As chill winds and broken boilers herald the arrival of November in Oxford, the return of international rugby to JCR TV screens across the university is a welcome ray of light in the afternoon gloom (so long as you can expunge any prospective Strictly-watchers from the room). The snappily-named QBE Autumn Internationals begin for England with the visit of Fiji to Twickenham on Saturday, kicking off four weeks of excitement, drama and the tragicomedy of watching the Scots attempt to score a try.
England head into their opening game with much cause for optimism. A poor showing on tour in South Africa aside, the new-look coaching set-up has brought fresh ideas and players to the table. The announcement of the squad, however, has left some muttering darkly about a return to the bad old days of Martin Johnson’s conservative tenure, which, dwarf-tossing aside, was one that most fans will be glad to have already forgotten about. Lancaster’s oft-repeated claim to pick form players appears hollow when one looks at the plethora of exciting talent that has been overlooked. Freddie Burns of Gloucester has been the form English ten in the Premiership this year, but Lancaster has stuck with the dependable Toby Flood and the young-but-dull Owen Farrell as his main stand-off options. On the wings, Ugo Monye has undoubtedly been on his game this season, but the electrifying pace of Wasp flyer Christian Wade surely has more to offer than either Charlie Sharples or Dave Strettle. The lack of French-based players is also a travesty. Steffon Armitage was named the player of the season in the French Top 14 last year, and is exactly the seven England are crying out for, the impending decision on his possible ban for a failed drugs test notwithstanding.
As for their opponents, the Fijians will provide some resistance, but it is injuries in the Australian and South African ranks which offer the Home Nations real opportunity. The Aussies travel without the mercurial talents of playmakers Will Genia and Quade Cooper, who provide much of their attacking threat. Their poor showing in the Rugby Championship and even, horror of horrors, a home defeat to Scotland over the summer give the indication that this is a match England really ought to win.
South Africa will be a harder nut to crack. They too are missing some big stars, most notably winger Bryan Habana and a clutch of experienced forwards. As with any Springbok game, though, it will be a physical occasion, and the new generation being brought through the ranks will be anxious to prove themselves.
New Zealand are New Zealand. It will be a major surprise if any of the home nations come up with a result against the World Champions, who are on a seventeen-match unbeaten run and have few injury problems to contend with. One addition to the fearsome All Black attack to look out for is Julian Savea, the 22 year-old ‘next Lomu’ who scored a hat-trick on debut against Ireland in the summer. With the likes of Savea and Israel Dagg in the backline and Richie McCaw still doing the job in the loose, the All Blacks will fancy their chances of a clean sweep – but not if the England boys have anything to say about it on December 2nd.