It is with a real bit of anticipation that I look forward to start of the Autumn tests. Rugby Union as a sport takes these fixtures very seriously and they could never, ever be described as ‘friendlies’. There will be some cracking games to look forward to including Ireland taking on an unbelievably good All Blacks side both in Ireland and Chicago.
Australia have booked themselves a tough tour playing all the home nations. They will want to end on a high on December 4th and hoping to repeat the performance last time they were at Twickenham against England to perhaps wipe out the memory of the 3-0 series hammering they got from England in the summer.
However, since the triumph down under England head honcho Eddie Jones has got some serious challenges and selection problems to face before England’s first test against South Africa - a team they have not beaten for 10 years.
South Africa seem to be a bogey team for England over the last decade. I wonder sometimes whether it is because we were pretty similar in style – great set piece, physical forwards and a good kicking game that we almost cancelled each other out. My own memories of playing them cover the times we would regularly beat them to the disastrous world cup game we lost 35-0 in 2007. Mind you to this day I feel a real sense of pride in that team that then went on against all odds to play South Africa again the final where we narrowly lost.
This 2016 England squad is missing ten players to the casualty ward which can make any coach fretful but I think the injuries to wonder kid Maro Itoje and his partner George Kruis are probably right up there. However, second row is an area where as a nation we are pretty well stocked. Joe Launchbury is a wonderful player and for me walks right back in and probably will have Courtney Lawes alongside him and big Dave Attwood from Bath on the bench. Not too shabby. The other name that caught my eye was the powerhouse young prop from Quins Kyle Sinckler, I think that boy is going to be seriously good. Mind you if you saw the light footed, side-stepping, dummy pass throwing Mako Vunipola this weekend you will know props are now expected to do a lot more than scrummage. Keep practicing your 30 yard miss pass Kyle.
Nice also to welcome speedster Jonny May back into the England fold. His sheer pace can totally burn defenders and those mazy runs definitely confuse them! He could be a little rusty after such a lengthy spell out so Eddie may start with Rokodugkuni and Yarde.
So, one more round of the Aviva Premiership this weekend before players disappear off to their national sides. I will be watching with interest to see if Gloucester can gain a bit of consistency and put in a decent performance away to Northampton on Friday night. Saints had an uncharacteristic and poor game away to Castre in the Champions Cup. That score line of 45-7 makes you wince bearing in mind Castre are swirling around the bottom of the French Top 14. Saints have a huge amount of talent in their ranks but like a lot of talented squads are not quite gelling or performing for each other on the pitch. Rugby is a game where sheer guts, will to win and physicality can take you a long way and as a 14 man Munster showed last week when a team plays with passion incredible things can happen.
The other big old battle will be Saracens taking on Leicester Tigers on Saturday. Tigers have over the last few years turned into pussycats when they step onto the artificial surface in North London and have just not performed there. This weekend could be their best chance to improve on that record and with Itoje and Kruis missing the league leaders are struggling with second rows options so there is something to exploit. Tigers had a wonderful win against Racing 92 and it was the type of performance we have all been wanting to see from them for a while. If they can attack the lineout and the breakdown two areas often secured by ‘Krutoje’ then it could be game on.
There is nothing like a West Country Derby and we have one on Sunday. Exeter Chiefs are back at Sandy Park on Sunday with Bath coming down the M5. I think Exeter are being a bit underrated at the moment because if you look at the teams they have played against so far this season it includes a lot of top sides plus Clermont in the Champions Cup – so I think once they go on a run against some of the mid table and bottom table teams they will climb back up the table.
Bath on the other hand are looking unbelievably confident and sitting pretty in third place in the league. I like their new Kiwi coach Todd Blackadder. A good rugby man, who seems to have built the spirit back into the team and it is really showing on the pitch.
So points to prove to national coaches this weekend for the players who missed out on selection and for those that made it they need to stand up and show why.