By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Europe’s World Cup hopefuls get their last chance to measure up against the southern hemisphere superpowers in a mouth-watering series of matches in November, 10 months before the global showpiece tournament in Japan.
As usual in World Cup years there will be no June tours and though there is another Rugby Championship, a Six Nations and a plethora of warm-up games, the next few weeks will be seen by coaches, players and fans as a crucial barometer of their team’s prospects.
Some sides are going into them relatively settled, looking for minor tweaks and improvements, while others – most obviously England – have a heap of questions to answer.
As always, world champions New Zealand are the main draw and their games against England and Ireland are the pick of a packed programme.
Fresh from another Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup triumph – albeit with one or two wobbles – the All Blacks are playing England for the first time in four years.
When Eddie Jones’s side were sweeping all before them a couple of years ago fans were yearning for such a showdown but England, having lost six of their last seven matches, now go in as rank outsiders and in a state of desperate flux.
Injuries, suspensions and bizarre selections have left Jones scrambling to formulate a team, with an entirely new back row on the cards and questions over almost every other department.
He will have try to ensure those new combinations are bedded in well during training as England open up against South Africa next Saturday – albeit a Springbok side shorn of key men because the match falls outside the designated international window.
After New Zealand come Japan, before Australia complete a series of matches Jones recently described as “sparring” before the main event in Japan.
England’s slide has left Ireland as Europe’s leading force and, ranked number two in the world, they face the All Blacks on Nov. 17.
Having beaten them in Chicago two years ago and coming off a 2-1 series win in Australia this year, Ireland fear nobody.
Their central contract system has helped avoid the injuries that have plagued England and a good showing in November, when they also face Argentina, the United States and Italy, will ensure confidence remains high that they can win the World Cup for the first time.
Oddly, Wales and Scotland have opted to start their month by playing each other, before both stepping up a gear the following week.
Wales have not beaten Australia in their last 13 meetings and another defeat would surely have a major psychological impact on their pool meeting in Japan next year.
They also play Tonga and South Africa, who visit Murrayfield on Nov. 17.
Scotland have been on an upward curve under Gregor Townsend and will be further buoyed by the encouraging performances of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Europe. The Springboks at full strength might be a step too far but wins over Fiji and improving Argentina would be a real fillip.
France face the same three rivals and, coming off a 3-0 series defeat in New Zealand and a fourth-place Six Nations finish, they need to start putting together 80-minute performances and turning narrow defeats into victories
Italy’s June success in Japan was only their second win in 19 matches and the optimism surrounding Conor O’Shea’s appointment and the famous victory over the Springboks in 2016 now seem a long way away.
They kick off against Ireland in Chicago followed by what they hope will be a morale-booster against Georgia before massive tests against Australia and New Zealand.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)