June is always the cruellest month for the major European rugby-playing nations, whose great summer triumphs south of the Equator come round as frequently as Halley’s Comet. November is a different matter, but not as different as the home countries would like. Too often, they are thrashed by the All Blacks and the Springboks at both ends of the season. Too often, they flatter to deceive – at best.
There can be no flattering this time, let alone any deception. If England fail to win three of their four Tests in the autumn series, which begins at Twickenham this afternoon with a South Seas smash-fest against Fiji that should speed them on their merry way towards a more significant date with Australia next weekend, they will feel they have under-performed. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, might not admit as much in public, but that will be the truth of it.
Wales, the reigning Six Nations Grand Slammers, will also expect to win three from four, despite losing key forwards to injury – the prop Adam Jones, the flanker Dan Lydiate – and fretting over the future of their regional sides, all of whom are sailing full steam ahead into a financial maelstrom. Neither country anticipates victory over New Zealand, of course, but that goes with the territory.
Expectations elsewhere are lower. Scotland, ridiculed in the land of the All Blacks for their antediluvian approach to the union game, have first tilt at Richie McCaw and company at Murrayfield tomorrow. Guess what? They’re not banking on a scoreboard surprise, any more than England or Wales. Ireland? They might have been favourites to beat the Springboks in Dublin this afternoon had they not been riddled with injury. As things stand, any kind of win over Heyneke Meyer’s tourists would be something special.
It is to London and Cardiff that rugby folk in these islands must look for succour. Assuming England do a proper job on an unfamiliar, understrength Fijian outfit – as they surely will, despite the fact that the islanders drew with Wales at the Millennium Stadium as recently as recently as two years ago – they will seriously fancy their chances of prevailing over the Wallabies for the fourth time in seven attempts stretching back to the knock-out stage of the 2007 World Cup. Australia are travelling even lighter than Fiji, albeit for reasons of injury rather than contractual jiggery-pokery involving some of Europe’s major professional club teams.
South Africa, who reach Twickenham a fortnight today, should be a more challenging proposition than the Wallabies, and New Zealand, who pitch up seven days later, will be tougher again. Yet it is not beyond the realms of possibility that England will be chasing an autumnal Grand Slam of their own when McCaw, Daniel Carter, Conrad Smith and the rest of the silver-ferned glitterati come prowling through the Lion Gate. And if this turns out to be the case, it should be some ride for the capacity crowd: the roughest, hardest, most gripping England-New Zealand contest since 2005, when the great Tana Umaga saved the tourists’ collective skin with a phenomenal captain’s performance in adversity.
Andy Farrell, back in the red-rose coaching set-up after his funny five minutes of indecision last spring, left no one in any doubt as to his minimum requirements during his eve-of-match address yesterday. “The passion, the intensity and the fighting spirit we showed in the Six Nations, and again during the summer series in South Africa, are givens as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “What we’re looking for is the extra 15 or 20 per cent on top. We need to kick on to the next level now and a big part of that will be about game management, which is something we’ve spent a lot of time talking through in the 12 days we’ve been together.”
Farrell also had a clear idea of why the SANZAR sides take rather more from their annual trips north than the European teams take from their ventures south. “Australia, South Africa, New Zealand…their players go up against each other all the time, both internationally and in the Super 15,” he commented. “When they come up here, it’s different for them – almost a new lease of life. The change of culture excites them enough to make them want to tour at the end of a long season. They come here knowing that the last matches of the campaign are just ahead of them and think: ‘Right, let’s make the most of it.’”
If Farrell, Lancaster and company already know a good deal about the likes of Toby Flood and Danny Care, the half-backs charged with controlling events against the Fijians, they are in blank-sheet territory elsewhere. Will Alex Goode bring a full measure of footballing know-how to the full-back role? Can Charlie Sharples mount a meaningful challenge to the suspended Chris Ashton as England’s first-choice right wing? Will the new hooker Tom Youngs succumb to the yips at line-out time? Are the debutants on the bench, Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury, really as good as the coaches think?
On the face of it, all these players should provide acceptable answers over the course of this afternoon’s proceedings. Had the Fijians armed themselves with back-line talents as brilliant as Isa Nacewa and Napolioni Nalaga, and travelled with force-of-nature forwards as dangerous as Jone Qovu and Netani Talei, they would have posed a threat worthy of the name. But many of these tourists are still playing club rugby in the Pacific and barely know what it is to travel more than a few hundred miles. Should Inoke Male, their coach, succeed in bringing together so inexperienced a squad in the scandalously short time available to him, it will be a minor miracle.
This game is England’s for the taking. If for some strange reason they should mess it up, they could still hit their three-victory target. It will just be a little more difficult, that’s all.
Guide to awesome Autumn: Key players to watch
Not the quickest, but the full-back's speed of thought is priceless. England look more creative with the Saracen on board.
The lock pairing of Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell is on its last legs, so the Irish need a new authority figure. Step forward Ryan.
One-dimensional Scottish rugby is the butt of many a joke, but the outside-half has the ability to ram a few words down Antipodean throats.
Long-range marksmanship aside, the full-back has developed a knack of influencing big games. A strong series will make a Lion of him.
Fast-tracked into the side at outside-half. Among the most gifted players of the pro era, he is purest box office.
Scrum-half rated the best of this Azzurri generation. Has been the next big thing for a while. It is time to drop the "next".
Filling the gap left by Quade Cooper, the full-back's stint at No 10 should be compelling.
The world's best player needs a rest and could have taken one now. His delayed sabbatical is a source of worry to the whole of European rugby.
Bang in form, the Bath flanker has played his way back into the international reckoning.
Julio Farias Cabello
How strong is this man? Don't ask. Picked by the Pumas straight out of the Argentine rugby badlands. Formidable.
The Gloucester back-rower's brilliant performance against Leicester guaranteed a late approach from the selectors. Brilliant on his day.
A rugby league refugee whose reputation as a big-hit tackler is well established.
An eye-catching performer since joining London Irish in the summer.
Test card: Fixtures and TV
Italy v Tonga (2pm, ESPN)
England v Fiji (2.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Wales v Argentina (2.30pm, BBC 1)
Ireland v South Africa (5.30pm, BBC 2)
France v Australia (8pm, ESPN)
Scotland v New Zealand (2.30pm, BBC 1)
Wales v Samoa (7.30pm)
Italy v New Zealand (2pm, ESPN)
England v Australia (2.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Scotland v South Africa (2.30pm, BBC 1)
France v Argentina (8pm, ESPN)
Ireland v Argentina (2pm, BBC 2)
Italy v Australia (2pm, ESPN)
England v South Africa (2.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Scotland v Tonga (3pm, BBC 2)
France v Samoa (5pm, ESPN)
Wales v New Zealand (5.15pm, BBC 2)
England v New Zealand (2.30pm, Sky Sports 1), Wales v Australia (2.30pm, BBC 2)