It’s been a variable international season for our teams, but with The Rugby Championship now behind us, the respective Spring Tours – the Autumn Internationals once we land in the north – present the last opportunity to salvage whatever we need our teams to show us in 2021.
Of course, the schedule is far from consistent. The All Blacks head to the US this weekend for the first of five games in consecutive weeks. The Wallabies are in Japan for a week, then have a fortnight to get ready for three straight games against the Brits.
The Springboks and Los Pumas don’t start for another few weeks yet, before they also rip into games on three consecutive weekends, splitting the Six Nations between them.
So, what do we need to see? What’s going to constitute a pass mark on tour?
The tour shapes as a mini–World Cup for the All Blacks; three gimme ‘pool matches’ (Wales are compromised by restrictions on selection) before the heavy hitters at the end.
The All Blacks will expect 5 from 5 and I think that’s realistic. But playing in Dublin and Paris are never easy; dropping one match (either one) wouldn’t surprise.
Are the Wallabies ready to win eight matches in succession? I don’t think so, but there’s no reason why they won’t go close. England is the obvious stumbling block, although if the Wallabies play like they did on their last visit to Cardiff, that one is vulnerable too.
I’ll go for 3-1, which would represent a very useful year for a developing side.
I’ve been thinking from probably since the Wallabies beat South Africa back-to-back that this Spring Tour represents a real opportunity for some scalps, and I haven’t really changed my mind since.
I do think Australia can win all four games; they’re certainly good enough and are playing well enough currently to do that. Realistically speaking, coming on the end of a long season, one loss seems likely or even probable.
Injuries in and around England’s camp mean that maybe Scotland and Wales are the danger games, rather than England and Wales. I’m sure they’d be looking no further ahead than Scotland anyway, and that’s not to suggest Japan won’t be the absolutely right amount of attention this week.
Momentum was what helped push the Wallabies through the back-end of the domestic season, and it’s exactly what they be looking to build as quickly as possible on this tour.
And who knows, if they could get to Cardiff unbeaten, then maybe that little extra boost of adrenaline and confidence could get the job done?
Los Pumas should escape this tour with a 1-2 record.
The game with Italy is the one that they should win for sure, since losing with a toned France in Paris and against Ireland where they have never won should not be anything strange.
My concern is not about the results, but rather about the form. Losing games against the top ten is not unusual for Los Pumas, but there are ways and means to lose.
In the last Rugby Championship, we have seen a team without a scrum, without a lineout, and a tight but very permeable defence. An undisciplined team in attack as well as in defence and with very few ideas every time they had the ball in their possession.
I would settle for an improvement in the set piece to have quality balls to develop a more offensive game.
My prediction will be four from five for the All Blacks and I think it will be the French that are likely to topple NZ.
I expect the Irish to be fired up and really come at us after the disappointing World Cup quarter-final in 2019, and with only six days between Dublin and a resurgent French side in Paris, it will be very hard work indeed for the All Blacks to get through all five games unscathed.
Wales are the reigning Six Nations champs, of course, and should not be taken lightly, but they are likely to be understrength and I simply cannot see the US or Italy mounting a decent challenge.
Games four and five promise to make or break NZ’s tour.
Three wins for the Boks, but I predict the Welsh match will be the toughest and closest.
Gregor Townsend will try to get the Scots to show what he wanted to play like on the Lions tour, but it’ll be a happy match for South African backs. England will play like the Lions, but fail to Pierce the Russian Umbrella D.
Wales play like the Wallabies. And they play the Boks like they know they can win, because they have, a lot, recently!
But just missed kicks and tackles cost the mentally weary Boks three Tests in the Rugby Championship. After a good rest and forced rotation, I think those same issues will favour South Africa. Tidy goalkicking and brutally effective tackling on slower fields than the Queensland launch pads; a good tour beckons.
Four losses in a Lions-beating year isn’t terrible, although three of them were self-inflicted (like Rassie Erasmus’ impending ban), so they hurt more.
The recent absence of Sam Whitelock has demonstrated that All Blacks need more output at lock. I’m looking for Tupou Vaa’i to assert himself as the preferred bench option, log some serious game time, and take a big step forward.
Rob Valetini has enjoyed a strong season for the Wallabies, but isn’t yet well known in the northern hemisphere.
This tour is an opportunity for him to take another step up and stamp his name as an elite back rower. The consistency is there, I’ll be looking for a few more ‘wow’ moments, both in defence and on the carry.
I’m really interested to see what Will Skelton can produce if given the chance to pull on a Wallabies jersey again.
I only very loosely keep track of Australian players once they head north, usually via highlights clips or something, but for Skelton, I have to confess I’ve not seen a minute of him since he left all those years ago.
So not unlike Sean McMahon, I’m interested to see if everything being written about Will Skelton is true.
What I am pleased about is that at least in Skelton’s case, what is being written about him is based on interviews with current and former coaches in England and France. What is being written about him at least seems to have some element of recency about him, and isn’t or wasn’t based on five-year-old memories, as was the case for McMahon.
I’m interested to see if he looks like he wants to resurrect his international career, or whether this is just a little three-week bonus and he’ll just go through the motions.
And I’m absolutely intrigued to see how Dave Rennie can shoehorn him into a pretty well-performing forward pack, and whether his inclusion – either starting or from the bench – causes any significant imbalance.
No player has been named yet for the tour, so I cannot answer the question.
Rather than players or an individual, I will be most interested in the All Blacks’ loose forward mix and lineout in particular.
The addition of both Coles, Whitelock and Sam Cane (assuming fitness for all) will clearly lift the standard but I am unconvinced that those two areas will improve with the strategies and selections in the loose so far.
I will be closely watching whoever gets picked at No.8 during this tour as this is the key position the All Blacks need to resolve.
I’ll be watching for new back three players. Warrick Gelant, Aphelele Fassi, and “old-young” Damian Willemse should get a look.
With the uncomfortable reality being Willie le Roux is hitting the age wall, but also still being crucial to Bok try manufacture, we need to see who can play from the back, big, safe, yet inventive.
OVER TO YOU: What’s your Spring Tour prediction for your team?
And which one player from your team will you be keeping an eye on?