England – perhaps the worst of the underachievers last autumn – have enjoyed a wonderful 2016 so far. The appointment of Eddie Jones as head coach looks to be increasingly inspired, with his team continuing to build on their Six Nations Grand Slam and 3-0 whitewash of Australia down under. Wins against South Africa and Fiji may have been expected in the circumstances, but the manner of the victories has served to inspire further confidence.
Of course, it isn’t only the defending Six Nations champions who are looking to the spring with optimism. Scotland are continuing punch above their weight, with the 19-16 win over World Cup semi-finalists Argentina coming a week after a single-point defeat to Australia. Such has been the Scots’ progress that many are now questioning the decision to replace coach Vern Cotter next summer.
Wales’ blushes may have been spared by a late drop goal against Japan, but Warren Gatland’s side have still shown flashes of their ability in the Autumn internationals. Like Scotland, the Welsh claimed victory over the Pumas – something that seemed altogether less likely 12 months ago. This year’s Six Nations runners-up will believe in their ability to go one better in the spring, if only they can add a little more consistency to their game.
The significance of Ireland’s famous win against New Zealand should not be underestimated, either from a Six Nations perspective on in the global context of the game. Despite losing the rematch, Joe Schmidt’s men have sent out a clear message that they intend to reclaim the title they won in 2014 and 2015. More pertinently, they have also reinforced the apparent power shift ongoing in world rugby. The Southern Hemisphere nations, so dominant in recent years, are suddenly looking vulnerable – and decidedly beatable.
With Italy making history by beating South Africa 20-18, and France – who have been desperately poor in recent times – pushing Australia close, the great divide appears to be closing. In this intriguing series of Autumn Internationals, the very definition of a ‘shock’ result is changing by the week, and this can only be a positive development for the XV-man code.
There may still be a number of pre-Christmas fixtures still to go – not least England v Australia at Twickenham – but many rugby fans are now looking forwards to the Six Nations with great anticipation. With a number of sides coming into form, it promises to be a fascinating, open tournament – potentially one of the best since the format was expanded in 2000. Anyone banking on an England procession may just want to temper their confidence…
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