England begin their final year of preparation for the 2019 Rugby World Cup with an intriguing series of autumn international test matches at Twickenham Stadium.
Eddie Jones’ side will face the big three Antipodean nations including a long-awaited encounter with world champions New Zealand. Twickenham Stadium will also play host to an England v Japan fixture for the very first time.
The Quilter Internationals take place across consecutive Saturdays in November, starting this weekend with England v South Africa.
Ahead of the eagerly anticipated series, we examine what kind of shape England’s opponents are in ahead of their respective Twickenham showdowns.
England v South Africa - Saturday 3rd November 3pm
The Springboks have endured a mixed year, starting it with a world ranking of six and currently sitting in five with a momentary drop to seventh.
The highlight of their 2018 will no doubt be their stunning triumph over the All Blacks in September; the first time any nation (not including The British & Irish Lions) has defeated New Zealand on their own turf in nearly a decade. They almost completed a sensational double over them in this year’s Rugby Championship, losing out in the closing moments of the return fixture after racing into a strong second-half lead.
Add those performances to their series win over England back in June and it’s hard to see how this team led by Rassie Erasmus can fail to provide a difficult test at Twickenham on Saturday.
However, consistency is a challenge for South Africa to overcome. In the weeks building up to their New Zealand victory, they had suffered disappointing defeats to Argentina and Australia in consecutive matches, which had effectively ended any realistic chance they had of challenging the All Blacks for the coveted title.
To highlight their unpredictability, the Boks have managed to both win and lose against each of England, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the last few months so it’s anyone’s guess as to how they’ll perform across their autumn schedule.
Both sides will have key men missing. Whilst England’s injury issues are well documented, their visitors will also be missing the impressive Faf de Klerk, who won’t been released by Sale Sharks until after this weekend. The scrum-half was named man of the match in the first test between the two teams in their June series. The key threats that will be in contention this time include S'busiso Nkosi, who scored two tries against England during that same match. Duane Vermeulen is likely to line up at centre following an impressive showing in the second test of that same series. Aphiwe Dyantyi is another one to watch. The Lions wing finished as the joint-leading try scorer in the recent Rugby Championship and also went over against England.
England v New Zealand - Saturday 10th November 3pm
The All Blacks have dominated the international game for most of the last decade, having won the last two World Cups and setting some records in between. They will surely go down as one of the greatest teams ever in world sport, but with success comes increasing pressure and the need to consistency perform at the very top of their game, especially with the improvement of rival nations.
Eyebrows were raised back in 2016, when Ireland famously claimed their first ever win over the All Blacks and with the two meeting again the coming weeks, we could see the back-to-back world champions dethroned from their world number one status if the Irish were to repeat their heroics.
Further signs of the All Black’s potential decline were evident as recently as September this year as they were defeated by South Africa on home turf; an unprecedented experience for most members of this team.
Does this give England hope of landing another blow on 10 November? They should certainly fancy their chances and if it’s anything like their previous meetings at Twickenham, it should be a thrilling and closely fought contest.
This will represent the first match between the two in over four years, when the All Blacks narrowly won with a score of 24-21 at Twickenham. This followed a three-match tour whitewash in New Zealand and in the preceding Autumn Internationals in 2013 the visitors were triumphant again at Twickenham, meaning that the All Blacks will go into this game with a five-match winning streak on the head-to-head. England’s last win was in 2012, where they produced arguably their best performance since winning the World Cup in 2003, with a 38-21 success at the home of England rugby.
Predicting the outcome this year is a difficult challenge. Whilst England’s form has not been great, the pressure on New Zealand is mounting ahead of that Ireland showdown and it would be easy for them to lose focus at Twickenham in what will be their first match of their European excursion after facing Japan in the far east a week before. Could jetlag play a part?
On the field, the in-form players to watch out for are Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane, who both scored five tries across the recent Rugby Championship and both went over against Australia in their recent Bledisloe cup game. Barrett’s kicking responsibilities also make him a very valuable member of the squad and he also played and scored a penalty in the 2014 match at Twickenham, so his experience of the Cabbage Patch could prove vital. Kieran Read was another who played on that day, but not as captain. He’ll be hoping he can emulate his predecessor Richie McCaw by leading his team to sixth consecutive victory over the English.
England v Japan - Saturday 17th November 3pm
Japan’s level of opposition hasn’t been up there with the elite nations in 2018, nevertheless they have managed to record encouraging victories over Italy and Georgia, putting them on the brink of a top 10 world ranking.
Whilst the Cherry Blossoms haven’t managed to beat any other top 10 nation since their shock World Cup win over South Africa three years ago, they have come close. In 2016, they lost by just three points to Wales in Cardiff and just a year ago they played out a draw with France in Paris.
These performances appeared to have gained Japan some recognition if their November fixture line-up is anything to go by. As well as facing England, they also take on New Zealand in Toyko. It’s an opportunity to play against the very best for a side that wants to prove themselves as a force ahead of the spotlight falling on them next year.
England’s only ever previous meeting with Japan was in the inaugural 1987 World Cup, in which they ran out 60-7 winners, with Rory Underwood MBE claiming a couple of tries. Japan then went on to play in every other edition of the Rugby World Cup and claimed their first ever win in a World Cup match back in 1991 against Zimbabwe in Belfast. Their wait for another victory was a long one, but it was well worth it due to it being the aforementioned victory over South Africa. However, despite failing to qualify from the pool stage of that tournament due to inferior bonus points, they were able to register further wins over Samoa and USA.
Japan’s key player is undoubtedly their fullback and kicker Ayumu Goromaru. He alone scored 24 of the 34 points that they needed to defeat the Springboks, including one try. Michael Leitch is the captain of the team, as he was back in 2015. The New Zealand born back row recently joined the Sunwolves, who are the only Japanese side in the Super 15 competition. Another Sunwolves player to watch is Fumiaki Tanaka. The scrum-half is the most capped player in the squad despite being one of the smallest players in the world of international rugby. He refers to his size as an advantage.
England v Australia - Saturday 24th November 3pm
Australia head into the November internationals after a poor year by their high standards, having won just three of their nine matches in 2018. They recently avoided a first wooden spoon in the current format of the Rugby Championship after sensationally turning around a 31-7 half-time deficit against Argentina to claim third place in the competition.
Australia’s opposition however has been naturally strong and there are signs that their performances are improving with the comeback against Los Pumas backed up with what many have described as the Wallabies’ best performance of 2018 last weekend against New Zealand, despite losing 37-20 to the world champions in the third and final Bledisloe cup match.
The pressure is on head coach Micheal Cheika to keep the relative upward momentum going into their crucial games against Wales, Italy and England. There is the sense that Cheika needs to win at least two out of three to keep his job going into a World Cup year. That means he needs a win at one of the Principality Stadium or Twickenham, although surely a defeat in Rome will be enough to end his tenure.
England’s form against the Wallabies is strong, having won their last five encounters after the disappointing World Cup defeat that eliminated the 2015 hosts. A late onslaught of tries secured a satisfying scoreline of 30-6 last November and Eddie Jones will be keen to inflict more punishment on the nation of his birth.
Australia’s main men have been mainstays in the team for a number of years. The likes of Will Genia and Israel Folau are still contributing on the tries front whilst captain Michael Hooper also went over twice in the Rugby Championship. Dane Haylett-Petty is a breakthrough talent who could make an impact following his showings in the same competition.
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