State of the nations: How are rugby's superpowers shaping up for the World Cup?

Michael Cheika, Eddie Jones, Steve Hansen, Joe Schmidt and Gregor Townsend

Autumn internationals
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Just “sparring”. That is how Eddie Jones characterised the autumn internationals this month, claiming his England team would use the matches as warm-up for next September’s World Cup.

In reality, it is the last time that the two hemispheres’ superpowers come together before Japan – the final chance to compare, contrast and inflict psychological damage in preparation for the big one.

What shape are England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in? Where are the areas of concern for the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies? BBC Sport spoke to the men on the ground to find out.

England

Recent form: After starting his reign with 17 straight wins, including a Six Nations Grand Slam and a series whitewash of the Wallabies in Australia, the honeymoon is well and truly over for Eddie Jones.

Scotland’s comfortable win at Murrayfield in February was the first of six consecutive defeats for Jones’ men, with only a dead-rubber victory over the Springboks since.

One to watch: Manu Tuilagi

Manu Tuilagi

The Leicester centre’s finest international moment came with a barn-storming performance in December 2012’s victory over the All Blacks.

He has started only six Tests since – most recently in June 2014 – with his progress hampered by a string of injuries. His brute physicality is an element that Jones has long been keen to add to England’s midfield and he showed signs of that effectiveness in the Tigers’ win over Scarlets this month.

BBC Sport rugby union reporter Chris Jones: When Eddie Jones took the England job almost exactly three years ago, he would have had a vision of his side being atop the world rankings at this stage of the cycle, with only tinkering and fine-tuning to do before the World Cup.

In reality, the last year has been a bit of a nightmare on and off the field, leaving the team in something of a limbo. With new coaches and new playing personnel, are England in reality pressing the reset button 12 months out from Japan? Or is this all part of what it takes to win a World Cup?

England’s autumn internationals
All matches at Twickenham
3 November South Africa
10 November New Zealand
17 November Japan
24 November Australia

Either way, Jones believes his players are far fitter and fresher than the group jaded by the Lions tour at the end of 2017, and while England are without some of their best players, the return of Manu Tuilagi from injury and Chris Ashton from exile gives the squad a new – or old – complexion.

But although the England coaches and players are confident everything is under control despite their poor run, a series of defeats this autumn would send shockwaves through Twickenham.

Wales

Recent form: Doing very nicely, thank you. Warren Gatland’s side have previously made an annual autumnal habit of valiant, narrow defeats by the southern hemisphere’s big beasts. Now, after beating South Africa in December and June and landing a 2-0 series victory away in Argentina, they are on the up.

Throw in a second-place finish in the Six Nations earlier this year and third spot in the World Rugby rankings and momentum and confidence are building.

One to watch: Gareth Davies

Gareth Davies playing for Scarlets against Glasgow

The Scarlets scrum-half is the man in possession of the Wales nine jersey, with Rhys Webb ineligible following his move to Toulon in France.

Davies has five tries already this season, including one in each of Scarlets’ two Champions Cup defeats, while his all-round play suggests he will be Wales’ ace in the hole this autumn.

BBC Wales Sport’s Bruce Pope: Sam Warburton has retired and fellow Lion Taulupe Faletau is missing, among a glut of back-row injuries. By rights it should be doom and gloom in Wales going into the autumn internationals.

But Warren Gatland’s side are riding the crest of a wave.

Few touring teams win in Argentina but Wales managed it without most of their leading players, demonstrating a growing strength in depth, the lack of which has often been their Achilles heel in the past.

Cardiff Blues flanker Ellis Jenkins, the co-captain on that tour, and Justin Tipuric ensure quality remains in that seven shirt vacated by the loss of the inspirational Warburton. No Faletau, no Josh Navidi? No problem with Ross Moriarty playing at eight.

Wales’ autumn internationals
All matches at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff
3 November Scotland
10 November Australia
17 November Tonga
24 November South Africa

Centre Jonathan Davies, the Lions’ 2017 man of the series, is coming back to form after a serious foot injury that wrecked most of last season, while wing George North has gleefully told of falling in love with rugby again following his move back to Wales with Ospreys.

Wales have often foundered against southern hemisphere opposition and November’s results, especially those against Australia and South Africa, will prove whether Wales are well-placed to give Gatland’s last year in charge a final flourish in Japan.

Scotland

Recent form: Gregor Townsend came into the head coach role determined to harness Murrayfield’s raucous atmosphere. Had Stuart Hogg not been hauled down by Beauden Barrett 10 metres short of the line in the final play of the Scots’ 22-17 defeat by New Zealand last autumn, the All Blacks might also be on a list of home scalps that includes England, France and Australia in the past year.

Things have been trickier on the road. A defeat by the United States in Houston in June showed up some of the travel-sickness that needs to be eliminated before Japan 2019.

One to watch: Blair Kinghorn

Blair Kinghorn

The young full-back has been tearing it up for Edinburgh, and while any side in the world would miss the attacking elan of the injured Stuart Hogg, Kinghorn is undoubtedly another who offers X-factor with ball in hand.

BBC Scotland Sport’s Andy Burke: A year out from the World Cup, there is a definite sense that Scotland are building nicely. The next month will tell us whether that sense is well-founded.

Initially under Vern Cotter, and more so under Gregor Townsend, this team has proved on its day it can live with, and beat, just about anybody. Ireland, Wales, France, Australia (twice) and England have all fallen to the Scots in the past 20 months.

Scotland’s autumn internationals
All matches, unless otherwise stated, at Murrayfield
3 November Wales (in Cardiff)
10 November Fiji
17 November South Africa
24 November Argentina

The problem is consistency. In that same period they have suffered thrashings in Cardiff and at Twickenham, and been embarrassed by Fiji and the USA.

Without some injured front-liners such as Hogg, John Barclay and Zander Fagerson, Townsend will learn just how strong his squad is when they face Wales at the Principality Stadium, followed by Murrayfield dates with Fiji, South Africa and Argentina.

The Scotland coach will be intrigued to see how new faces Sam Skinner and Blade Thomson get on, and whether Adam Hastings can prove himself an able deputy for the similarly flamboyant Finn Russell.

Ireland

Recent form: Only a third Grand Slam ever. A first Test series success in Australia in 39 years. Ireland have had a stellar 2018. They have lost just once since March 2017 and the meeting between Joe Schmidt’s side and the world champion All Blacks on 17 November looks like the biggest fixture on this autumn’s card.

One to watch: James Ryan

James Ryan

Leinster second row James Ryan won his first 23 games as a professional rugby player, picking up a Grand Slam, and Champions Cup and Pro14 titles before finally tasting defeat for the first time against Australia in June.

His work-rate, ball-carrying and competitiveness at the breakdown were a key reason that Ireland turned around the series down under, and there is already excited talk of the 22-year-old as a future captaincy candidate for his country and the British and Irish Lions.

BBC Sport Northern Ireland’s Cian Murtagh: Joe Schmidt’s Grand Slam winners will be well-armed to repeat their historic 2016 success against the All Blacks when the top two sides in the World Rugby rankings meet on 17 November in one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the autumn.

Ireland’s autumn internationals
3 November Italy (in Chicago)
10 November Argentina
17 November New Zealand
24 November United States

The Six Nations champions are braced by Leinster’s European and Pro14 double-winning side and in fly-half Johnny Sexton they have one of the best tacticians in the game.

Schmidt’s focus during this international window is likely to be on fine-tuning his existing playing squad rather than unearthing fresh talent, although a neck injury for influential scrum-half Conor Murray could give an opportunity to one of John Cooney (Ulster), Luke McGrath (Leinster) or Kieran Marmion (Connacht) to stake a claim for more Test experience.

New Zealand

Recent form: By anyone else’s standards, stratospheric. By the All Blacks’ own, there is room for improvement.

The world champions have collected a pair of Rugby Championship titles since drawing their series with the Lions in 2017, but they have suffered a couple of losses on the way. Their defeats by Australia in October 2017 and, on home turf, by South Africa in September offer a glimmer of hope to the rest.

One to watch: Dane Coles

Dane Coles

Nimble feet, an agile mind and slick handling, Coles was busy remaking what a modern hooker should be when he was hit by a string of injuries. Calf and rib problems restricted him in 2016 before knee problems and concussion symptoms kept him sidelined for most of 2017.

He made his return last November, only to rupture knee ligaments against France. Finally, the 31-year-old is ready to try to wrest his jersey back from Codie Taylor in time for the World Cup.

NZ Herald’s Patrick McKendry: Any All Blacks defeat is picked over for days in New Zealand and that was certainly the case when they lost to the Springboks in Wellington in September. The failure to take the kickable points on offer was generally accepted to be a big error. There were questions about the leadership within the side and whether it was a case of hubris.

New Zealand’s autumn internationals
3 November Japan (in Tokyo)
10 November England
17 November Ireland
24 November Italy (in Rome)

All of which would have been repeated had Ardie Savea not scored in the final seconds of the return match in Pretoria to complete a superb All Blacks comeback a few weeks later.

The try by Savea, who has been remarkable as Sam Cane’s injury-replacement, has probably saved the All Blacks’ year because, even with a Rugby Championship victory, two defeats by the Boks would have been unforgiveable.

So the All Blacks are in a good place. They’re still number one in the world, they have key forwards Brodie Retallick and Dane Coles returning from injury, and they will be highly motivated for their two big Tests in England and Ireland in November.

An interesting development is Damian McKenzie’s presence at full-back. Formerly seen as a fly-half, McKenzie offers Beauden Barrett a second kicking option and playmaking alternative.

Australia

Recent form: Wretched. Coach Michael Cheika coaxed an unlikely run to the final out of Australia at the last World Cup and they will need a similar blindside dart up the rails if they are to figure in the shake-down in Japan.

They have won just three of 10 Tests this season and have sunk to an all-time low of seventh in the world rankings. Forward Lukhan Tui’s scuffle with a fan in the wake of a defeat by Argentina on the Gold Coast in September summed up the state of affairs.

One to watch: Marika Koroibete

Marika Koroibete

Having represented Fiji in rugby league, Koroibete swapped codes and colours to pull on the green and gold in union, making his international debut against Argentina in September 2017. He scored four tries in his first four appearances and, although his scoring rate has dried up since, his pace and sidestep are always a threat.

The Courier Mail’s Jim Tucker: A clean sweep of Wales, Italy and England – a 0-5 nemesis since Eddie Jones took charge – is essential to revive the vibe with fans. A line-out floundering below 80% efficiency, poor discipline with only one winning penalty count in 10 and way too many try-chances frittered away have been constant themes.

Australia’s autumn internationals
10 November Wales
17 November Italy (in Padua)
24 November England

For all that, the Wallabies were one good pass on full-time away from beating Six Nations champions Ireland in their June series and made seven line-breaks against the All Blacks in their most recent Test loss when the attack clicked better.

The return of line-busting centre Samu Kerevi for this tour adds potency to the attack, while breakdown kingpin David Pocock has been in vintage form all season. The passing precision of halfback Will Genia, on 97 Tests, is still at the heart of the best and paciest Wallabies’ strikes which so often feed Israel Folau (35 tries in 70 Tests).

Coach Michael Cheika needs some Eddie-slaying to lift the mood.

South Africa

Recent form: New coach Rassie Erasmus has restored the spring to the Boks’ step. A Test series victory over England was followed by a second-place finish in the Rugby Championship, via a first away win over the All Blacks since 2009. They look like genuine World Cup contenders once more.

One to watch: Malcolm Marx

Malcolm Marx

The Springboks hooker missed the summer Test series against England, but is back to show off the pace, power and breakdown smarts that prompted Sir Clive Woodward to call him “not just the best hooker in the world, one of the best forwards full-stop.”

Mark Keohane of www.keo.co.za: Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’s priority in 2018 was to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand. He told his players that winning in New Zealand meant they could win anywhere.

That done, the November international month is about consistency and being able to back up the occasional big one-off away-from-home win. The Springboks, in the past few years, have struggled to impose themselves on the road. The granite, when playing at altitude in South Africa, turns to putty when overseas.

South Africa’s autumn internationals
3 November England
10 November France (in Paris)
17 November Scotland
24 November Wales

To be contenders, more than pretenders, at the 2019 World Cup the Springboks can’t afford to regress in November. The expectation is they must be unbeaten, starting with beating England at Twickenham.

Erasmus has instilled a belief in the squad, but he has also balanced youth with experience and he hasn’t been shy to invest strategically in a select group of overseas-based Springboks. This is also a conditioned and fit national player group.

The Springboks in 2018 are once again an imposing proposition. The squad of 2018 doesn’t resemble the imposters in the green and gold who were so easily dealt with on tour in 2016 and 2017.

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