While many may have had their eyes glued on the events of Russia 2018, where Germany have exited at the group stage, rugby union fans have been keeping an eye on the 2018 mid-year internationals.
With Japan 2019 a mere 14 months away, these internationals are an early bellwether of which home nation side looks likeliest to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in the 9th version of the tournament next year.
Played: South Africa in 3-test series. Result: 2-1 series loss.
England’s Six Nations rot continued in their tour of South Africa as they succumbed to defeats in Johannesburg (42-39) and Bloemfontein (23-12), before grinding out a consolation victory in rain-soaked Cape Town. Even with the series long since lost, the Cape Town result was probably a welcome relief to Head Coach Eddie Jones. The man who masterminded Japan’s magnificent win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup has faced increasing criticism and received less than total support from England’s rugby governing body, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), even after England avoided a sixth straight defeat. The halcyon days of 24 wins in the first 25 matches Jones was in charge increasingly seem a distant memory.
All the more frustratingly, in both tests England lost they got off to flying starts, leading 12-0 in Bloemfontein and after barely a quarter of the match 24-3 ahead in Johannesburg. Indiscipline remains the Achilles heel of the team, with 13 penalties conceded each in the first two tests. By contrast, in the final match in Cape Town England only conceded 6 penalties.
Hopefully, England have now turned a corner, but they no longer seem the most convincing home nations challengers for the Webb Ellis trophy. That burden is bestowed to…
Played: Australia in 3-test series. Result: 2-1 series win.
Completing a first series win in Australia since 1979 after a Grand Slam Six Nations campaign, Ireland would probably want the World Cup to come sooner. Although defeat in the first test (18-9) when their talismanic fly-half Johnny Sexton was rested suggests a lack of depth in the key play-making position, surely Ireland can be hopeful of their best ever World Cup next year. Packed with players from the joint Pro 14 and European Champions Cup-winning Leinster (and the other Irish province sides aren’t bad, either), the squad is experienced (the half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Sexton have 143 caps between them) and has a clear strategy under Head Coach Joe Schmidt of incredibly disciplined play and a precise kicking game, putting pressure on opposition back threes’.
They may not possess the greatest flair, but Ireland are increasingly the most effective and their autumn test at home to New Zealand fully merits its high likelihood of being the clash between the 1st and 2nd best ranked teams in the world.
Played: Canada, USA & Argentina in Tour of Americas. Result: Wins over Canada and Argentina divided by defeat to the USA.
Although Scotland have improved considerably in the past few Six Nations, beating everyone at Murrayfield, their away form leaves much to be desired. Even with a slightly experimental squad on this Americas tour, to show signs of progress on away form, Scotland needed to win all 3 tests – Canada and the USA are Tier 2 rugby nations, while by the time Wales had seen them off, Argentina were a desperate mess.
Comfortable victories over the Maple Leaves (48-10) and Pumas (44-15) were achieved, but a fired-up USA humbled Scotland 30-29 in Houston.
Coupled with a very fortunate win over a weak Italy in the final Six Nations weekend, facing the hosts Japan in the same pool at the 2019 Rugby World Cup looks currently very much like a banana skin for Scotland. With the Autumn Internationals hosted by the northern hemisphere nations, it won’t be until the 2019 Six Nations when Scotland will have the chance to improve their away form.
Played: South Africa in the USA, & Argentina in 2-test series. Result: Clean sweep of wins.
Head Coach Warren Gatland named a highly experimental Welsh squad for their summer internationals. With the South Africa test outside the sanctioned international test window, both sides fielded largely second-string teams, but Gatland will surely have been pleased to have seen the character with which Wales fought back to reclaim a lost lead.
Then, playing against a vastly more experienced Argentina side over two matches, all whom play together in the Super Rugby Argentina franchise team Jaguares, the thrown-together Welsh squad produced performances of steel, efficiency and dominance at the breakdown to dismantle Argentina. Missing the likes of first-team starters centre Jonathan Davies, scrum half Rhys Webb, flanker Sam Warburton and fly-half Dan Biggar who sunk English hearts in 2015, this summer’s Welsh squad has created a number of selection dilemmas for Gatland going forward. His blooding of new talent like Cardiff Blues flanker Ellis Jenkins may well prove smart for the World Cup, with the arduous schedule if a team reaches the latter stages requiring strength in depth of a team’s squad of 32.
So there it is, England faltering, Scotland’s away woes continuing and Wales building impressive strength in depth, but Ireland undoubtedly still the home nations’ side to beat.