This is always an exciting time of year if you are a rugby fan. Over the next four weeks the southern and northern hemispheres will do battle in the Autumn Internationals; significantly so with the Rugby World Cup just a year away.
Sadly a fractured eye socket has ruled out NRL superstar Sam Burgess donning the England shirt as he prepares to make the most intriguing of code switches. In the interim, we have Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter to welcome back to British and European shores.
Indeed, the All Blacks appear to be in rude health at the moment with yet another Rugby Championship under their belt. They are in better form than in the lead up to their 2011 triumph and they continue to unearth more gems to blend in with the gnarled excellence of Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith. Julian Savea is surely poised to be the pin up boy in 2015. The All Blacks are not quite perfect just yet however. South Africa downed them in Cape Town and the Wallabies should have held on in the Brisbane thriller a couple of weeks ago.
This leads us to the problem child of rugby, Australia. For 70 minutes they were magnificent against the All Blacks in Brisbane. They released the shackles with a dazzling display of intensity and skill to build a lead they should never have relinquished. This last minute defeat capped a tough couple of weeks for the Wallabies with the departure of coach Ewen McKenzie that has left more questions than answers. Not to mention the continued controversy surrounding the infuriatingly talented Kurtley Beale. They have the talent out wide with Israel Folau and Tevita Kuridrani to the fore with the likely inclusion of a rehabilitated James O`Connor to further bolster their ranks. Michael Hooper is turning out to be a fine captain but it will require all of his youthful energy to keep his mutinous troops grounded and concentrating on rugby.
The conditioning and fitness of the players needs to be looked at given that Australia have let leads slip late against the Springboks in South Africa and in Brisbane against the All Blacks. With knock out games and a murderously difficult group in the World Cup to contend with, the Wallabies must get their house in order.
South Africa`s last minute win over the All Blacks was vital to restore belief in the Republic that they can back up their 2007 triumph. Strangely, it seems to be the backs that are showing consistent form rather than their more traditional forward strength, which we have come to relish from South Africa. Willie Le Roux, Cornal Hendricks and Handre Pollard are the new kids on the block and have been injecting enthusiasm into the ageing legs of De Villiers and Habana. Up front, Duane Vermulen has been outstanding but other well-known names are struggling. There is uncertainty on who should start between Bismarck Du Plessis or Strauss, both of whom are world class. Heyneke Meyer has made a big call in bringing back veterans Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and Victor Matfield with the World Cup just 12 months away – and at what cost to talents like Eben Etzebeth?
So what has the North got to offer? Every year there is hope in the municipality that Wales will rise above an encouraging performance or two to gain a win.
On the face of it, Wales should be in their prime. They have many players with 30 or more caps to their name, a lot of whom were part of the successful Lions tour in 2013. The rich coffers of French money have left a number of leading players like Dan Lydiate not even in the match day squad for their club. The Welsh authorities have their hands full trying to keep tabs on the form of the French based players and the stuttering performance of the Welsh regions in Europe. The pressure is on.
England flattered to deceive in New Zealand during the summer but showed that on their day and with a bit of fine-tuning, they can beat anyone. Stuart Lancaster has quite quietly gone about building a competitive squad with options in every position. Players like Joe Launchbury, Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola are now world class but the question is whether the World Cup has come a year or so early. With home advantage they will crucially have games against the Wallabies and Wales at Twickenham in the Cup`s group of death.
With Brian O`Driscoll now retired, a lot of Ireland`s hopes will rest upon Jonathan Sexton and Paul O`Connell this autumn. The untimely injuries to Sean O`Brien and Cian Healy are concerns given that Ireland need all of their experienced players fit. The Irish cannot just rely on forward power alone. O`Driscoll`s enduring brilliance is now gone and therefore the backline shorn of their key playmaker. They have South Africa and Australia coming to town and must target one win out of those fixtures to build belief that life after O`Driscoll is possible.
I can`t see Scotland challenging the big guns over the next month simply because they struggle to score tries against their neighbours let alone the might of the southern hemisphere. The pack will be competitive but apart from the exciting Stuart Hogg in the backs there doesn`t seem to be much of a threat. Vern Cotter, the new Scotland coach, is well respected and not afraid to make big decisions but this autumn will probably pose more challenges than wins.
We leave France to last. Quite simply we have no idea how Les Bleus will go in November. When they are good, they are exceptional but all too rarely. Philippe Saint-Andre has continued the bizarre selection policies of his predecessor Mark Livremont. Ignoring probably the best fly half in Europe in Francois Trinh-Duc in favour of the injury prone and inconsistent Freddy Michalak has mystified many. The bloated riches of the Top 14 have meant that foreigners have replaced homegrown players. We said that France had no chance in 2011 and yet they made the final. You don`t know what you are going to get from them and that is what makes them so thrilling to watch.
Here is hoping that one of Wales, Ireland or Scotland can defeat a team from the southern hemisphere. Northern hemisphere credibility needs it. England is a chance to turn over a tiring All Blacks team and I have a feeling that Wales might (sorry to say, readers) just finally overcome their Australian nightmare.
I look forward to seeing SBW and DC rekindle their genius alongside the immense talents of Willie Le Roux, Julian Savea and Israrel Folau. Look out also for Kyle Eastmond who is beginning to show early comparisons with Jason Robinson. Amongst the youngsters, Stuart Hogg, George North and Conor Murray are all a year older and have the rugby world at their feet.
It should be cracking month of rugby.
IMAGE: Wallabies player Michael Hooper in action during the International match between Wales and Australia’S Wallabies at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images – 2013)