The 2022 Autumn internationals are now well underway, with the majority of teams in action last weekend and having a chance to show what they can do. Whilst there were some sides who impressed and some who showed that they still have a lot of work to do, it is clear that the next few weeks will be full of exciting rugby to keep fans glued to their screens.
This tactical analysis will preview the second week of fixtures, providing comments on each of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses and analysis of their key tactics and styles of play. The article will also identify one player to keep an eye on in each of the matches who could have a major say on who comes out on top.
Ireland v Fiji
Saturday 1pm, Aviva Stadium
This could be a really physical encounter, with both teams’ styles of play revolving around strong carries and playing the long game when necessary. Ireland in particular had to dig in deep last weekend against South Africa, with neither side having many opportunities to break through each other, and it came down to who blinked first (which, in the end, was the Springboks).
The visit of Fiji will not be a dissimilar experience, with the Southern Hemisphere side showing against Scotland last time out that they are only too happy to throw their weight around and dictate matches when they can. However, Fiji are also likely to become more open as the game goes on, with Scotland scoring two easy tries last time out after their opponents got their defensive setup wrong. Therefore, it is highly likely that Ireland will have similar chances to score against them, so patience will be essential if they are to take the win.
One to watch
With this encounter likely to involve a lot of carries and hard territorial battles, a good deal of Ireland’s play will revolve around how well Jamison Gibson-Park plays, as the Leinster scrum-half will need to show strong judgement when his team has the ball, picking out the right passes at the right time, and will need to be a commanding figure at the heart of his side’s play. That last point becomes even more important when considering that the influence of regular captain and Leinster teammate Johnny Sexton will be missing this weekend.
Italy v Australia
Saturday 1pm, Stadio Artemio Franchi
Over the last few years, Italy’s performances have not been much to write home about, with them often showing early promise but then falling away as the match or tournament goes on.
However, since Kieran Crowley took charge in May last year, there have been huge improvements in the way they have played and gone about their rugby, with them now staying in matches for longer and even ending their long wait for a Six Nations win, which came in Cardiff earlier this year.
In the months since that success, they have clearly regained their confidence and have been working hard on tidying up different elements of their game, with their win against Samoa last weekend built on accurate passing, fast transitions and well-worked phases of play. Samoa are a well-known rugby-playing nation, so shouldn’t be underestimated, but they simply couldn’t deal with the Azzurri at times, making it a fairly one-sided contest.
However, that was last weekend, and this is this, with Australia a completely different opponent. The Wallabies have started their tour of the Northern Hemisphere with a win against Scotland and a defeat to France, and both showed that the tourists are beatable if opponents can draw them out of position and exploit the spaces in behind, which should give Italy something to build on as they look to continue their improvement ahead of next year’s World Cup.
One to watch
If Italy can control periods of the game, then their quicker players will be essential to helping them move the ball behind Australia and exploiting their weaknesses. One of the players who could have a huge say on the match is winger Monty Ioane, who has demonstrated that he has good footwork and pace to burn, making him a major try-scoring threat. He doesn’t always make the right decisions with the ball, which might let him down at times, but Italy will still need him to get on the ball as often as possible if they are to have any chance of keeping the Wallabies at bay.
England v Japan
Saturday 3.15pm, Twickenham Stadium
England head coach Eddie Jones always says the same thing in the months leading up to a major tournament like the World Cup, in that he wants his team to keep developing and always focus on the long-term aim. However, even he will know that last Saturday’s performance against Argentina was not good enough and won’t have helped anything, with his players untidy in possession and making errors all over the pitch. They did score two tries through Bath winger Joe Cokanasiga and Leicester Tigers scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, but that was as good as it got for them.
Fast forward a week, and they will hope to put some of those areas right against a Japan side who will be well-known to Jones, with him previously coaching the Brave Blossoms between 2012 and 2015. The visitors will not be an easy opponent, having shown against New Zealand a couple of weeks ago that they can’t be counted out of any contest, and it is clear that they don’t fear anyone, regardless of titles won or world ranking.
They can also adapt to different styles of play, which is important, with Toyota Verblitz flanker Kazuki Himeno a threat whenever the ball hits the ground and Tokyo Sungoliath winger Kotaro Matsushima memorably scoring a hat-trick of tries against Russia in the opening match of the 2019 World Cup. Therefore, England will need to be wary of them and never let their guard down, otherwise they could end up on the back of another defeat and yet more questions.
One to watch
With Japan being a team that will look to put pressure on the ball and try to secure turnovers at every opportunity, there could be a lot of space open behind their lines for England to target. As a result, the creative kicking ability of Marcus Smith could be called into play on a lot of occasions in this game, with him needing to give the likes of Jack Nowell and Jonny May, who will start on the wings, opportunities to get forward and use their pace to keep Japan on the back foot as much as possible.
Wales v Argentina
Saturday 5.30pm, Principality Stadium
Wales in attack looked alright against New Zealand, with them getting on the ball in good areas and constantly looking to put pressure on their opponents. However, defensively, they were all over the place, with them lacking any ability to keep New Zealand out either on their own try line, where they were continuously forced back, or in open play, and some of the eight tries that the All Blacks scored in Cardiff last weekend were far too easy.
Argentina showed last weekend against England that they are also a tough team to play against, with many of their squad currently shining for their domestic sides, and they made their hosts look very ordinary at times on Sunday afternoon. Wales, with their defensive issues, will be another team that they will feel they have a good chance of beating, with their front foot style of play and ability to capitalise on opponents’ mistakes giving them a good chance of doing the same thing again.
One to watch
Wales have made several changes to their team for this match, not just in terms of new names coming into the XV but also with some players moving into different positions. One of those who will have an alternative role on Saturday afternoon is Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit, who will start at full-back. He has only played there on a couple of occasions for the Cherry and Whites, but will need to be at his best this weekend in order to prevent players like Newcastle Falcons attacker Mateo Carreras and Edinburgh’s Emiliano Boffelli from causing too many problems, especially as he will be the last line of defence for his side.
France v South Africa
Saturday 8pm, Stade Velodrome
Two heavyweights going up against each other will be an exciting prospect for any rugby fan, and the meeting of this year’s Six Nations winners and the current World Cup holders is a game that will be sure to attract plenty of interest.
France, for their part, took a while to work their way into the game against Australia last weekend, but looked unstoppable once they did. Their improvement under Fabien Galthie has been nothing short of remarkable, and one thing that has been central to their good form under him is their teamwork, with every attack they make being supported with numbers and making it as difficult as possible for their opponents to either end an attack or to regain possession. They also have the ability to take full advantage of mistakes made by their opponents, as Australia found out last weekend, which shows why they are such a dangerous team to play against at the moment.
However, South Africa, who will face them in Marseille on Saturday, are not a team who make many mistakes. The Springboks possess plenty of power around the field and rely heavily on their ability to break through opponents with strong carries, as well as their robust defensive play, so will be formidable opponents for Les Bleus. That is not to say that they are perfect though, as Ireland did manage to find some weaknesses in their play that opponents can exploit, with their incisive play helping to move the ball through the gaps in South Africa’s line when they appeared.
One to watch
Whilst it is a test for France, it is worth remembering that this will also be a tricky match for South Africa, with the tourists needing to work hard to prevent their opponents from settling into their preferred way of playing by winning the ball quickly and not allowing France time to make decisions.
One player who is always important at securing possession and getting involved in tough contests is Eben Etzebeth, with the Sharks lock a key cog in the Springboks machine for a long time now and someone that they can always rely on to put on a performance when his team need one. There is no doubt that he will need to be on top form in Marseille, with strong carriers like Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio and Gregory Alldritt on the other side of the pitch, and his ability to be disruptive could prove vital in helping his team over the line.
Scotland v New Zealand
Sunday 2.15pm, Murrayfield
There are currently a lot of serious questions surrounding the Scottish national team and where they are going, with many fans questioning head coach Gregor Townsend’s tactical and personnel decisions as they continue to build towards what they hope will be a positive display in France next year.
So far this Autumn, they have lost to Australia and have beaten Fiji, so it has been a mixed bag from them so far, and the thing that has baffled fans the most about those games is Townsend’s decision to not include star fly-half Finn Russell in his initial squad for the campaign, with Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings starting at standoff in each of those matches instead. However, there has been a lack of sparkle in their performances so far this series – a sparkle that Russell is capable of providing when on top form.
Nevertheless, there have been some positives, with them recovering from a slow start against Fiji to come through and win in the end, whilst there was also some good defensive play on show against the Wallabies on the previous weekend, particularly from Edinburgh centre Mark Bennett, so there will be things that they can use to frustrate New Zealand and give the former world champions some headaches when they arrive at Murrayfield on Sunday.
The All Blacks, for their part, will be pleased with their performance against Wales. They will know that it was easier than it perhaps should have been for them, but will be happy with the way that they kept pushing and stayed focused on the task at hand, as well as their ability to be clinical and take their opportunities. It was a big improvement on what they did in Tokyo the previous weekend, when they got the job done but looked blown away at times by Japan’s desire, and they are definitely on an upwards trajectory which they will want to keep going as the series goes on.
One to watch
There are many players that could have a big say on who comes out on top in Edinburgh, but the person that everyone will have their eyes on will undoubtedly be Russell. As mentioned, the Racing 92 star has been the subject of a lot of questions recently, but he has been recalled after the injury to Hastings, and has been included in the starting XV for this game. Fans will be hoping that he can inspire Scotland to a strong performance and one that leaves them with their heads held high when the 80 minutes are up.