The giants of the southern hemisphere rugby are in Europe for their final test matches in 2017.
Here are some talking points ahead of the November international series:
ALL BLACKS IN DECLINE?
The All Blacks hope in tests against France, Scotland, and Wales to quell growing anxiety in New Zealand that the world champions have fallen back from the standard they set when they won the Rugby World Cup for the third time in 2015.
The 2016 season was a stellar one for a team that was reforming after the retirements of many star players. They lost only once, to Ireland. But they have already lost in 2017 to the British and Irish Lions and Australia.
The perception in New Zealand is not that the rest of the world has caught up, but that the All Blacks have declined. Their hallmark, the execution of skills at pace and under pressure, hasn’t been evident and Steve Hansen has had to defend the team’s form for the first time since he became head coach in 2011.
The forwards have been sound but the backs are lackluster, with the form of winger Rieko Ioane the only positive.
– By Steve McMorran in Wellington, New Zealand
The Wallabies have been in a buoyant mood since a rare victory over the All Blacks last month – albeit in a Bledisloe Cup dead rubber – but the confidence-boosting result masks some areas of concern ahead of a three-test visit to Europe.
The biggest potential issue is the absence of fullback Israel Folau. Australia’s best counterattacker and its most frequent tackle-breaker before he took a sabbatical, Folau leaves a hole at the back.
Karmichael Hunt is an option to fill in, but his relative inexperience in the 15-man code could be really exposed against the tactical kicking games of Wales, England, and Scotland. Kurtley Beale switched from center to fullback for the lopsided win over Japan, but he is better utilized as a second playmaker in the midfield.
Australia has been inconsistent since reaching the World Cup final in 2015 in England, and has lost at home to England and Scotland amid a continual rotation of players in some positions. A shambolic season on and off the field for Australian clubs in Super Rugby highlighted problems with depth and core skills, but coach Michael Cheika has been drilling the Wallabies hard in the basics and there have been recent glimpses of the benefits.
– By John Pye in Brisbane, Australia
PRESSURE ON COETZEE
The spotlight remains on coach Allister Coetzee as he approaches the end of his second year in charge of the Springboks.
Coetzee has taken the Boks to new lows during his time – a record defeat at home in 2016, a first ever loss to Italy the same year, and then a 57-0 mauling by the All Blacks in New Zealand this year for South Africa’s worst defeat ever.
Once, an end-of-season tour to Europe would be an opportunity to rest overworked senior players and give opportunities to fresh faces. Not now. A year on from a dreadful tour to Europe, when South Africa lost all three of its tests, including that unthinkable result in Italy, Coetzee’s team has to win back its reputation in the northern hemisphere, where the Springboks are no longer considered a formidable force ahead of matches against Ireland, France, and Italy.
Coetzee said he needs time to build a new team. Springboks supporters are asking: How long?
– By Gerald Imray in Cape Town, South Africa
HARTLEY vs GEORGE
Picking Dylan Hartley as captain was one of the first decisions made by Eddie Jones after getting the job as England coach in late 2015. It’s proved to be an excellent one, too.
England has won all but one of its 21 games since, with Hartley impressing Jones with his quiet authority. His disciplinary record – often the stick used to beat Hartley – has also been impeccable in that time, at least at international level.
It is why Jones is so loathe to drop Hartley as his starting hooker, even though Jamie George is widely regarded as the better player now and has been outshining his rival at club level. George started all three tests for the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand but still has not started for England, instead getting 17 straight substitute appearances.
With two years remaining until the Rugby World Cup in Japan, this might be the time to make the change. Jones must at least ascertain how Hartley’s absence affects the team, and if a stand-in captain – maybe Owen Farrell? – can do as good a job.
England plays Argentina, Australia, and Samoa.
– By Steve Douglas in Manchester, England
END OF WARRENBALL?
It’s back to the day job for Warren Gatland after his successful, if challenging, year as Lions coach.
Wales has its head coach back and Gatland might be ready to bring an end to ”Warrenball” – the close-to-the-ruck approach featuring hard and straight runners – by picking playmakers at flyhalf and inside center to deliver more expansive attacking play.
It’s what Gatland tried with the Lions, through Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton, and what Eddie Jones does with England, in Farrell and George Ford. It would mark possibly the biggest tactical change of his 10-year tenure with Wales and likely involve picking two of Dan Biggar, Rhys Priestland, and Rhys Patchell.
There will be no easing-in for Gatland: Wales faces the toughest schedule of all the home unions, with games against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
– By Steve Douglas in Manchester, England