This is the time of the year the focus shifts from the weekly grind of league rugby to all things International with all four Southern Hemisphere teams jetting in. With RWC 2019 edging ever closer there are some pretty intriguing sub plots that make this set of Autumn Internationals must see.
The mighty All Blacks touched down in the Northern Hemisphere for the first time bringing a hint of vulnerability with them. Only a hint, mind you, as they showed against the Babas on Saturday with a ten minute spell where they looked lethal. At full strength I suspect they will be more than a match for France, Scotland and Wales but the three losses they have had in the last year does give some hope to opposition coaches and players.
The fact the All Blacks are not facing Ireland or England means Hansen can dabble a bit with selection to ensure he enters the build up to the World Cup with depth in his squad and with the new caps notching up some game time.
England has also got an opportunity, if Eddie Jones takes it, of tinkering with their line up with Argentina and Samoa included on the menu at Twickenham. Personally I think Eddie should try out some alternatives and then stick with his team from the Six Nations up to the World Cup. A big concern for most England fans is the back three and the back row. The back three has never really settled and no matter how solid Mike Brown is there are still many heads being scratched as to why Eddie has not tried out a new 15. Should Brownie go down with an injury we could have a fullback who has never started a full international. If Anthony Watson is the back up to Brown please give him a go Eddie!
England also has issues with the flankers. We have a stand in for Billy Vunipola with Nathan Hughes but does anyone really know who is backing up Chris Robshaw and who James Haskell’s replacement is? I am excited to see what some of the young guns can do and it would be brilliant if someone like Sam Underhill is able to grab and hold onto a starting shirt.
Argentina, who get the challenge of a fresh and firing England at Twickenham, is likely to give it a go and will fight for every inch. It is a puzzle to many why the Pumas have not kicked on since their decision to play as a team in Super Rugby. The chance to play every week together in the Super 16 against top level teams by definition should be turning the international team into world beaters. Bizarrely as a Super 16 side they have been woeful and international performances in the Rugby Championship have delivered zero wins. I am sure better rugby brains than mine are still working this one out.
Warren Gatland returns to Wales for his run in to his last hurrah in Japan 2019. Galtland is a fiercely proud and intelligent coach and will want his swansong for Wales to end on a high note. The Wales squad has a fresh look to it with some genuinely thrilling young talent included. Watch out for the 21 year old Owen Watkin a physical big unit with great handling skill who could be the missing link for that Wales backline.
The Principality stadium will be rocking on Saturday when Australia arrives on the pitch and to my mind Wales have got to find a way to chalk up this win. Their record is none to healthy against Southern Hemisphere teams particularly Australia and now is a good time to start improving it. We all know just how good Wales can be and with the Wallabies fresh from beating the World Champions this should be the clash of the weekend.
Ireland has a tough job with a fast improving Springbok team first up for them. The South Africans look like they have finally begun to gel and their strength in depth rivals the All Blacks. Despite some of their best and most experienced players sprinkled all over Europe they can still call on the immense talents of Eben Etzebeth, Malcom Marx, Francois Louw and Damien Allende. Ireland are evolving with a good mix of experienced players and emerging talent. I really like the look of Jacob Stockdale. Another young guy with an imposing physical presence allied to great hands and vision. He has been tearing it up for Ulster and this is his big chance.
Up in Murrayfield new coach Gregor Townsend gets his opportunity to shape Scotland and begin the build up to Japan. Training sessions should not be too difficult as he will mostly be coaching his old club Glasgow Warriors who dominate the squad. Samoa are in town and it is nice first one up for the team to try out a few things. The physio will probably be kept busy afterwards but otherwise I don’t expect a surprise result. Scotland has improved far too much and the Samoan squad has had very little time together.
The final game of the weekend is Les Bleus v All Blacks over in Paris and I am afraid the first question we are still asking after all these years is which France will turn up?