Autumn internationals: Ireland v New Zealand; England v Japan; Scotland v South Africa

The Autumn Internationals move into a third week
The Autumn Internationals move into a third week

Have you got your breath back from last weekend's stunning Saturday of rugby? Are you over Sam Underhill's controversial ruled out try? Do you finally believe Wales really did beat Australia?

Well get over all that, because we all have to refocus and reload for another intriguing weekend of Autumn International rugby, as our home nations build on two week's of success and positive progression.

Later in the week I'll have my best best for the weekend, once we know the team selections, but for now let's take an early look at how the weekend's clashes could go.

Ireland v New Zealand

Ireland celebrate their only ever victory over New Zealand back in 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago
Ireland celebrate their only ever victory over New Zealand back in 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago

Not just the game of the weekend, nor of the Autumn International series. This is the game of the year. The best two teams in the world, the most complete packages on the international stage, who have both enjoyed incredible 2018's.

If the World Cup was now, these are the teams you'd want in the final and this is why this one is so big. After Saturday we will really know if Ireland are the real deal for World Cup success, and the rest of the world will know whether New Zealand are vulnerable or invincible.

A 'mixed' Ireland pulled off a comfortable win over Italy, before labouring to victory over a fired-up, Test-hardened Argentina.

As I predicted last week, it was no surprise Joe Schmidt's side started slowly in that one, with their rested stars taking their time to rev up to Test top gear - it turns out there is a downside to too much rest for rugby players!


Ireland v New Zealand Sky Bet odds

  • Ireland win: 13/8
  • Draw: 20/1
  • New Zealand win: 4/9

But they showed their fight, character, class and strength in depth to pull off a ultimately healthy 28-17 victory over Los Pumas. It showed the confidence and belief they have in each other no matter what problems they face. Like England in 2013, they know how to dig themselves out of a hole when not playing well.

Many felt the performance was a step backwards. I disagree. Ireland have cleverly managed the workload of their stars, and built up the intensity of their opponents over the last two weeks - they should be ready to peak this week.

I'm also excited to see how young lock James Ryan, so impressive against Argentina, performs against the mighty Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.

What of the World Champions? Well, England proved two contradictory facts last week. One, there are ways to get passed, rattle, and beat New Zealand. Two, even when you find a way to win it doesn't mean you will actually be victorious - the All Blacks always find a way.

Ireland have only ever beaten Steve Hansen's side once in their history - in 2016 in America - they've never done it on Irish soil. This is their best chance to achieve that feat. So how will Ireland do it?


Ireland fixtures

  • November 3: Italy (in Chicago): Won 54-7
  • November 10: Argentina: Won 28-17
  • November 17: New Zealand
  • November 24: United States

This will hurt Irish fans - but they have to copy the English model from that dramatic Twickenham clash. Throw everything at them early in both halves, taking as many points as possible in the opening 15 of both. Use your big men to smash the ball in close and suck their defenders in, then get the ball out wide quickly and exploit the space. Also get in their faces at the breakdown and keep the penalties down.

Injuries and a poor 2018 meant England just lacked the strength in depth, game management and confidence to see out what would have been a deserved win. Ireland have no such problems or excuses - they have everything England lacked to see that game through.

Ironically, however, Schmidt also knows the Kiwis will be that much tougher to beat now, after that close call by England. New Zealand will have worked harder to solve their vulnerabilities, the one's Ireland will have spent the last month working on to take advantage.

But I think Hansen's outfit are physically and mentally tiring and with a passionate Irish crowd and a more reliable goal kicker, history can be made on Saturday with a famous home nation's win.

England v Japan

Despite defeat England's form is on the upturn after their showing against New Zealand
Despite defeat England's form is on the upturn after their showing against New Zealand

After last week's drama and disappointment we should be in for a more straightforward, calmer affair this weekend at Twickenham, but it's not without it's intriguing points.

For starters it will be interesting what lineup Eddie Jones picks. Injuries mean his choices are limited, but will he rest some of his key players and give others a chance or keeping their good momentum going with a full strength side?

Secondly, I'm excited to see how much Japan have progressed since 2015 and how strong they really are 10 months ahead of hosting their first World Cup.

Next we have the fact Jones faces a country so close to his heart. Japan are the nation of his mother and the one he guided to the most famous World Cup shock of all time, when they beat South Africa in Brighton in 2015.

No such shock will be on the cards on Saturday, despite Japan's current confidence and development.


England v Japan Sky Bet Odds

  • England win: 1/150
  • Draw: 66/1
  • Japan win: 25/1

They've beaten Italy and Georgia since June, and they did fight hard and score plenty of points in a 69-31 defeat to a second string New Zealand last time out. Remember this time last year they drew 23 all with France in Paris too!

They have a good kicking game, are strong defensively and have good young players coming though. They are also a confident squad, something that has clearly wound up Jones, who said this week the Brave Blossoms should "Go to the temple and pray because we're going to be absolutely ruthless."

Jones plans to physically dominate the visitors, vowing to "smash them" and this could be the perfect game for Manu Tuilagi to return in the centres after two years out of International rugby. However, Jones seems to have suggested this week he may still err on the side of caution with the Leicester Tiger.


England fixtures

  • November 3 - South Africa: Won 12-11
  • November 10 - New Zealand: lost 15-16
  • November 17 - Japan
  • November 24 - Australia

So I wonder if England could actually be less physical in the backs, despite Jones' claim.

Surely Owen Farrell is too priceless to field in this game, making way for the more creative but less physical George Ford. With Ben Te'o's injury history, maybe a break for him would be beneficial, with Alex Lozowski and/or Henry Slade getting more game time in the centres.

There could be a potential debut for the impressive Bath winger Joe Cokanasiga too, who would add the power the inside three may lack.

Despite last week's defeat it has been a great and positive Autumn series so far for England, and while they won't want to come unstuck here, they know finishing strongly next week with a win over Australia must happen, and preparations for that must be considered in selection for this one.

Expect Japan to throw everything at England in the first half, and the Red Rose might not be fully clicking if they do make numerous changes. So it could be closer than you think at half time, with England fully advancing in the second period.

Scotland v South Africa

Scotland's last victory over South Africa came in 2010 at Murrayfield
Scotland's last victory over South Africa came in 2010 at Murrayfield

Now this is a tough one to call. South Africa have vastly improved over the course of 2018 and they are further down their development pathway than Scotland, so, in my opinion, are the better team currently.

However, Scotland at Fortress Murrayfield are an aggressive, entertaining, almost unbeatable outfit. They've lost just twice in two years at home - to Australia in 2016 and New Zealand 12 months ago.

History though is against Scotland, they've beaten the Springboks just twice in the professional era - 2002 and 2010 - both in Edinburgh. Down the years South Africa have always been too strong, too aggressive, too powerful, too mean for the Scottish to handle.

But Wales proved last week that this is the time to end those long-standing Southern Hemisphere hoodoos.


Scotland v South Africa Sky Bet odds

  • Scotland win: 13/8
  • Draw: 20/1
  • South Africa win: 4/9

South Africa have already lost to England this Autumn, and had to score a stoppage time try in Paris to beat the French 29-26 last weekend.

Their performance was better than their English loss suggests, and they demonstrated great belief and power to come from 23-9 down to beat France. But the hosts could be accused of blowing that contest, rather than the tourists actually winning it.

As an impressive but developing side, South Africa have flaws and inconsistencies that have been exposed in their two European games so far. England showed in the summer's third Test and at Twickenham that you can disrupt their game plan and blunt their attack with aggressive defensive line speed.


Scotland fixtures

  • November 3: Scotland (in Cardiff): Lost 21-10
  • November 10: Fiji: Won 54-17
  • November 17: South Africa
  • November 24: Argentina

Scotland have been building nicely to this match, after blowing away Fiji last time out. Gregor Townsend's men also have flaws and will concede tries to the Boks, which makes this a close call.

What impressed me against Fiji was Scotland's composure, patience and ruthlessness. When Fiji smashed them, scored tries, even took the lead, the Scots never panicked. They stuck to their game plan, kept belief in their processes and waited for the opponents to crack.

When they did, Scotland ruthlessly took advantage and what I liked was their will to play to the last whistle of both halves, not giving Fiji a break or inch of remorse - this is new for Scotland!

I also feel Rassie Erasmus' side look to have played their 'cup finals' with their summer Test series victory over England and a second place finish in the Rugby Championship, which included a win over New Zealand.

This Autumn Tour, despite decent performances, looks a case of 'after the Lord Mayor's show' for the Springboks, as they start to burn out. The last two Tests have gone to the last second, so must have drained them, and I suspect they will also considered the Wales game next week harder and more important.

So I'd also expect them to make changes for Murrayfield, which could really play into the hands of the men in blue.


Wales v Tonga

Wales know they must build and improve on their victory over Australia over the next two weeks
Wales know they must build and improve on their victory over Australia over the next two weeks

Wales got the win over Australia they so desperately craved. After 10 years of waiting and 13 failed attempts, the Red Dragon finally defeated the Green and Gold.

It was a dull, scrappy game with both knowing they can produce better. But Saturday wasn't about brilliant rugby, it was about mental barriers and shifting hemisphere power.


Wales v Tonga Sky Bet Odds

  • Wales Win: 1/33
  • Draw: 20/1
  • Tonga win: 10/1

Wales have finally got one leg over the final mental hurdle that will make or break their World Cup charge - knowing they can beat the Southern Hemisphere nations consistently. If they beat South Africa next week, that barrier will be fully removed.

For Australia that defeat confirmed their troubles and the fact they now rate as the sixth best side in world rugby, with Argentina close to pushing them to seven.

Wales' team selection will be interesting here. Tonga, a second tier nation, will be powerful and physical, but they will be beaten no matter which XV start the game.

But do Wales change their side to protect their best players for the South African Test and also give their excellent fringe players more time?


Wales fixtures

  • November 3: Scotland: Won 21-10
  • November 10: Australia: Won 9-6
  • November 17: Tonga
  • November 24: South Africa

That would be the obvious, fair and sensible option, but I don't think they can afford to lose momentum now, especially after such a scrappy, disjointed performance against Australia.

They must learn from their mistake last year. After facing the Wallabies, and just losing again, Wales made 14 changes to face Georgia. In a woeful performance Warren Gatland's side only won 13-6 and it meant they had no momentum for the following week's clash with New Zealand, which they lost.

For this one they should field a close to best XV as possible, get a good win and go into the Springbok contest firing on all cylinders.

Tonga have won two and lost one this year - to Georgia - and they haven't played a Test since June, so they will be rusty and a big score could be put passed them for this reason.

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