By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
It was a great start to the Autumn Internationals for the teams of the Six Nations. Provided they’re called England or France. For the others, it was a combination of the infuriating, the inevitable and the inept.
As a result of the varying results, week two of the fixtures have gone from being ‘a middling bunch of games we suspect we already know the outcome of’ to ‘a massively important bunch of games we suspect we already know the outcome of’.
England v Australia
Saturday, 2.30pm Twickenham - Sky Sports 1
England can take a lot of positives from the sound hiding they gave Fiji. The Sweet Chariot can’t get too smug because beating the Melasesians is rugby’s equivalent if beating Jedward in an IQ Test. That’s not too say there shouldn’t be a certain amount of back-patting and confidence emerging from the game . There were a lot of strong performances from Stuart Lancaster’s far from full strength team however and if they can recapture this Saturday, they should have too much for Australia.
The Wallabies first November Test went as well as Holly Valance’s singing career. They simply got thumped in Paris. The vague stirrings of wanting to save some face may produce a better performance against England, but it’s not guaranteed to work out that way.
The Aussies are frequently the lowest hanging Tri-Nations fruit of the Autumn Interntionals and after a long season, they will struggle to reinvigorate themselves. There’s one mitigating factor however and it’s the motivation of beating the English. We know Australians like losing to the Poms almost as much as they like modesty, so they will at least have the incentive of a better performance.
England should win the game and based on the comparative freshness/fatigue of the two sides, beating the handicap of -6 points is very achievable.
Scotland v South Africa
Saturday, 2.30pm, Murrayfield - BBC1
The visit of the All Blacks to Murrayfield had a hint of ‘ferocious asteroid heading for a flimsy treehouse’ about it, but in the end the Scots acquitted themselves reasonably well against the world champions. What promised to be more disturbing than revelations about the Krankies’ sex life, turned out reasonably well and the hosts need to build on that for the eminently more winnable game against South Africa.
Similar to last week, they lack the quality of their visitors, but the support of a vocal Murrayfield can go some way to bridging the gulf in class. Andy Robinson has been able to coax good once-off performances out of his team in the last couple of years, but stringing a few of them together has been a problematic. With the possibility of a higher seeding in the draw for the 2015 World Cup up for grabs, now would be a nice time to change that.
The Springboks performed to type with a physical display of forward power against Ireland and if anything, that will play into the hands of Scotland, particularly with Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira returning home. It’s where they’re at their strongest and they should be able to match up well against the Boks pack.
Expecting a Scottish win might be a little too optimistic, but then again, most things are a little too optimistic for a Scot. Taking them on the handicap +10 points at 10/11 feels more realistic against the below full strength tourists.
Ireland XV v Fiji
It may not count as an official Test match, but this is one of the most important insignificant games have played in quite a few years. There were things to like about the narrowly loss to South Africa, but ultimately it was another defeat, another game without a try and the continuation of a general malaise that set in around three minutes into the World Cup quarter-final against Wales. Ahead of a game against Argentina that will decide the team’s seeding for the 2015 World Cup, rediscovering what it’s like to in front at the final whistle is crucial.
One of the positives of the game against the Springboks was how thy team remained competitive even without a handful of totemic performers. To glass half empty that crumb of comfort, the Boks were also far from full strength so it’s hard to know what the right amount of solace is to take.
‘Experimentation’ is the key word for this game. After going five games with a win, it may have been the public experimenting with the right stimulants to see them through another 80 minutes of disappointment, but it’s actually Declan Kidney who is showing his more adventurous side. He has given several unfamiliar faces the chance not to add to their caps tally with a run out against the Fly Fijians.
Even if there are a number of unfamiliar faces lining out against Fiji, a comfortable win is expected. Ireland have racked up an aggregate scoreline of 149-31 in three meetings with Saturday’s visitors. With the new faces desperate to earn an actual cap, the motivation to produce a good performance is huge and hopefully enough to cover a -23 point handicap.
Wales v Samoa
Friday 7.30pm, Millennium Stadium - BBC Wales
If nothing else, Wales have been consistent when it comes to the opening game of their Autumn series. They haven’t won one since 2000, but the latest may be the most unpalatable of the lot. Argentina get plenty of lip service about being ‘tough opposition’ and an ‘emerging power’ and those cliches have a big enough basis in fact to be accurate. Still though, you’re expected to beat them, especially at home. The Welsh can take a defeat pretty well – providing it’s not as a result of a perfectly fine refereeing decision they’re not happy with – but losing by such a margin to the Pumas is enough to spark a backlash.
The dumping of captain, Sam Warbuton is a powerful signal from the coaching set up. That signal being ‘no-one is indispensible if they’re not pulling their weight’ and if there was any lingering complancency following their Grand Slam earlier this year, a move like that should blow it away. The pressure is on and to an extent the game with Samoa is a hiding to nothing. If they win well, it’s all that was expected. If they win less convincingly or even contrive not to claim victory, then it will send a nation into more despair than Charlotte and Gavin’s break-up.
With games against South Africa and New Zealand to come, they need the ego boost of a resounding win and they should get it. Wales to beat the handicap and win by the Alternative Margin of -22 points at 11/4 is the choice.