The autumn international period has concluded for another season and the World Cup is now only ten months away as we are all weighing up each teams chances of lifting the famous trophy at Twickenham come next autumn. In order of their World Rugby rank I have given the top eight international teams a score out of ten based on their autumn performances and named a player who has used these test matches to push their case for World Cup selection.
- New Zealand 7.5/10
Another impressive autumn up north for the All Blacks, four wins from four, beating the USA, England, Scotland and Wales in the process. Hansen was able to give most of his squad decent game time and was even able to re-introduce Sonny Bill Williams back into international rugby seamlessly. Their ‘weakened’ teams were impressive against the USA and beat a Scotland side who are playing their best rugby for 15 years and they rounded off the tour by unleashing their big guns on Wales who couldn’t keep up for 80 minutes. The Kiwis will go into next years Rugby World Cup confident of becoming the first team to win the competition back to back but the big question will be who will wear ten? Cruden and Carter will be favourites but Barrett and Slade will be looking to prove themselves in Super Rugby.
Autumn success for …. Sonny Bill Williams: the league convert has seemingly secured his place on the plane for a return to the UK next September. At times it was like he’d never been away, he did come under pressure against Wales but he was by no means a weakness. An unlikely starter at the World Cup but Hansen will want a man of Williams’ experience, tenacity and versatility in his squad.
- South Africa 4/10
A difficult tour for the South Africans culminating in the devastating news about their captain and talisman Jean De Villiers who is now in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup. Losses against Ireland and Wales are simply unacceptable for a team who had fancied themselves a chance of winning the World Cup in 2015. A bruiser of a match at Twickenham against England was their only tour highlight, the game against Italy the following week was not up to standards. Heyneke Meyer will hope to see the South African teams go strong in Super Rugby in order to try and re-gather a bit of national pride and momentum leading up to the World Cup.
Autumn success for …. Pat Lambie: going into the autumn the name on every rugby fans lips was Handre Pollard, the boy who embarrassed the All Blacks. The 20 year old was glorified as the ‘new Dan Carter’ by rugby pundits the world over however the young man was taught a lesson by Jonny Sexton in Dublin. Lambie came in for the England game and there was much improvement, Lambie had previously been on the way out of the Springboks squad however he now seems their best option at 10, providing more of an attacking threat than Morne Steyn and with more big game temperament than Pollard.
- Ireland 9/10
The former dark horses for the World Cup are now serious contenders, ranked 3rd in the world and the Six Nations champions will fancy their chances next year. Victories in all three of their Autumn tests against South Africa, Georgia and Australia have highlighted the improvements made under new coach Joe Schmidt, the name ‘O’Driscoll’ wasn’t even mentioned this autumn and that’s credit to Schmidt and his team for a string of impressive performances. Paul O’Connell looks like a world beater at the moment and embodies everything good about the Ireland pack, grit, determination and fighting spirit. They possess arguably the best half-back pairing in international rugby at the moment in the form of Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton, a crucial combination required for any World Cup success.
Autumn success for …. Robbie Henshaw: Henshaw featured in the centre for two of Irelands most famous victories in recent times against South Africa and Australia. He had been touted as O’Driscolls replacement for some time but had never really featured in much international rugby, despite the fact it is near impossible to replace what O’Driscoll gave to Ireland, Henshaw seems to have the credentials to ensure he is not missed as badly in the cenrtre. His ability to play 12 and 13 as well as 15 means he will be nailed on to feature for Ireland at the World Cup, his development will be closely monitored by opposition coaches during the Six Nations.
- England 6.5/10
A difficult autumn for England but victory against Australia ensures it was by no means a failure. Losing to the top two ranked teams in the world by 3 points on both occasions is no embarrassment and easily made up over the next few months leading up to the World Cup. The Australia victory was crucial, the Wallabies are in England’s group at next years World Cup and now England have beaten them four out of the last five times they have played them and they will now hold a serious psychological advantage. Lancaster’s selection has been questioned over this series and due to injury and form the team he puts out in the Six Nations will likely have some changes to the team he put out against Australia. Players such as Joe Marler and Dave Attwood have shown they are top international class and Lancaster should be happy in the knowledge he now has a squad battle hardened in international rugby and capable of mounting a challenge for World Cup victory on home soil.
Autumn success for …. George Ford: The boy from Bath is now in possession of the England number ten shirt and it would be hard to see him let it go before the Six Nations. In terms of club rugby he has played a lot more than the injury hit Owen Farrell this year and has played much better than Farrell, you could tell that Lancaster was hesitant to throw him into starting a big international for England however the team needed a change. Ford has the ability to control a game with his tactical kicking and the timing of his passes which are able to put others in space, his goal kicking is still questionable but he will be looking to prove himself once again in the Six Nations.
- Australia 5/10
The Autralians prepared for their travels to the northern hemisphere not knowing who would be in charge, as it turned out Michael Cheika took the reins. Their third coach of this World Cup cycle, having seen Robbie Deans and more recently Ewan McKenzie depart there was not a lot of hope for the Aussies on this tour. Three costly defeats against France, Ireland and England mean their hopes of reclaiming the Webb Ellis trophy are slim but the Aussies do love being written off. A victory over Wales in the Millennium Stadium ensures a crumb of comfort for Wallaby fans who will return there for next years World Cup hoping to replicate their recent success against the welsh and escape ‘the group of death’.
Autumn success for …. Bernard Foley: a shining light in a struggling team this autumn, Foley looks like a genuine world class number ten and with the likes of Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani outside him Australia’s backline in capable of mixing it with the best in the world. For a long time the number ten shirt has had far too much change in it, experiments with Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor failed and in Foley they now have an out and out number 10, the re-introduction of Quade Cooper from injury will be interesting but I’m sure most people will now see Foley as the first choice ahead of next years tournament.
- Wales 6/10
A frustrating autumn series for the Welsh, the victory the team wanted and needed most was against Australia and that eluded them once again, a competitive performance against New Zealand was encouraging however their victory over Fiji was too close for comfort and the islanders will now fancy their chances of upsetting the welsh in their pool match at the World Cup. Credit to Gatland and his men though who finally got the monkey off their back and beat a southern hemisphere team in the form of South Africa. Wales will head into the Six Nations looking to build momentum, starting with a gargantuan clash against England under the lights at the Millennium Stadium on a February Friday night. If Wales lose that game and concede the psychological advantage to the English then Warren Gatland will have a very big job on his hands next September.
Autumn success for …. Samson Lee: the tighthead from Llanelli has now earned himself the number three shirt ahead of the Six Nations and going forward to the World Cup also. The exclusion of Adam Jones from the Wales squad has freed Lee into realising his potential and solidifying the welsh scrum. Although Lee has been given these tests to prove himself it would be a big call if Gatland was to ignore Jones’s experience in his squad come World Cup time, either way Wales now have quality propping options, something they have lacked for some time now.
- France 6.5/10
A mixed bag from the French, victories over Australia and Fiji were vital in the teams development leading up to the World Cup however a loss to an inexperienced Argentina team will bring back demons from the 2007 tournament. For the first time in his tenure as France coach Saint-Andre must now show some consistency in his selections for the Six Nations building up to the World Cup. The French have all the talent in the world behind a very competitive scrum however unleashing their full potential has stumped French coaches for generations. France were the only team to beat England in last years Six Nations which is encouraging however at this moment in time they are way off the pace in terms of mounting a serious challenge for the World Cup in 2015.
Autumn success for …. Teddy Thomas: France have unearthed a genuine gem of a winger in the form of Thomas. He broke onto the international scene scoring a hat-trick of tries against Fiji on debut, then followed up that impressive feat by scoring the week after against Australia. However that was to be it for Thomas in the autumn as he was dropped for their final test against Argentina for missing training, if Thomas can turn up for training he looks to be the genuine threat the French have missed out wide since Christophe Dominici and Vincent Clerc.
- Scotland 8.5/10
Scotlands best autumn in some time! They may not have won a scrappy encounter against South Africa or Australia but they are now finally scoring tries. They started the test series off with an impressive victory against a confident Argentina side who had just come off the back of their first victory in the Rugby Championship against Australia. A 41-31 victory against the Pumas wowed the Murrayfield crowd, and the improvements continued against the All Blacks. Although Scotland eventually went down 24-16 to New Zealand it was a big improvement on recent results against the worlds best team. Scotland rounded off their autumn with a revenge victory against Tonga, a side who had beaten Scotland in recent times and a measure of how much Scotland have developed under Vern Cotter. Five tries at Rugby Park for the Scots who finished the game 37-12 victors, an impressive series for the whole squad but honourable mentions for the Gray brothers in the second row, Blair Cowan, captain Gregor Laidlaw and the back three.
Autumn success for …. Tommy Seymour: the winger from Glasgow has certainly secured his place in Vern Cotter’s plans moving forward. An impressive season for his club so far this season and Seymour has now made his mark on the international stage scoring in every game for Scotland this autumn with three tries in three games. Talk of Tim Visser has subsided as many fans now view a back three of Hogg, Maitland and Seymour to be Scotland’s best option. The Glasgow trio will be looking to continue their fine form in the European Rugby Champions Cup this weekend and further their international credentials in the Six Nations.