So here we are, it's December and the Autumn Internationals are over, the Southern Hemisphere European tours are done, but did we learn anything? Who's on the up and who's sliding on a downhill trajectory?
I don't want this to end up as War and Peace, so I'll split it into 2 parts, Northern and Southern Hemisphere sides, Part 1 will be tonight, Part 2 will be later in the week
The Northern Hemisphere
England had good results over Argentina, Australia and Samoa, used a fair amount of rotation and even managed to rest the talismanic Owen Farrell for the first and third games. In reality, England never really had to hit top gear, their most eye catching result was the 30 - 6 victory over Australia, but the scoreline was boosted by a Danny Care inspired late flurry of scores and some arguable calls from TMO and ref falling their way. The likes of Sam Simmonds, Alex Lozowski and Harry Williams staking their claims at first team berths will be the biggest positive, but they often looked shaky without Farrell, which going forward, may prove to be a worry for Eddie Jones
Ireland are pretty much a copy and paste of England, they rested players, but won matches. Starting with an absolute destruction of the Springboks before squeaking past Fiji with a much changed line up and ending with a comfortable win over Argentina. The most high profile amongst the Irish new faces was Bundee Aki, but the one that caught the eye for me was Jacob Stockdale who looked a decent prospect, grabbing a brace against Los Pumas. Again, like England, the big test would've been New Zealand, but that's not the way it fell this year and both nations will wonder what might have been against the off colour Kiwis!
Scotland made big strides this Autumn, but will there still be a few question marks come the Six Nations? The first match saw a high scoring and ultimately close victory over Samoa which showed the Scots at their free flowing best, but also showed some defensive lapses that allowed Samoa to almost claim a famous victory. These defensive lapses gave way to handling errors the next week as the Scots were absolutely superb against the All Blacks and if the match was 2 minutes longer, or the ball had gone to hand a time or 2 in the first half and it would've been one of the biggest ever results. Stuart Hogg will dream of escaping Beauden Barretts clutches on the final play for a lifetime. They saved the best for last though and decimated the Aussies in their final match, aided by a justified red card, there were 8 tries scored, although again, I doubt Gregor Townsend was convinced by the defence. In Ali Price, they have found a new fulcrum that fits the 'new' style perfectly, there were also signs that Hogg and Russell are no longer the only World Class Scots. Hamish Watson was superb, as was Johnny Gray, and in Huw Jones, they have one of the form players on the planet right now. I won't call Scotland Dark Horses for the 6 Nations as that's not giving them the respect they've earned, so I shall call them Contenders.
Wales played 1 extra match than the other home nations this autumn and went 50/50 in wins and losses, the wins were a lackluster match against Georgia where the side was almost unrecognizable due to many changes and a disappointingly close win over the Boks, I say disappointing as 2 tries in the first 8 minutes made it look like it would be a cakewalk, but Wales, without their Premiership players, threw away a 21 - 3 lead to trail 21-22 before grabbing a penalty to snatch the lead and the win. The losses were to Australia and a hammering courtesy of the off-form All Blacks. Gatland was trying to create a new style for the Welsh, with the second playmaker at 12, a'la England and the Lions, and at times it looked good, but more often than not, Wales reverted to type and the 'Gatland-ball' style kept creeping on up. The set piece platform was a little hit and miss too, which will not make for happy coaches.
France lost twice to New Zealand, once by 20 points and one by just 5, they followed this up by a single point loss to South Africa and with a strong side named, they only managed a draw with Japan. I raved about Baptiste Serin after the last 6 Nations, but it seems France may have found another young half back in Fly Half Anthony Belleau that will flourish for Les Bleus as the highly rated 21 year old put in some great shifts. Unfortunately, a winless Autumn for France may mean a backlash come the Six Nations, or of course, as it's France, it could mean a wooden spoon!
Italy opened their Autumn with a win over Fiji, and that was really as good as it got as they were brushed aside by both Argentina and South Africa. Every year it seems a new dawn is on the rise for Italy, and without fail, they put in the same results. it's incredibly frustrating as most rugby fans would like to see them flourish, or at least be competitive, but they have now slipped to 14th in the world rankings and unfortunately are showing very little ability to move upwards.
Best of the rest
Georgia got some tier one opposition in Wales and came up just short, if it hadn't been for some nefarious 'tactics' to get uncontested scrums, they may have got a famous draw out of the Welsh. Georgia also managed a pair of decent wins, sneaking past USA 21 - 20 and thumping Canada 54 - 22. Canada beat another European side, Spain the following weekend, before Spain smashed Brazil in their next match. Romania got a win over Samoa, 17 - 13 in what will be considered an upset victory, before losing to Tonga 20 - 25. Germany and Belgium also saw action with Germany beating Brazil quite comfortably, but subsequently losing to Chile and the USA whereas Belgium had a narrow loss to Brazil in Brussels!
So that's the European side of things dealt with, I'll round up the Southern Hemisphere sides later on this week.