Anticipation is at a fever pitch with the Autumn Nations Series set to kick off with an epic showdown between Scotland and Australia at Murrayfield on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Before the mouth-watering encounter in Edinburgh, New Zealand will have to negotiate a potentially tricky test against Japan in Tokyo earlier in the day.
These two ties serve as tasty starters ahead of next weekend’s full buffet of year-end internationals.
Japan v New Zealand
Saturday, 29 October – 07:50
The match at Japan National Stadium doesn’t form part of the Autumn Nations Series but is nevertheless a crucial contest for the Kiwis to start their end-of-year tour on the right note.
They already have challenges with seven players unavailable for the tour opener – the three Barrett brothers, Sam Whitelock, Will Jordan, Folau Fakatava and Leicester Fainga’anuku.
Considering the lows the All Blacks have endured this year, they’ll take nothing for granted and the absence of these players will only further increase their focus to ensure they don’t suffer another big shock and undo the solid run of three successive wins that saw them edge South Africa to the Rugby Championship title.
Japan nearly shocked an understrength France in their second Test in July, losing 20-15, and have played three matches against Australia ‘A’ in recent weeks, so they should be pretty sharp. However, the depleted but focused All Blacks should clinch a commanding win.
Scotland v Australia
Saturday, 29 October 18:30
It’s apropos that what by all accounts will be an extremely competitive Autumn Nations Series between northern and southern hemisphere sides gets underway with a quintessential pick ‘em.
These two teams are so evenly matched and in such similar positions that Australia are the slimmest of favourites at 1.90 outright (at the time of writing), with the line set at 1.5 points.
Like the bookies, most are automatically inclined to lean toward the Wallabies. However, Scotland have had their number in recent years, winning the last three meetings on the bounce.
They followed up a famous 24-19 win Down Under in 2017 with a 53-24 trouncing later that year and edged last year’s encounter 15-13 with a last-gasp penalty goal in front of more than 67,000 spectators. Expect another nailbiter.
Scotland finished fourth in this year’s Six Nations after beating England 20-17 to retain the Calcutta Cup in the opening round and defeating Italy 33-22 in Round Five.
The developing team were then locked in a thrilling three-Test series against Argentina in July that went down to the very last play, with the Pumas scoring the decisive try.
Australia suffered a 2-1 series defeat to England at home in July and went on to finish third in the Rugby Championship. They enter this weekend’s clash on a three-match losing streak and in an all-time low ninth position in the world rankings, three places behind the Scots.
Both teams have notable omissions with the mercurial Finn Russell failing to make the cut for Scotland and veterans Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor left out of the Australian squad.
The return of centurion Michael Hooper is a big boost for the Wallabies and with James Slipper continuing as captain, the legendary flanker will be free to focus squarely on his game. The same is true for Stuart Hogg with Jamie Ritchie taking over as Scotland skipper.
Scotland are a different beast at home where they’ve won five of their last seven, the only defeats being to the world champion Springboks (30-15) last year and Six Nations winners France (36-17) in February.
Home ground advantage along with the match fitness of their players, almost all of whom played in the United Rugby Championship while most of the Australian players were out of action, should see them squeak home.