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With just under a year until the World Cup kicks off in Japan, this promises to be the autumn to end all autumns.
England take on all three of the Southern Hemisphere’s big boys (‘the bad guys’ as Sir Clive Woodward famously dubbed them) whilst Ireland, Wales and Scotland all face a challenging few weeks of must-win matches against rugby’s new world heavyweights. If you’re of the egg chasing persuasion, Christmas has come early.
This week’s six key talking points…
1. A Question Of Timing
Round 1 this year controversially takes place outside of the designated international window, and as a result several nations are without key players stubbornly retained by their clubs this week. A slightly understrength South Africa side take on England at Twickenham in what is the standout game of the weekend. Ireland are resting their big guns as they face-off with Italy in the rugby hotbed that is Chicago (err…) while a Wales side light on household names host a heavily depleted Scotland in what promises to be a spicy opening derby.
Neither of Scotland's prized half backs have been released by their French clubs.
So why are these games happening if not part of the original plan? Plain and simple, money – with various unions seemingly willing to risk bad blood with clubs for an extra full house.
If it's another great game for supporters to savour, does it matter? For the sums some fans are paying, perhaps. You’d be pretty cheesed off if you forked out to see The Stones only to find Mick Jagger could only make next week’s gig.
2. ‘Flexibility’ The Key For England
‘Change that broken record’ I hear you cry, but England are once again heading into the international period with more crocks than the River Nile. This is most noticeable among the forwards, where the brothers Vunipola, Lawes and veteran backrower Robshaw’s absences will be keenly felt.
Indeed, England are down to their third or fourth choices at loosehead prop and in the backrow. The ever-feisty Eddie Jones, however, is insisting that one man’s loss in another man’s gain, refusing to make excuses for his depleted squad as they face a daunting fixture list.
The opinionated Aussie admits he underestimated the effect a Lions tour would have on his players – whose makeup was 70% English – and only now feels that those involved are back to full fitness.
With new Kiwi defence coach John Mitchell brought in less than 12 months out from a World Cup in Japan, it looks like England are very much hitting the reset button after what has been a pretty chastening 2018 so far.
Jones believes this grueling autumn campaign will provide a thorough examination of his squad’s tactical and personnel ‘flexibility’; two things he believes are essential if England are to win the sport’s top prize in Japan next year.
3. The Boys Are Back In Town
England welcome back two players to their named squad of 25 who probably thought they had played their last game for England.
Chris Ashton, who hasn’t featured yet for England under Jones, was an eyebrow-raising inclusion, given his lack of playing time this season.
The code hopper’s time in the international wilderness was due in part to his playing club rugby in France and a disciplinary record more checkered than a Croatian picnic blanket.
The Sale flyer is joined in the backs by fellow bad-boy/dunce Manu Tuilagi, who makes a much welcome return to bolster England’s midfield options. Agonisingly, England fans will have to wait another week to see Tuilagi launching himself at defenders thanks to a tight groin picked up on Friday. When fully fit, however, there are few on the planet who can match his brutal dynamism.
Elsewhere, with Ben Morgan surplus to requirements, Zach Mercer finds himself in pole position to make his debut at number 8, whilst Jones’s three-quarter options ooze class and composure.
4. Burgeoning Boks
After a pretty miserable couple of years – featuring record defeat to the All Blacks, a hiding at Twickenham last time they visited, and losing their Italian virginity the year before that - South African rugby looks to be back to somewhere near its bullocking best.
England were swept aside 2-1 in the summer before going on to claim 2nd place in the Rugby Championship, chalking up a rare win in New Zealand along the way.
The unfortunate timing of this fixture means they are missing their miniature magicians, Faf de Klerk and Willie Le Roux, but they will still pose a stern challenge for England.
Their typically uncompromising forward play will test the men in white’s mettle; they have pace and flair in abundance out wide while the in-form Handre Pollard is an increasingly confident and influential string-puller at fly-half.
5. Celtic Connection
Wales meet Six Nations rivals Scotland in their opening fixture in Cardiff. The two teams will compete for the newly created 'Doddie Weir Cup', in support of the former Scotland and British & Irish Lions legend who was sadly diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
Among the nine players unavailable for Scotland is their talismanic ten Finn Russell, who plays his club rugby in France these days, and Wales coach Warren Gatland has publicly admitted that this autumn will be a chance to try out new combinations as part of a wider World Cup preparation. So, neither team will be at full-strength but let’s hope that doesn’t undermine what is traditionally a fiercely competitive and high-scoring contest.
Over in Chicago, a Sexton-less Ireland take on Italy in a game that’s got the potential to feel like a weird open training session. Ireland will surely use this match to test out some of their fringe players before turning their attention to the tougher challenges which lie ahead in the coming weeks.
6. Keep Your Tackle Clean…
Referees are now sharper than Eddie Jones’ tongue when it comes to any kind of direct contact with the head or neck in the tackle.
There have already been several spectacle-ruining red cards in Premiership and European encounters so far this term, and coaches will surely be hammering into their charges to keep things strictly below the chest.
It would be a crying shame for fans and players alike if an epic North v South showdown is spoiled by an ill-advised if unintentional headshot, such as this one by James Haskell on Jamie Roberts.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 17, 2018
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