Five things we learned from the Autumn Nations Series this weekend

England’s new-look team impressed against Australia

Duncan Bech
Sunday 14 November 2021 12:58
England recorded a conclusive if untidy win over Australia (Mike Egerton/PA)
England recorded a conclusive if untidy win over Australia (Mike Egerton/PA)

England and Ireland landed blows for northern hemisphere rugby as Australia and New Zealand were humbled in Autumn Nations Series matches of mixed quality, but Scotland fell to South Africa at Murrayfield.

Here, the PA news agency examines five things we learned from Saturday’s games.

A star is born

Full-back Freddie Steward runs in a classy try at Twickenham as Manu Tuilagi celebrates (Mike Egerton/PA)

When a 20-year-old swaggers across Twickenham with the poise and confidence of Freddie Steward, it is clear he has something special. Athleticism and a 6’5” frame combine to create a colossal presence in the air and while his strength consistently propels him through the first tackle, his classy finish against Australia demonstrated a more nuanced instinct for the line. Four caps into his international career and there are no obvious flaws to his game, although the aerial bombardment awaiting from South Africa on Saturday will truly challenge his skills.

Man of steel

Marcus Smith proved against Australia that he has the steel to match his skill (Mike Egerton/PA)

All eyes were on Marcus Smith as he wrestled with the biggest obstacle yet to his meteoric rise and he emerged with his reputation enhanced, even if his fourth cap lacked the fireworks seen against Tonga. Instead of the clever passing, conjuring of space and running lines that illuminate his attacking repertoire, it was the resilience that really stood out. The 22-year-old made more tackles on the pitch than any other player – 12 – in a clear sign that he was targeted by Australia and when Hunter Paisami clattered into him he rose to his feet determined to show he was unhurt while the shaken Wallabies centre regained his senses. It was a demanding afternoon for the little general that will have taught him more than the three previous caps combined.

Work in progress

Eddie Jones’ mission to realign England in time for the 2023 World Cup was in danger of hitting the buffers during the second-half when their early attacking verve subsided in the face of a determined Wallabies team intent on dragging the game into the trenches. Owen Farrell’s team ultimately ground out a conclusive win but their enterprise was frustrated by opposition who barely fired a shot with the ball in hand. The England reboot based around rising stars such as Steward, Smith, Alex Dombrandt and Jamie Blamire deserves patience, especially when an enhanced attacking game is the aim, but they must learn how to impose their tactics in the face of dogged resistance.

Take a bow Ireland

Ireland went toe-to-toe with the game’s most efficient attacking machine and came out on top as New Zealand fell to a spellbinding performance. Even when dismantling Japan last weekend questions remained over whether Andy Farrell’s vision of playing free-flowing rugby was viable against elite opposition. The answer was delivered emphatically on a raucous afternoon in Dublin with a statement 29-20 win that All Blacks head coach Ian Foster described as the best display his team had faced.

Growing pains

Gregor Townsend prefaced the autumn by demanding more belief from Scotland, evoking the away victories against England and France in the Six Nations as evidence of a side on an upwards trajectory. But it is not conviction that is missing but consistency as results continue to rollercoaster. For every victory in Paris, there is a defeat to Wales. For every triumph against Australia, a loss to South Africa. Stitching together quality wins is Townsend’s real challenge and without it they have no hope of making an impression on the Six Nations.

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