By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
We missed rugby’s Autumn Internationals last year. Of course we like the World Cup, but we also like matches that the teams of the Six Nations actually have a realistic chance of winning.
Of course it wasn’t all bad for the Northern hemisphere sides against their more cocky southern cousins 12 months ago, just mainly bad. But while the World Cup has generally highlighted the gulf in class, the Autumn Internationals have given us a chance to strike at the right time and delude ourselves into thinking we’re not as bad as they like to tell us we are.
We’ve got two really good Money-Back Specials on offer for this weekend in the Ireland v South Africa and Wales v Argentina matches. If Tommy Bowe or George North score a try in their respective match, we’ll refund all losing tryscorer bets on that match.
Turn that shrug of indifference upside down pessimistic, northern hemisphere-ite. The Six Nations teams actually have a good chance of recording some morale boosting wins over their visitors. Even Scotland. With the southern season at its end and a World Cup three years away, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia will be (a) experimenting and (b) thinking of a tropical beach and 35 degree heat, not getting whiskey-fuelled abuse from the middle classes in a sodden European city.
Saturday 5.30pm RTE2 & BBC2
Ireland’s long injury list is good news for the players getting a chance they wouldn’t normally get and the medical professionals of this world, but it makes the task of beating the Boks a lot harder than would normally be expected. Thankfully, the visitors embark on the tour without some familiar names, so it’s about honours even on the ‘walking wounded’ front. There may be new personnel, but the South African game-plan looks about as original as a One Direction song, which coach, Heyneke Meyer apparently ordering extra kicking and scrimmaging training in the build-up to the game at the Artist formerly known as Lansdowne Road.
Ireland recorded three wins on the bounce against during the November internationals between 2004 and 2009 and they fell just short last time around, so a victory is possible. The doubts emerge when you start to think about the importance of some of Ireland’s absentees. Rory Best, Brian O’Driscoll, Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney are all capable of providing moments of crowd pleasing Braveheart-esque inspiration and their loss put huge pressure on the less experience replacements.
Saturday 2.30pm Sky Sports 1
Injuries and the lure of French cash has combined to bring an unfamiliar look to the England side to host Fiji this Saturday. Still though, it’s Fiji and whatever side Stuart Lancaster fields, it will be expected to win and win comfortably.
That view might do a bit of a disservice to Fiji, who will make it a tough afternoon for the Sweet Chariot, but in the end, England’s quality should prevail and a failure to beat the handicap of -32 points will be viewed as a below par performance. With places for the games against the original Tri-Nations teams up for grabs, anyone who gets a run out at Twickenham will be desperate to hang on to the jersey.
England haven’t lost to Fiji in four previous meetings with the Pacific islanders and there’s more chance of Kyran Bracken starting at scrum half wearing his ice skating leotard than that changing anytime soon. The Alternative Handicap of -43 points at 23/10 looks tempting.
Saturday 2.30pm BBC1
Everyone likes playing Argentina about as much as they like a root canal with minimal anaesthetic, but it’s how Wales start their November internationals. It will certainly toughen them up for the autumn programme. The Pumas pose a familiar threat – plenty of bulk and an uncertain amount of guile. The return of the mercurial Felipe Contepomi to the team should mean there’s more inventiveness to the visitors’ approach so it’s not exactly an afternoon off for numbers 11 to 15.
The Welsh will need to be aware of the threat, but you get the impression won’t focus too much on Saturday’s opponents. Even allowing for a few injuries, Wales are the better team across the board and they have the quality to control the game. The Pumas might be able to disrupt Welsh attempts to get the ball wide for a while, but over the course of the 80 minutes, talent like Alex Cuthbert, George North and Leigh Halfpenny will get a chance to run and cause the tourists major problems.
The nine point handicap is perfectly positioned. If Wales get going, they could destroy it, but if Argentina are at their stifling best, they’ll make it a close game. With Wales’ autumn challenges lop-sided towards the end of the month, they may want to keep their powder slightly dry and it’s the Pumas +9 points who are worth supporting at 10/11.
Sunday 2.30pm BBC1
With Scotland at a low ebb, the visit of the world champions and recently crowned Championship winners must feel a lot like inviting John Terry around to get to know your significant other. Any thoughts that the All Blacks might enjoy a spell of resting on their laurels after their World Cup win were put to bed with a resounding performance en route to victory in the newly formed Tri-Nations plus one.
Scotland aren’t as bad as the bare form of their recent World Cup and Six Nations campaigns suggest, but it’s still unrealisitic to think they’ll be the team to inflict the All Blacks’ first defeat since the assumed the throne of world champions. For once, that’s not all down to natural Scottish pessimism. Even if the visitors aren’t at full strength, they normally have enough hungry young up and comers for it make virtually no difference.
Still though, it’s international rugby and a 26 point handicap is a lot to cover, even if you’re the All Blacks. The Murrayfield support normally coaxes a better performance from the players and that can translate into making life very tricky for New Zealand. Scotland +26 points at 10/11 might be the way to go.