Wales look to buck trend against Boks
November 8, 2013
Mike Phillips ponders what might have been when they clasped defeat from the jaws of victory last year © PA Photos
England kicked off the autumn internationals last weekend with a hard fought 20-13 win over Australia, but on Saturday, there is a complete line-up as the six premier teams in Europe take on the best the southern hemisphere has to offer.
Europe's record against their southern hemisphere foes does not make good reading. It seems to be an almost annual occurrence of northern hemisphere rugby supporters bemoaning what might have been while clutching, sometimes blindly, to the odd shoots of optimism witnessed over the Test weekends in November.
Last year, it was England's win over New Zealand which gave supporters of the Six Nations some hope that they might be able to pin back their southern hemisphere rivals. But with Wales falling to four defeats from four, something seemed rotten in European rugby.
The weekend's matches
The victorious British & Irish Lions tour would have gone some way to give some hope of the European sides getting some rewards for their endeavours this November but two bigger propositions than the Wallabies have rocked up to these ever-increasingly chilled shores. The 2013 Rugby Championship was a straight shootout between the Springboks and the All Blacks with the Kiwis, who dispatched Japan last weekend, heading into their three-Test November programme looking for the perfect year. Europe beware.
This weekend England face the Pumas, more of that in a standalone preview, but the tie of the weekend is in Cardiff as Warren Gatland's Wales face Heyneke Meyer's Boks. Elsewhere, Ireland tackle Samoa while Scotland host Japan at Murrayfield. The wounded Wallabies hop over to Turin to face Italy and France, who are in the midst of a dismal run of form, tackle the All Blacks.
The All Blacks have a worrying sense of invincibility surrounding them at the moment. They breezed through the Rugby Championships, took the further Bledisloe Cup Test and predictably made easy work of Japan at the weekend. It is difficult to pick out a single form player from their plethora of ridiculous talent but Ben Smith is currently one of the best individuals playing the sport. Kieran Read is also tearing up trees at No.8 and France will have to be at their best if they are to have any hope of downing the All Blacks.
In Cardiff, if Wales can harness the power of the Lions then they will be the northern hemisphere side to watch. We will learn a lot about exactly where Gatland's men are at the moment when they face the Boks in Cardiff.
The Boks are also playing some wonderful rugby. Although they lost two of their six matches in the Championship, they look to be finding the right sort of strut with the World Cup under two years away. Their back-row is just immense with Francois Louw and Willem Alberts at the forefront of everything they are doing well.
Out of form
France have won just one game this year, a poor return for the quality of talent at their disposal. Yes they did travel to New Zealand for a three-Test series in the summer, but the facts are there in black and white for Philippe Saint-Andre's side. The pressure is on Les Bleus and they will be targeting at least two wins from three in the autumn.
Three solid bets for the weekend
The game at Turin this weekend - Italy v Australia - throws together two teams who will be desperate for victories. Australia fell to England last weekend and have two wins from their last eight games, with both coming against Argentina. Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie has taken to writing to the International Rugby Board for clarification over the scrums and has selected a second-row at blindside. Is he panicking? We will find out on Saturday afternoon.
Ireland and Scotland. It is hard to predict exactly how those two nations will perform in these autumn internationals. For Ireland, they are under new leadership and have a host of their stellar players in the twilight years of their respective careers.
For Scotland, they will have a new coach in place for next season but they do pull it out of the hat during these November Tests having beaten Australia and South Africa in recent years. But you feel they are still a little way from nailing down exactly what their first choice XV is and that may have to wait until Vern Cotter takes the reins.
In terms of individuals, it will be fascinating to see how two returning Springboks get on. J.P Pietersen and Jaque Fourie have been turning out in Japan and while Fourie du Preez showed no ill effects of his time in the Far East, it will be intriguing to see how Pietersen and Fourie fare.
Weekend talking point
Much has been made of Wales' awful record against the southern hemisphere big three and Gatland will want to be the man who puts those demons to bed. South Africa and Australia both travel to the Millennium Stadium and Wales have beaten the Boks just once, and the Wallabies twice. It is a dismal return but if they are to halt that run of losses, then you feel Alun-Wyn Jones has a key role to play.
When asked about their poor return, he said: "It could be many things. The Heineken Cup falls either side of the autumn Tests and the regions don't necessarily have a large squad compared to other sides.
"It could be we don't particularly perform well at this time of the year. There's that. We usually kick on in the the Six Nations, perhaps just because of the way it's gone."
If Japan beat Scotland on Saturday, they will create a small slice of history. They have never beaten a Six Nations side in Europe though they did defeat Wales 23-8 in the summer.
If the All Blacks triumph on Saturday, they will consign France to their fourth consecutive loss. The last time they suffered that run of defeats was in 1989.
There will be little between Wales and South Africa's pack on Saturday with both coming in at an average of 116kg per person.
Scotland have won every game against Japan at Test level, but the Brave Blossoms did beat a Scottish XV in a non-Test match 28-24 in Tokyo in 1989.
Another Test, another record for Richie McCaw. He will become the most-capped Test captain in history at the weekend overtaking Brian O'Driscoll's record of 84.
South Africa will defeat Wales by around seven points while Ireland will overcome Samoa by about 10. Scotland will ease past Japan, Australia will defeat Italy and New Zealand will survive a scare to beat France.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
Stingers, a rampaging Fijian and two Dannys looking to be champions of the world - Monday Maul looks at some key talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. Rewind remembers the fixture's longest-living survivor