The expansion of rugby as a global game has produced a rich history of memorable moments.
Outside of the Rugby World Cup and the Guinness Six Nations the only platform to deliver such pieces of sporting greatness in the northern hemisphere, is the Quilter Internationals.
Hosted towards the end of a calendar year, these first-class fixtures are by-and-large, duels between the elite European nations and the touring teams from around the world showcasing global rugby talent.
Whilst originally, they may have been seen as a warm-up for the following year’s Guinness Six Nations, they have become a key marker against the top sides in the game. They are especially important in a pre-World Cup year, serving as a vital springboard ahead of the following year’s Webb Ellis trophy campaign, as England discovered in 2003.
Autumn Internationals History
Even though the first Rugby World Cup was held in 1987, rugby union didn’t turn professional until 1995. It was New Zealand who were the inaugural Rugby World Cup winners after pushing for the tournament to happen helped by the support of Australia.
Following a quarter-final exit against Wales in that inaugural World Cup, England’s run to the final of the following edition in 1991 at Twickenham raised interest in England’s challenges on the international scene further.
The last Rugby World Cup to be played in the amateur era saw South Africa host and win in 1995, and that was an important tournament for the profile of the sport.
For the first time, thanks to the 1995 Rugby World Cup's increased broadcasting scope and promotion, rugby's elite started to become firmly-set household names; players like Australia's Michael Lynagh, South Africa captain Francois Pienaar and England captain Will Carling were familiar and high-profile faces for the summer.
Who at the time could fail to recognise the face of the marauding All-Blacks winger Jonah Lomu, who gave England’s defence nightmares in their semi-final clash? Two months after the 1995 World Cup the game went professional.
But predating that shift into professionalism, highlighted by the prior World Cups there was already a growing, global interest in the sport. There had been international tours happening for many years prior, those really starting to gain momentum in the 1960s.
So, with a higher profile and more money flooding into the game in the 1990s, it meant that the quality of the game was on the rise. In turn, the profile of the Autumn Internationals was raised. Demand for more clashes like England v New Zealand was on the up and the Autumn Internationals importantly filled that need.
The opposition from down south
While England have faced opposition like Samoa, Fiji, Japan and Argentina in Autumn Internationals, the highlights have always been when they have taken one of the southern hemisphere powerhouses. Those being South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
England v Australia fixtures are played for the Cook Cup. The crystal cup which was named after famous British explorer Captain Cook who was the first European to make contact with the Australian coastline. The first-ever Cook Cup was contested in 1997 which Australia won on home turf in Sydney. The first Cook Cup played as an Autumn International ended in a 15-15 draw at Twickenham later that same year.
When England meet New Zealand in an international fixture outside of a World Cup, it is for the Hillary Shield. The silverware is named after famous New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and it was established in 2008. England’s first win over New Zealand for the Hillary Shield happened with a 38-21 win at Twickenham over the All Blacks during the Autumn Internationals.
Perhaps the biggest example of the importance and relevance of the Autumn Internationals happened in 2002. England produced a huge effort to beat New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at Twickenham. It turned out to be a perfect momentum-builder for what turned out to be a successful 2003 World Cup campaign under Clive Woodward, in which England would beat South Africa and Australia on their road to glory.
Memorable moments of the Autumn Internationals
Some momentous action from the Autumn Internationals has played itself out over time. Even though they are not tournament-status matches, the fixtures are taken seriously by all parties. The response of the nations to ensure that the Quilter Internationals are played at the highest level continues to see the matches flourish.
The 2012 victory that England secured over New Zealand by a 38-21 scoreline was a historical highlight. It was a sheer tidal wave of attacking power from the home side, to which the All Blacks, the best team in the world at the time, had no answer for. The tourists were made to look pedestrian and flawless. It was the first win that England had taken against the All Blacks since 2003 and it happened in such a stunning manner.
Any time that England takes on Australia at Twickenham in the Quilter Internationals it feels like a World Cup final. Any showdown between the two old rivals delivers a special atmosphere. One highlight of those meetings being England's gripping 26-17 win over the Wallabies in 2014 which gave them successive home victories over Australia for just the second time in the 21st century.
England’s 2017 home success in November against Australia is another of the stand out fixtures in the history of the Quilter Internationals. England tore through the Wallabies to post a 30-6 victory, their biggest margin of success over them since the turn of the century. Then in the following year, England took a 37-18 win over them which was equally as scintillating for the sheer forward power they produced.
There was also the tense war of attrition in England’s 12-11 win over South Africa in 2018. The Springboks had missed a potential match-winning kick with Handre Pollard striking the post deep into the game, shortly after Owen Farrell had nudged England in front with a successful strike at goal. Farrell had then nearly thrown it all away at the death by handing South Africa a penalty for a borderline shoulder, which the officials waved off only after the final whistle.
Quilter Internationals brighten autumn
The Quilter Internationals are, in most years, the first and only international rugby matches in the northern hemisphere after a Guinness Six Nations campaign. There can be a six-month gap between the two, so those autumn fixtures rouse a sense of anticipation and remind us that another Guinness Six Nations championship isn’t too far away. The autumn landscape would look barren without the tension and drama of the Quilter International fixtures on the calendar.
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