The big story for each top rugby nation – week 3

11:13 PM GMT

England keep on rolling, Scotland and Wales won, just about, Italy piled the pressure on South Africa and All Blacks are back to winning ways. ESPN reporters have their say on the biggest storylines for each team coming out of the third week of the autumn internationals.


Pumas not the golden team they once were

There were glimpses of the free-flowing, attacking flair which we have been accustomed to seeing from Argentina, but for the most part they were poor in defeat to Scotland. Very poor. The narrow defeats to Wales and Scotland alone, may not be cause for concern, but the manner of the defeats surely are.

They haven’t looked like the side which beat Ireland by double scores at last year’s Rugby World Cup. It has been one error-strewn performance after another for Los Pumas from the Rugby Championship and into the November series. Now they face an England team in devastating form.

Their problems won’t be fixed in a week, but they will be keen to end the year on a higher note. They will need to get a foothold at the set-piece, and at all costs prevent England from scoring early. Should they do that, and Nicolas Sanchez keeps the scoreboard ticking, they could end the year with some positives. — Killian O’Connor

Week 4 vs. England, Twickenham, Nov. 26, 2:30 p.m. GMT


Scrum aside, Wallabies’ newbies deliver

Australia are three from three in Europe after Michael Cheika’s new-look outfit survived a late drop goal attempt to defeat France in Paris. With a host of first-choice players enjoying the week off, or starting from the bench, Cheika called upon the like of Kyle Godwin, Sefanaia Naivalu, Luke Morahan, Alan Alaalatoa and Tolu Latu to get the job done at Stade de France.

And they did just that. The Wallabies could have been forgiven for a lack of fluidity in attack, given the mass changes, yet Godwin and Morahan slotted in seamlessly at inside centre and fullback respectively as Australia moved the ball with precision. They also scrambled well on defence and used the rolling maul to their advantage, a move which left referee Glen Jackson with no choice but to award a first-half penalty try.

But it wasn’t all good news, with the Australian scrum – loosehead James Slipper in particular – coming under huge pressure throughout. The visitors fortunate not to be penalised in the closing minute, a decision which would have presented France with a kickable penalty. — Sam Bruce

Week 4 vs. Ireland, Aviva Stadium, Nov. 26, 5:30 p.m. GMT

England’s Alex Goode scores against Fiji. Ashley Western – CameraSport via Getty Images


England’s fullback battle is fascinating

Alex Goode missed the first high ball against Fiji. In his first start since their final World Cup pool match against Uruguay, the usually assured Saracens fullback allowed the ball to bounce.

It was strange to watch; nerves could have been a factor but whatever the cause, they were then buried as he performed well on his audition for the No.15 shirt. Eddie Jones was lukewarm in his assessment of Goode post-match. His praise for Semesa Rokoduguni and Elliot Daly was more fulsome so the smart money is on Mike Brown to return at fullback for Argentina next weekend.

But there is a temptation to give Goode another chance. Fiji’s defence was at times so poor that it was hard to judge exactly how effective England’s back three was. Goode’s ability to step into a playmaking role and link man in phase play works in his favour but Jones will probably turn to Brown for his physicality when the Pumas come to town. — Tom Hamilton

Week 4 vs. Argentina, Twickenham, Nov. 26, 2:30 p.m. GMT

It is something on Jones’ radar and he will be keeping a close eye on the spot throughout the November Tests. – Tom Hamilton


Goalkicking problematic for Les Blues

Will Guy Noves be able to solve the ongoing problem of a lack of a consistent kicker for the visit of the All Blacks? It haunted them last Saturday against Australia. Maxime Machenaud missed two conversions, Scott Spedding missed a long range effort and Camille Lopez missed a drop goal with the last kick of the game.

Some aimless kicking invited the Australian attacking train onto them, but despite looking like they would collapse early in the second-half, some brilliant attacking rugby brought them back into the game.

Noves wants France to play in the same free-flowing style that was his trademark at Toulouse. But while some of the attack play from Spedding, Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci was brilliant to watch, sometimes the clever option was avoided. Louis Picamoles has been outstanding for Northampton but failed to have an impact. Noves needs to rethink before New Zealand arrive. If he doesn’t, it could be as humiliating as the 62-13 defeat France suffered at last year’s World Cup. — KOC

Week 4 vs. New Zealand, Stade de France, Nov. 26, 8:00 p.m. GMT

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier tackled by Malakai Fekitoa. Phil Walter/Getty Images


Josh off to a flying start with Ireland

Amid all the talk surrounding World Rugby’s residency laws and so-called project players, spare a thought for Ireland’s Josh van der Flier. The Dubliner with the Dutch name may still be viewed with suspicion by some opposition fans, but he’s Irish born and bred and continues to prove himself to be an adept addition to his country’s back-row.

A head injury sustained by CJ Stander with a little over 20 minutes gone at the Aviva Stadium ensured that the flanker was ushered on in the early stages, as he had been in Chicago a fortnight ago. And as on that occasion, he didn’t let Ireland down here. Pitched into an unfamiliar role on the blindside of the Irish scrum, van der Flier dovetailed excellently with his Leinster teammate, Sean O’Brien.

Van der Flier was a constant presence in the 59 minutes he was on the pitch, doing everything that was asked of him defensively while taking the game to the All Blacks, making 51 metres with ball in hand. The only blot in his copy book came in the second half as he tried to force an offload when Ireland were camped in New Zealand’s 22. It was a rush of blood that can be excused in someone winning only their fourth Test cap. Signs are, there will be plenty more international honours to come. — Martyn Thomas

Week 4 vs. Australia, Aviva Stadium, Nov. 26, 5:30 p.m. GMT


O’Shea making his mark with the Azzurri

What a result! Yes this is one of the worst Springbok sides in the professional era, but the Azzurri were also low on confidence after being handed a 58-point drubbing by a second string All Blacks a week earlier.

Italy stuck to their strengths and forced South Africa into submission. Their defence improved significantly to keep the Boks to just two first half tries, while their line-out and rolling maul sent a big South African pack backwards and led to a deserved try.

This is Conor O’Shea’s first big scalp in his fifth Test as head coach and it’s fair to say he’s turning Italian rugby around after a horror Six Nations campaign earlier this year. There’s still work to be done, but with a Test against Tonga to round out the year, another win is there for the taking. — Nick Bewley

Week 4 vs. Tonga, Stadio Euganeo, Padovai, Nov. 26, 2:00 p.m. GMT

New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick tackles Andrew Trimble. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

New Zealand

Importance of second rows

Following what was an attritional affair at times, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was keen to praise the character that his side had displayed in Dublin. This was not New Zealand at their free-flowing best, but that they still ground out the win and held Ireland out was to be applauded.

No two players embodied that approach more than the returning second-row partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. The duo, who were both injured for the Chicago fixture, got through an astonishing amount of work — some of which skirted on the boundaries of legality — putting in 37 tackles between them, and doing much more that cannot be accounted for by the stats sheet.

Whitelock drew particular praise from his coach for the level of his performance, given he had not played a single minute of Test rugby in almost a month. It cannot be argued that the return of Retallick and Whitelock helped tip the balance in New Zealand’s favour here, but is there a case to be made that the All Blacks are becoming too reliant on their star locks?

Both played 80 minutes against Ireland. “Obviously they’ve got a huge gap [on their rivals] because both of them have been playing for a long time,” Hansen said. “They’re probably two of the best locks in world rugby when they’re fit and playing well.” He will hope they stay fit and in form for the foreseeable future. — MT

Week 4 vs. France, Stade de France, Nov. 26, 8:00 p.m. GMT


A win is a win

If Scotland drew plaudits from their defeat to Australia, they won’t have won many supporters as they trudged to victory over Argentina.

But amidst the errors, of which there were many, they put in some great defensive efforts to stop Argentina. Alex Dunbar, Finn Russell and Hamish Watson all combined to drive Nicolas Sanchez back when the fly-half darted for the line following a scrum, leading to a turnover. Huw Jones also showed his class once more, this time beating three players before offloading to Sean Maitland to score.

With Ireland beating the All Blacks, Italy beating South Africa and Georgia beating Manu Samoa, they’ll need to improve to avoid their name being added to the list. Their scrum was ravaged by Argentina. It won’t come up against the same pressure against Georgia, but if they are not in a good frame of mind, it could be another tough watch in Edinburgh. — KOC

Week 4 vs. Georgia, Murrayfield, Nov. 19, 2:30 p.m. GMT

The delusion of Bryan Habana and the Springboks against Italy. Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

South Africa

Shambolic Springboks continue downward spiral

Allister Coetzee’s tenure as Springboks coach – four wins, seven losses. All in the space of five months. Based on those results Coetzee is walking on the thinnest of ice as South Africa languish in the depths of rugby despair.

The players look so low on confidence, and completely directionless. There was an instance where they had a five-on-one overlap inside Italy’s 22, but failed to score. There is talent there. Willie le Roux for example is world class, but this is a team playing like a bunch of individuals with a real lack of continuity and a game-plan.

Their attack is of most concern. Seven tries in their last six Tests makes for bleak reading. The Boks need to get more out of the likes of le Roux, Bryan Habana and Damian de Allende this week against a Welsh side who were exposed defensively by Japan. — NB

Week 4 vs. Wales, Principality Stadium, Nov. 26, 5:30 p.m. GMT


Wales need to back the mavericks

Wales look out of sorts and are lacking the confidence and fluidity that led them to the World Cup quarterfinals a year ago. Against Japan – who were void of a number of premier players – Wales laboured to their last-gasp win. But out of the match comes three burning issues for the Wales coaching team. Two of those revolve around players.

It is time for Sam Davies to be given a chance to start at fly-half against South Africa next weekend. The young Ospreys playmaker came on with just 13 minutes left but immediately brought width to Wales’ attack and showed admirable nerves to slot the last gasp drop-goal.

Keelan Giles, who didn’t get a chance to attack with ball in hand, should replace the out-of-sorts Alex Cuthbert. The latter is fiercely talented but needs time to re-find his best form and Giles, who has taken to PRO12 rugby with such ease, would benefit from being given a chance against the Boks from the outset.

Which now comes to the third question. Do Wales need to freshen up their coaching team? Perhaps they need to bring in an external influence like Eddie Jones has done with England to bring a new perspective to their style of rugby. This is not to challenge the present order but it could bring a valuable clarity and inspiration to the current management team. — TH

Week 4 vs. South Africa, Principality Stadium, Nov. 26, 5:30 p.m. GMT

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