The Spring internationals are upon us after nearly three years of World Cup and pandemic disruption.
Earlier in 2021, the Six Nations was a cracking tournament, with four of the six teams playing out gripping and close encounters.
All teams will be stronger depth-wise with the Home Nations blooding plenty of new caps in their mid-year internationals.
Since then, the Springboks have defeated the British and Irish Lions, which adds spice to the end-of-year tour, while the All Blacks comfortably won the Rugby Championship.
Australia, meanwhile, seem buoyant and much more of a well-drilled outfit with the return of veterans like Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper.
Argentina are in a bit of a gutter with plenty of class and muscle, but a damaged morale partly due to playing away from home for so long.
Fixtures: Tonga, Australia and South Africa
Eddie Jones has revamped his coaching staff and finally introduced some much-demanded new faces into camp. Marcus Smith, Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt, who were the three best players in the Premiership last season, are named in England’s training camp.
The training camp is not the finalised squad for November, but injury permitting, these faces will likely feature come then. Big names such as Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and George Ford have been omitted from the squad, and it is fascinating to see whether they will be back.
Eddie Jones understands coaching cycles perfectly and knows now is the time to build for France 2023.
In similar fashion to winter campaigns in 2018-19 when he dropped some mainstays of the dressing room, omitting such key members from the 2019 World Cup is a mirror image. Freddie Steward, Adam Radwan and Joe Marchant add aerial dominance, flair and lightning speed to the back line, in tandem with Marcus Smith’s unpredictability.
England will aim for three from three wins, but before that, they need to see what is their best line-up. Can Smith and Owen Farrell form a ten-12 axis? Given Farrell’s form and familiarity with Ford, it may seem a while before they become an established combination.
Dombrandt also seems the front runner for number eight given Jones’ preference of a bigger back rower to accommodate kamikaze kids Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
Lock and centre are the areas England need to build on with Courtney Lawes unlikely to be at France at the age of 34, Manu Tuilagi’s unreliable injury record and Ollie Lawrence’s failure to make his mark. They are the only areas of concern for Jones.
George Martin and Ted Hill are the big units Eddie loves and I would like to see them given opportunities at lock. Joe Marchant, Dan Kelly and Lawrence should all be given game time at 12 or 13 to see if England have a crash ball or athletic answer to Tuilagi’s presence at midfield.
If Tuilagi does not play Kerevi on November 13, it will be interesting to see who does and who can contain him.
Fixtures: Japan, Scotland, England, Wales
Dave Rennie’s men are on a serious roll given the fairly comfortable displays against world champions South Africa and a struggling Argentina.
Australia played with an absence of white-line fever and look extremely well drilled and understanding of their game plan. Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s returns have allowed the back line to improve massively, with Andrew Kellaway and Len Ikitau flawless.
Rennie will now be very happy with his depth in many areas as they build for France 2023, they have enough depth in the back row and front row for instance, and a seemingly established centre partnership.
Locking stocks are going fine with Izack Rodda and Matt Philip anchoring the lineout, but they will be beefed up with Rory Arnold and Will Skelton returning.
Fullback and flyhalf are perhaps the only area of concern with Noah Lolesio not really showing signs of adaptation against the All Blacks. Tom Banks hasn’t been too bad, but he is injured.
Rennie will be aiming for four from four. Two from four is adequate for a good year of building for the Wallabies. Japan should not be taken lightly, but I imagine they will prevail.
Twickenham away will be tough given their record, but England are perhaps at their most vulnerable. Cardiff and Edinburgh are venues with good Aussie memories, but they will likely be 50-50 matches.
They look a united and well-oiled machine now, especially with many players like Rob Valetini, Taniela Tupou and Pete Samu for instance learning by example from the best player and number seven in the world right now, Michael Hooper.
Fixtures: USA, Wales, Italy, Ireland, France
Rugby Championship winners New Zealand may be left with a bitter taste after defeat to the Boks, but they are still an incredibly tough team to beat.
They travel well and have only lost to Ireland of any recent end-of-year tour. The All Blacks don’t have many areas of worry. The lineout, the need for a big 12 and depth at lock are the only ones.
The rest are going near-perfect with immense depth in the back line and back row. Sam Whitelock’s return should arrest lineout errors and virtually every lineout will be challenged against South Africa.
The bigger issues of concern are now with David Havili, who has been one of the standout All Blacks this year. He is an awesome footballer: swift, agile and has a very sound and composed kicking game. His connection with Richie Mo’unga allows New Zealand to almost play a ten-12 axis due to him.
But the issue around him is not him as an individual, but more on team balance. Havili’s only issue is his size and physicality. Although untroubled by Kerevi, he struggled when coming up against the beefy Springboks pack and the Damian de Allende-Lukhanyo Am combo.
When his pack is going back, Havili may be unfair scapegoat. Teams take advantage of their mismatches against him. Havili should feature in the USA, Italy and Wales games for sure.
I’m not saying he should not in the France and Ireland games, but look at his opposite numbers: Robbie Henshaw, Virimi Vakatawa, Bundee Aki and potentially Jonathan Danty and even Willis Halaholo could be running at his channel.
It is up for Ian Foster to decide whether he wants to risk the playmaker against them. There are minimal solutions for a crash baller at 12. Perhaps Akira Ioane could be given a go?
Elsewhere, locking stocks will be deprived with Patrick Tuipulotu and Scott Barrett staying home. Tupou Vaa’i should be given more than just a start against Italy and the US if the All Blacks want to really build a forward pack for France.
Although the All Blacks are stacked with back-row options, there is no clear holder of the six jersey. It is becoming regular talk, but the All Blacks supposedly have a soft underbelly.
They maybe do not have the sheer mongrel at six like the Saffers, Irish and English really possess or the sheer size of the French.
When the game is open, the All Blacks school everyone. When it is cold, rainy and horrible northern weather or a big occasion on a neutral ground, opposition teams dig into the lineout and lack of a physical presence.
Scott Barrett at six is not the long-term solution, so his non-selection provides plenty of opportunity for Foster’s men to trial new blood.
Perhaps a good headache to have is who captains the side? The returning Sam Cane will have Ardie Savea, Brodie Retallick and Whitelock to contest with.
Adding Aaron Smith, Codie Taylor, Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett to the mix, there is no lack of experience or leadership.
They will naturally aim for five from five wins. But do not be surprised if an All Blacks scalp is claimed in Dublin or Paris.