A November schedule to savour
The November internationals will soon be here, and this year there will be a dash of added spice as the world’s leading teams battle to secure a top four banding at the Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool Allocation Draw on 3 December.
Fresh from victory in the inaugural staging of The Rugby Championship, not to mention Rugby World Cup 2011, New Zealand arrive in the northern hemisphere as the team to beat – although that hasn’t proven to be an easy feat in recent times.
While their 18-18 Bledisloe Cup draw with Australia in Brisbane on 20 October ended hopes of setting a new record for consecutive Test victories in November, the All Blacks boast an unbeaten record in Europe – outside of Rugby World Cups – that stretches back to 2002.
On that occasion, it was Clive Woodward’s England who stopped a youthful New Zealand side and the All Blacks will touch down again at Twickenham on 1 December.
Prior to that, Scotland and Italy will have a shot at their first ever Test wins over New Zealand, while Grand Slam winners Wales are eyeing a first victory since the days of the legendary Bleddyn Williams in 1953.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has included two uncapped players in his squad, Chiefs scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow – poised to become New Zealand’s latest Junior World Championship graduate – and Wellington hooker Dane Coles.
Any victory over the world champions would be a tonic, but England and Wales in particular have added impetus as the time ticks down on the race to earn a top four spot in the IRB World Rankings and secure a band one seeding for the Pool Allocation Draw.
The top four sides in the IRB World Rankings when they update at 12:00 UK time on 3 December will be kept apart in the Pool Allocation Draw, a banding England will hope to be in to avoid the prospect of a hosts versus defending champions scenario at RWC 2015.
While England, who currently hold this coveted fourth spot, are tackling the All Blacks on 1 December, Wales will take on the Wallabies in Cardiff with revenge on the menu after a series of close-run losses between the Rugby World Cup 2011 Bronze Final and their June series.
Robbie Deans welcomes back David Pocock, Stephen Moore and Berrick Barnes for their European tour, with stops also scheduled for Tests against France – ranked fifth in the rankings at the time of writing – England and Italy.
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer is preparing for his first northern hemisphere tour since taking the reins, and his Springboks will have their work cut out against Ireland, Scotland and England. Currently ranked third, Meyer’s men are in need of some results to ensure there aren’t any nasty surprises in their future.
Pumas out to improve further
Among five new faces in the Springbok squad are wing Raymond Rhule, scrum half Jano Vermaak, second row Franco van der Merwe, utility back Lionel Mapoe and back row Arno Botha, while northern hemisphere fans will see familiar faces as Saracens hooker Schalk Brits and Toulouse prop Gurthro Steenkamp have secured recalls.
One man who will not travel is Bryan Habana, with the experienced wing who had been back to his best in The Rugby Championship ruled out after suffering a knee injury in Western Province’s Currie Cup victory last month.
Argentina, fresh from their sterling debut in The Rugby Championship, also make the trip north and have a tough schedule against Wales, France and Ireland. Los Pumas have long been a team not to be trifled with, but Santiago Phelan will want to see their new experience bring results against three of the north’s big guns.
With legendary prop Rodrigo Roncero now retired and full back Martin Rodriguez injured there is a slightly different look to this touring squad, although former Harlequins and Stade Français centre Gonzalo Tiesi makes a welcome return after sitting out The Rugby Championship due to injury.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will also be leading a charge into Europe, accompanied by Canada, Japan and the USA, with their own special, thrilling brand of rugby set to provide plenty of highlights. Look out for a preview of these matches next week.