Test rugby returns with a bang this weekend with a host of compelling clashes in store, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Southern Hemisphere’s finest have made their annual migration North for their end-of-year tours, which officially kick-off on Saturday with a few bonus battles sprinkled in between.
Outside of the Springboks’ clash with Wales in Cardiff (catch our preview above), the pick of the Tests is a case of saving the best for last as surging Scotland and Australia meet at Murrayfield on Sunday. Here’s how we see things playing out:
Italy v New Zealand
Friday, 15 October – 20:35
Italy have been woeful for a while now. They’ve lost seven in a row and leaked over 40 points in the last five. Their last outing in June saw them get mauled 52-10 by Scotland at Murrayfield. With thunderstorms forecast, the All Blacks won’t be able to unleash the full extent of their unrivalled flair, which should limit the scoreboard damage.
Ireland v Japan
Saturday, 6 November – 15:00
Japan have always been fighters and they showed that warrior spirit against Australia last weekend. Trailing 27-13, they clawed their way back to within four and only a late try sealed the result – a 32-23 Wallabies win. Grit aside, these aren’t the ground-breaking Brave Blossoms that reached the World Cup playoffs for the first time in a fairytale campaign on home soil that included a 19-12 win over the Irish two years ago, winning just one of their last five matches.
What’s more, a heavy pitch as a result of showers that are expected to fall during the day will slow down the visitors, who rely heavily on up-tempo offence to slice through defensive lines. Ireland are a significantly stronger side and on what’s set to be the occasion of flyhalf Johnny Sexton’s 100th Test, they should power to a solid win.
England v Tonga
Saturday, 6 November – 17:15
The future has finally arrived for England with Eddie Jones pulling the trigger on the mercurial Marcus Smith. The most exciting young flyhalf to emerge in years, the 22-year-old is being handed the keys and will have the experienced head of Owen Farrell on his outside.
At the time of writing, word came out that he’s “touch and go” due to a leg injury, so the margin will come down to whether or not he’s fit. It’s a massive minus but considering Scotland romped to a 46-point win over the Islanders last weekend, a wunderkind-inspired England should clear the hurdle. If not, they’ll win by a solid 40-something but Tonga should cover the plus.
France v Argentina
Saturday, 6 November – 22:00
These nations are generally evenly matched with the French finding themselves on the right side of a 6-4 record in the last 10 Tests. There has been more daylight between them in recent years, though. If France don’t shoot themselves in the foot, like when they let the foot off the gas after racing into a 20-3 lead to eke out a 23-21 win in the last clash at the World Cup, they win comfortably, as the 27-0 and 28-13 wins that preceded the 2019 match showed.
Les Bleus have a long list of injuries, including captain Charles Ollivon, hooker Camille Chat, centre Pierre-Louis Barassi and wing Teddy Thomas, but the Pumas have been so poor this year – coming off a winless Rugby Championship campaign in which they were pushovers – that the hosts, who let a Six Nations Grand Slam slip in the final minute of the championship – should claim a comfortable win.
With the world’s best scrumhalf Antoine Dupont running the show as stand-in skipper, Les Bleus are bound to find the openings in Argentina’s leaky defence and overcome the handicap.
Scotland v Australia
Sunday, 7 November – 16:15
Neutrals will be surprised that Scotland won the last two meetings between these nations. They scored a famous 24-19 win Down Under in 2017 and walloped the Wallabies 53-24 at Murrayfield later that year in what as the most recent encounter.
These are two teams on the rise with plenty of momentum. Scotland were extremely competitive in the Six Nations, stunning England 11-6 at Twickenham first up, narrowly losing to Wales (25-24) and Ireland (27-24), sweeping Italy aside (52-10) and denying France the title with a 27-23 triumph in Paris. They shook off the rust with a 60-14 trouncing of Tonga and will fancy their chances against a weakened Wallabies team.
Australia are without the two pillars that lifted them from a trifecta of thrashing by arch-rivals New Zealand to five wins on the trot including back-to-back wins over the world champion Springboks in Samu Kerevi and a returning Quade Cooper. The star duo are among a small pocket of players who opted to report back to their Japanese clubs while injuries are also making things challenging for Dave Rennie.
They survived a bit of a scare to claim a 32-23 victory over Japan last weekend but against a confident Scotland side at a packed Murrayfield where showers are expected, which will help the hosts, I sense an upset.