The Autumn Internationals got off to a bang yesterday, with England, Ireland and Wales all picking up impressive wins as preparation for the 2019 Six Nations started in earnest.
Owen Farrell’s late penalty secured a tense 12-11 win for England against South Africa at Twickenham, while Wales emerged victorious in the Doddie Weir Cup against Six Nations rivals Scotland.
But perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend came in Chicago where current champions Ireland flexed their muscle with a 54-7 win against Italy.
Here are some of the key talking points from the weekend’s action:
ENGLAND 12-11 SOUTH AFRICA
Grit and determination
There is no question South Africa controlled the first half at Twickenham and, had they sorted out their shaky line-out, they could have been out of sight by half time.
Malcom Marx’s throwing problems worked out favourably for England, but they also produced a tireless defensive performance to keep the Springboks at bay.
England were second best in the first 40 but one thing Eddie Jones cannot fault is their incredible resilience and that bodes well for the rest of the autumn and the 2019 Six Nations.
Maro Itoje’s sin-bin in the 15th minute put England’s backs against the wall but they emerged from that ten-minute period three points up, with some brave tackling and powerful rucking keeping South Africa out. It set them up for a tense win.
New stars emerge
With so many injuries, Eddie Jones could be forgiven for fearing his side were too inexperienced to face the might of South Africa. He need not have.
The likes of Brad Shields and Mark Wilson were immense in the back row, with the latter making 13 tackles in a superb defensive man of the match winning effort, while Harry Williams, Ben Moon and Zach Mercer made telling contributions from the bench.
Moon helped win a scrum against the head deep in the second half, winning the penalty which Farrell nailed from out wide. Jones has plenty of options leading into the Six Nations. And that’s before he even considers Manu Tuilagi.
The Leicester Tigers centre has been back to his bulldozing best this season before missing out against the Springboks due to a thigh injury. Will he brought straight in? Picking who to play will not be easy.
Is there a better goal kicker in the Six Nations than Farrell? Johnny Sexton and Greig Laidlaw offer strong competition but Farrell, once again, delivered when England needed him most.
He might have missed one of his four penalty attempts but his kick from wide on the left with just seven minutes left was masterful. Most in Twickenham knew the outcome before he began his stride, so used are they to seeing him succeed.
It was another example of how Farrell has come to embody Jones’ side and his promotion to co-captain alongside Dylan Hartley makes sense on many levels.
The pair dovetailed nicely: Farrell leading them out onto the pitch, Hartley leading liaisons with the referee. There may not be a more important player to Jones’ side.
IRELAND 54-7 ITALY
Larmour’s dancing feet excite
Traditionally, Ireland have produced powerful and sturdy back three players but in Jordan Larmour, they may how have their own Shane Williams.
The 21-year-old made his first Test start against Italy and excelled, with his dancing feet electrifying Chicago’s Soldier Field.
One brilliant second-half hat-trick later and head coach Joe Schmidt has a decision to make. Rob Kearney is expected to come back into the fold for next weekend’s clash with Argentina but Larmour has certainly provided some food for thought.
Beirne is no flash in the pan
Irish rugby fans rejoiced when Tadhg Beirne moved to Munster in the summer and on first impression, it is clear to see why.
It took the lock only seven minutes to adapt to the rigours of Test match rugby, scrambling through for the first try of the match and in the second half he added another to complete a perfect debut.
With Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and James Ryan all competing for a second row berth, Beirne has his work cut out to retain his place. He does, however, look more than capable of doing so.
Campagnaro proves his worth
Injury ruined Michele Campagnaro’s Six Nations campaign but the centre showed his value in an all-action display in Chicago.
Named captain for the Azzurri for the first time, the centre ran hard lines and was solid in defence – even picking off a Rhys Ruddock pass and sprinting through for his first try of the match.
Heading into the 2019 Six Nations, he will be a key player if he can stay fit.
WALES 21-10 SCOTLAND
Fox is back
Wales are not short of depth in the centres but they have still missed the impact of Jonathan Davies, who has been missing on the international scene for a year because of injuries.
He was back and linking up with Scarlets colleague Hadleigh Parkes, and the pair looked right at home transferring club form to the Test arena.
The try he scored from first phase, following a lovely pop pass by Gareth Anscombe, will get the headlines, but Davies offered a lot more.
With home clashes against Ireland and England in next year’s Six Nations, Davies will be a key figure for the Welsh.
On this form he will be one of the most dangerous attacking threats in the Championship.
Dan Biggar has mountains of experience and the confidence of Warren Gatland but the Kiwi coach will have been delighted to see how Gareth Anscombe performed.
In flying form for the Cardiff Blues, the versatile Anscombe carried that momentum into this encounter, controlling the game in the first half.
As well as setting up Davies’ try, he kept the Scottish defence honest with his distribution. Capable of playing both at fly-half or full-back, he will surely feature in the 23 next week against Australia, and may well start.
A word also for Jarrod Evans, making his debut off the bench for the Welsh.
Filling in for the absent Finn Russell was always going to be a big task for Adam Hastings and the young fly-half seemed a little over-awed early on.
He has never lacked for confidence and quickly grew into the game. There were a few scary moments with his passing so close to the line against a Welsh rush defence.
But on the whole it came off and gave Scotland front foot ball. Russell will presumably get the nod next week, but in Hastings Scotland have a fly-half for the future and a good option in the present.
In many ways it was a frustrating afternoon for Scotland, who threatened a lot but could not turn territory into points.
One man who did not disappoint however, was Hamish Watson. The flanker never stopped running and was the main thorn in the Welsh side at the breakdown, where the home side were generally on top.
He remains deceptively strong, with an ability to slip out of the tackles of much bigger men, and was a willing runner with the ball.
In the absence of John Barclay, the Scottish back row did not quite click, but there is no question that Watson is here to stay.
Against Fiji next week, his support lines could find more joy than in Cardiff. Gregor Townsend will certainly hope so.