The Autumn Nations Series kicks off this weekend and the captains of the Guinness Six Nations teams were at the official launch on Tuesday to talk about their upcoming games.
Scotland host Tonga and Wales face New Zealand on Saturday before all six Championship sides are in action on November 6 and 7.
There is plenty to play for, with the 2022 Guinness Six Nations only a few months away, and the skippers discussed what’s to come.
Sexton eyeing consistency ahead of Guinness Six Nations
Ireland open up the Autumn Nations Series with a game against Japan before a mouth-watering clash with the All Blacks and a contest against Argentina.
Since Andy Farrell took over as head coach, Ireland have finished third in both the 2020 and 2021 Guinness Six Nations following a combination of good and bad performances, with skipper Johnny Sexton keen to establish consistency during the Autumn Nations Series.
“I think it’s a big series of games,” said Sexton, who also declared himself fit for the Japan game after suffering a recent hip niggle.
“Since Andy’s come in, we’ve had some great performances and we’ve had some average performances, so for us it’s about getting that consistency.
“The level of consistency where you don’t see us going up and down, you see a standard that we want to set with Japan being first up, and then continuing that for the two games subsequently.
“Then we’ll see where we are leading into the Six Nations. I like everything about this environment so far. Hopefully we can kick it off to a new level coming up.”
Weight of history not burdening Wales
Reigning Guinness Six Nations champions Wales open up with the clash against New Zealand, a team they haven’t beaten since 1953.
But centre Jonathan Davies is relishing the challenge, rather than worrying about the weight of history.
“Everyone talks about the record of the last 50 or 60 years against New Zealand,” he said.
“But it is a great way for us to start our Autumn Nations Series. I think it is the excitement of the challenge. It’s a tough task, but I think the boys are focused and we’ve had two good weeks of preparation.
“We are focused on getting a performance and accuracy on the pitch to hopefully gain a good result, which would be a great way to start this autumn.”
Les Bleus aiming for historic All Blacks victory
Another team playing New Zealand are France, who face Argentina and Georgia before squaring off against the All Blacks.
READ: France announce Dupont as captain for Autumn Nations Series
Les Bleus are currently on a 14-game losing streak against the reigning Rugby Championship holders, stretching back to 2009, and that match will also be the opener in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, with stand-in captain Antoine Dupont looking to correct recent history.
“The aim for all games is the same, to win, but the coaches did ask us to ask more of ourselves and we’re trying to reach our full potential,” said Dupont, who will wear the armband in the absence of the injured Charles Ollivon.
“It’s always the big match, France v New Zealand, unfortunately the past few results have not been great for us, we will try to match them.
“Of course, the fact that it is the opening game of 2023 makes it even more exciting for us and for supporters.”
Farrell relishing Smith link-up
England are looking for evolution during the Autumn Nations Series according to captain Owen Farrell and there’s a new fell to the squad, with four uncapped players in the 34-man group and a further eight who only made their Test debut over the summer.
One of the most exciting faces is fly-half Marcus Smith, whose brilliant performances for Harlequins last season saw him become a British & Irish Lions bolter, and Farrell admits he would enjoy a 10-12 link-up with Smith.
“He is obviously a massive talent and a very exciting player,” said Farrell of the young No.10. “We have worked together before, he has been in camp before when he was a bit younger and we have shared a room together in the past.
“It was good to get to know him in the summer [with the Lions] and he is a brilliant lad and not just a very talented player but a proper student of the game. That sounds cliché but I mean he is bothered about getting better and understanding it more.
“He loves chatting about rugby and that made it easy for me to get on with him. He seems like he is confident because he has done the work, because he is a student of the game and knows what he wants to get out of it.
“When he speaks, he speaks sense and that helps your confidence and helps when it comes to playing in the position he does.”
Hogg excited by fresh blood
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has selected 12 uncapped players for the Autumn Nations Series, including the likes of Rory Darge and Jamie Hodgson, as he looks to freshen up his squad.
And skipper Stuart Hogg has been impressed by what he’s seen in training so far, insisting the strong start by both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors in the United Rugby Championship is starting to filter through to the national side.
“We’ve got a lot of young boys with us now that are gaining valuable experience at both Edinburgh and Glasgow and are playing regular rugby,” said Hogg, whose Scotland side face Tonga, Australia, South Africa and Japan.
“They’re being brought into the Scotland camp for a reason, they’re good enough to be here and make a difference.
“It’s been hugely refreshing, it’s been exciting to have all this young talent coming through, it keeps the older boys on their toes.
“I wouldn’t class myself as an older boy just yet, but the boys above 30, it keeps them on their toes, and it adds a different dynamic to the squad.”
Lamaro ready for captaincy challenge
Michele Lamaro is the new captain of Italy, replacing Luca Bigi, and with Kieran Crowley coming in as head coach, there is optimism surrounding the Azzurri.
Back-rower Lamaro is only 23 years old and has just seven international caps but Crowley has pegged him as a cornerstone to build around and, ahead of games against New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay, he is looking forward to linking up with his ex-Benetton coach again.
READ: Michele Lamaro – Italy’s new captain, son of an Olympic sailor who idolised Richie McCaw
“I enjoy working with Kieran,” said Lamaro. “He is someone who makes you love the sport and enjoy every single day.
“We know we don’t have a lot of time, so we have to use every single moment for comprehension and to get better. We have to enjoy every single moment on the field and he’s great for this.”