Proving ground for big three

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The Independent Online

The big three are on their way. A year after the World Cup, when the southern hemisphere teams proved yet again that they were the ones to beat, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are back in Europe to challenge the home nations and France. Only this time, they will find it a lot tougher.

The big three are on their way. A year after the World Cup, when the southern hemisphere teams proved yet again that they were the ones to beat, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are back in Europe to challenge the home nations and France. Only this time, they will find it a lot tougher.

Europe has been a terrific testing ground for our international players and they will go into the autumn Tests full of confidence. By allowing all the best players to face each other on a regular basis, the Heineken Cup is proving to be the vehicle to take northern hemisphere rugby to the next level. We are not quite there yet, but the standards of the Super 12 are within sight at last.

Of the three visiting countries, South Africa will be the weakest. They have lost their aura of invincibilityand look out of sorts. Two of their key players, Joost van der Westhuizen and Percy Montgomery, are not performing well, while the departure of coach Nick Mallett will not have helped. England will start as favourites against them on 2 December, particularly after their impressive performances in the two Tests in South Africa this summer.

I also believe that both Wales and Ireland will never have a better chance of beating them. Both teams are building solid foundations and can be quietly confident they might cause an upset. But beware, the Springboks have pride and passion and they are never more dangerous than when hurt and down.

New Zealand play two Tests against France and one in Italy. They will not be touring Britain, but this is still a good opportunity for our coaches to study what one of the world's greatest rugby nations is doing. The All Blacks will have only one thing in mind when they face the French - revenge for the World Cup semi-final defeat last year. That was an unbelievable match, one which I will never forget, but it was also a one-off. France are struggling to adjust to the demands of professionalism and their top clubs are, consequently, failing to make any real impact in Europe. You never know with the French, but I think this New Zealand team, even without Jeff Wilson who has retired, will run out comfortable winners.

Which brings us on to the world champions. Australia were unquestionably the best team in the tournament and they proved their dominance by lifting the Tri-Nations as well. As a result, John Eales's men are going to be very confident that they can win every match on their tour. The cornerstone of their recent success has been their air-tight defence and, if they can get that aspect of their play right, they will be very difficult to stop.

Perhaps the only ray of hope is the fact that both the scrum-half George Gregan and the fly-half Stephen Larkham are out injured. The half-backs are critical to everything the Wallabies do. They are the pivots, both in attack and defence, and the ones who set the tone. No doubt Australia will simply do their usual trick, by bringing in a complete unknown who will prove to be better than the star he replaced. They have such strength in depth that they can cope without several key players. You wonder, though, whether Timmy Horan might not be drafted in at some stage?

The Australians have planned the tour cleverly. France will be a good opening tester and then Scotland, whose clubs are improving beyond belief, should ask a few probing questions, so that by the time they play England at Twickenham on 18 November, Australia should be ready.

But England will be tough to beat. Clive Woodward has got them playing good, powerful rugby and, as long as they can put their chances away, there is no reason why they can't win every Test until Christmas. I don't often say this, but I think that England start the autumn internationals as favourites.

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