam hopeful. South Africa’s recent tours up north have been less than domineering given their IRB ranking and Tri Nations’ success last year. Peter de Villers is a coach under a lot of pressure, and with signs that a less than full Bok squad will once again tour up north, he shouldn’t be surprised if the Boks come unstuck again. It may not happen at Murrayfield, but the chances of them working through the Home Nations with four wins out of four are slight.

    The Boks face Ireland at the revamped Lansdowne Road, and the Irish will be mindful of making the inaugural test for the new stadium a memorable one and keeping South Africa 0 from 4 at home.

    Whilst Declan Kidney will no doubt want to name his strongest squad for the match, if he’s picking on form then the Leinster squad may have a lot of time on their hands or continue playing Magners club rugby in November. At the moment, only Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy (out of necessity) would make the team. Ulster (4th in league) and a resurgent Connacht (5th) would have better claims to complement the usual rump from Munster who lead the Celtic/Italian league unbeaten after first four matches.

    On their current form, Munster should be able to put out a strong side for one of Australia’s midweek matches which promises to be a humdinger in Thomond Park.

    Fiji and Samoa have set themselves up to play three test matches each. If both sides can get their full complement of players released from their clubs, these matches could have a lot of attractions. Wales are one of Fiji’s pool opponents next September, and both sides will be looking to lay down a marker when they meet in the only Friday night test match in round three. Wales will already have played another pool opponent in South Africa the previous week. Victories here would put a fair wind in their sails for the Six Nations in February.

    Samoa no doubt will be targeting the Irish front row when they meet up. Whether Ireland, without long-term injured Paul O’Connell and Leo Cullen, will be able to stand up remains a critical question for their success in the 6N and the World Cup. They’ll arrive battered and bruised from their opening encounter with the Boks.

    Italy will be looking to take their measure of World Cup pool opponent, Australia, in the third round. Presumably, their team will be more full of Treviso players rather than Aironi given their respective performances in the Magners League. Treviso have already pulled off two surprising but well earned victories, including hapless Leinster. Showing a willingness to run with the ball might rescue this match from being a mismatch between grunting forwards and a fleet-footed Wallaby backline who could run riot.

    All in all, with 22 ‘friendly’ tests involving the top 12 teams in the world, the November Internationals promise a feast of rugby – and some surprises – before they all meet up again in New Zealand in 12 months time.

    November Schedule:
    Sat, 6 Nov Wales v Australia
    Sat, 6 Nov Ireland v South Africa
    Sun, 7 Nov England v New Zealand
    Sat, 13 Nov Wales v South Africa
    Sat, 13 Nov Scotland v New Zealand
    Sat, 13 Nov Ireland v Samoa
    Sat, 13 Nov Italy v Argentina
    Sat, 13 Nov France v Fiji
    Sun, 14 Nov England v Australia
    Tue, 16 Nov Munster v Australia
    Fri, 19 Nov Wales v Fiji
    Sat, 20 Nov Italy v Australia
    Sat, 20 Nov Ireland v New Zealand
    Sat, 20 Nov Scotland v South Africa
    Sat, 20 Nov France v Argentina
    Sun, 21 Nov England v Samoa
    Sat, 27 Nov France v Australia
    Sat, 27 Nov Italy v Fiji
    Sat, 27 Nov Scotland v Samoa
    Sat, 27 Nov Wales v New Zealand
    Sat, 27 Nov Ireland v Argentina
    Sun, 28 Nov England v South Africa

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