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Gerry Thornley: France end year as World Cup favourites but top tier has never been so competitive

Our rugby correspondent reflects on the Autumn Series and the year as a whole

So endeth an Autumn Series that confirmed France as World Cup favourites but also suggested the game’s top tier has rarely been more competitive.

Wales (world ranking 9)

Results: L 23-55 v New Zealand. W 20-13 v Argentina. L 12-13 v Georgia. L 34-39 v Australia.

Wayne Pivac has attempted to recreate the wide-wide, offloading game which earned Scarlets the Pro12 in 2017 but his players appear to lack conviction in this. It always felt that the Warren Gatland/Shaun Edwards reign papered over the cracks evident in their regions and player pathway. While there is some young talent coming through, they still rely heavily on an old guard. Which is not to say they couldn’t start turning things around, beginning with Ireland at home in the opening weekend of the Six Nations, especially if Warren Gatland does return.

Argentina (8)

Results: W 30-29 v England. L 13-20 v Wales. 29-52 v Scotland.


Had their results been in reverse order, the Pumas’ autumn review might read a good deal differently. They played some good stuff, have a world-class goalkicker in Emiliano Boffelli and the 23-year-old Gloucester full back Santiago Carreras actually looked the part at outhalf. But after their deserved win in Twickenham, akin to last year when beaten 53-7 by Ireland, they collapsed in Murrayfield. They weren’t helped by Marcos Kremer’s red card and three yellow cards. But therein lies the rub, discipline remains a key problem for Michael Cheika’s side.

Scotland (7)

Results: L 15-16 v Australia. W 28-12 v Fiji. L 23-31 v New Zealand. W 52-29 v Argentina.

More than anything, the autumn confirmed that Gregor Townsend’s initial decision to omit Finn Russell from the squad was plain daft. Against the Pumas, Russell had four try-scoring assists and a big involvement in two more. He’s also top scorer in the Top 14, and with him at the helm, a South African-infused scrum and much else, not least Darcy Graham’s finishing, they can be a handful for anyone.

Australia (6)

Results: W 16-15 v Scotland. L 29-30 v France. L 27-28 v Italy. L 10-13 v Ireland. W 39-34 v Wales.

No cash-strapped country took on more Tests (14) in the calendar year, and they could have been five from five. So, to sign off after three defeats by a combined total of five points with 26 unanswered points in the last 23 minutes confirms that the players retained, as Nick White said in Dublin, “one hundred per cent” belief in Rennie. Missing at least 14 players by that stage, they have physicality, strong set pieces and add Will Skelton and a fit Quade Cooper to solve their problem position at outhalf, the two-time World Cup winners could be contenders again come the World Cup. That says it all really.

England (5)

Results: L 29-30 v Argentina. W 52-13 v Japan. D 25-25 v New Zealand. L 13-27 v South Africa.

Jones’ tiresome mantra about judging him at the World Cup may yet come to pass given the apparent lack of appetite for a change 10 months out from the World Cup within the RFU. Their attacking game, such as it is, was only seen when unshackled in the last 10 minutes against New Zealand. “England are not just losing matches, they are going backwards at an alarming rate of knots,” reckons Clive Woodward. Hardly surprising given the alarming turnover in assistant coaches under Jones - 18 at the last count.

South Africa (4)

Results: L 16-19 v Ireland. L 26-30 v France. W 63-21 v Italy. W 27-13 v England.

The world’s most settled side, retaining the vast core of the 2019 World Cup winners, enjoyed a fruitful end-of-year tour; narrow defeats to the world’s top two offset by handsome wins over an Italian side which had beaten Australia a week earlier and, without their European-based players, against England.

The Springboks illuminated a grim, foreboding day (for England anyway) and their productive power game with a wondrous 80-minute counter-attacking try initiated by Damian Willemse, continued by the reborn and influential Willie le Roux and finished off by Kurt-Lee Arendse.

The fast-improving Willemse, who overcame his torrid day in Dublin, and Arendse were among the tour plusses, not least as Cheslin Kolbe looks a shadow of the player from 2019. Add Handre Pollard and Lukhanyo Am back into the mix, and they remain serious contenders again.

New Zealand (3)

Results: W 55-23 v Wales. W 31-23 v Scotland. D 25-25 v England.

Save for their implosion in the last 10 minutes at Twickenham, which was precipitated by the gifted Beauden Barrett finally being yellow carded for flagrant lawbreaking near his own line, it looked like the All Blacks were back with a vengeance. True to form, they reached the greatest attacking heights. Brodie Retallick and TJ Perenara were rejuvenated, Ardie Savea and Rieko Ioane were lethal. The A game at the RDS demonstrated their unequalled strength in depth. Add Will Jordan and Damian McKenzie into the mix. Yikes.

France (2)

Results: W 30-29 v Australia. W 30-26 v South Africa. W 35-17 v Japan.

With no Paul Willemse and a rusty Roman Ntamack struggling, helped by Mathieu Jalibert off the bench, Les Bleus found a way to beat Australia and South Africa, so beating all the other top five sides at the Stade de France in an unbeaten 2022. In the absence of Melvyn Jaminet, Thomas Ramos’ talent, versatility and goalkicking shone at full-back, while the return of former captain Charles Olivon added a skilled lineout operator and dynamic carrier to their potent backrow mix. The World Cup favourites.

Ireland (1)

Results: W 19-16 v South Africa. W 35-17 v Fiji. W 13-10 v Australia.

Ala Les Bleus, and like all good sides, found a way to win matches without playing at their fluent best, so also giving the lie to the notion they cannot stand up to physically bigger teams. To beat Australia without Johnny Sexton was actually a bonus. Admittedly, there were signs that teams had targeted the Irish breakdown and, by extension, worked out the Irish attack, and there’s still room for some X factor in a James Lowe/Michael Lowry/Jordan Larmour/Jacob Stockdale type player.