June 5, 2012
Will any of the Home Nations' coaches return from the southern hemisphere with a major scalp? © Getty Images
A new-look international season will kick off this week but will it be a case of the same old story for the Home Nations? Or can they defy the odds and upset the world order?
An exciting and re-vamped tour schedule will see the world's best sides go head-to-head across the southern hemisphere with England set to tackle South Africa, Wales poised to take on Australia, Ireland bracing themselves for the challenge of New Zealand and Scotland primed for the Wallabies and the best the Pacific nations have to offer. Elsewhere, France will face a Rugby Championship-bound Argentina and Italy venture to North America.
Much of the talk in the lead up to this feast of international rugby has been of historic victories and the chance for Europe's leading sides to boost their IRB ranking ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw later this year, fuelled by Leinster's march to the Heineken Cup crown and the Premiership success of an English talent-laden Harlequins. But realistically, for most of the Home Nations at least, the next few weeks can surely be summed up in two words - damage limitation.
Arguably the most intriguing match-up of what is sure to be a brutal international season is that between England and South Africa. The tourists did much to restore their battered reputation during a promising Six Nations campaign with a new coach in Stuart Lancaster and a new-look squad including the likes of Owen Farrell helping to charter a course for less-troubled water. Likewise, the Springboks are embarking on a new era with the colourful days of Peter de Villiers tenure a thing of the past and the formidable Heyneke Meyer now calling the coaching tune. Tasked with filling the void left by the retirement of Test centurions John Smit and Victor Matfield, his first selection also boasts some fresh talent.
But while some of the faces may have changed, there is little doubt that the Boks enter the three-Test series as strong favourites with the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks all pressing for Super Rugby honours this term. As a result, it would appear Lancaster and Co are in for a stark reminder that they have some way to go if they are to challenge for the sport's biggest prize on home soil in three and a bit year's time.
England are riding a run of seven straight defeats to the Springboks and have not won on South African soil since an equally embryonic squad won in Bloemfontein in 2000 - a week after they cam agonisingly close to a landmark victory in Pretoria. England's best chance of upsetting the odds appears to be in the opening Test clash in Durban next weekend. The squad will have surely benefitted from an extended period of preparation and the chance to tackle a Springboks squad that will have only come together a week earlier at sea-level, as opposed to altitude, hints at a tour-defining performance.
Whether that leads to an upset will be key to the success of the tour as a whole. If England win they will have valuable momentum going into the later Test clashes in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth - not to mention the sizeable bumps in the road that are two mid-week clashes against the SA Barbarians. Should they lose, it may well be the start of a painful learning experience. In truth, a return of one Test victory will probably be welcomed warmly and seen as ratification that Lancaster has the side heading in the right direction.
Ireland face the toughest test in the form of a three-Test series with world champions New Zealand. They are yet to taste success against the All Blacks and have never beaten them in 24 attempts with a draw in 1973 a rare highlight. They have not even come close in that time - losing by an average of 22 points in their last eight meetings including a 66-28 mauling in New Plymouth two years ago. The Six Nations arguably provided as many questions as answers and while Leinster showcased some exciting Irish talent on their way to the European crown, you sense that Declan Kidney's side, even with a relatively fresh Brian O'Driscoll will be playing catch-up from the moment they land in New Zealand.
The absence of the likes of Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris through injury will not help their cause. How they must wish they had New Zealand's strength in depth. Stripped of the services of a host of players who have opted for pastures new since claiming the World Cup crown, they are still able to field a side that you sense has the beating of the rest of the world. The outlook appears bleak for Ireland and their chances of an upset are remote at best.
Of equal interest will be Wales' trip to Australia where the tourists will hope to cement their status as Europe's finest while re-writing the record books. They are no strangers to each other having met in the Bronze Final at the 2011 World Cup and again at the end of last year - both won by Australia. Three more clashes await in the coming weeks ahead of another on Welsh soil at the end of the year. Such familiarity would serve Wales coach Warren Gatland well ahead of next year's British & Irish Lions tour of Australia were the soon-to-be-confirmed Lions boss not be sidelined through injury.
Instead it is left to caretaker coach Rob Howley to lead the Six Nations Grand Slam winners into battle against the reigning Tri-Nations champions - a battle for the title of world's best had the All Blacks not captured the World Cup crown in between. Wales can boast 10 victories over the Wallabies but not one since 2008 and not one in Australia since 1969 when ESPNscrum's very own John Taylor was still packing down.
But hopes will be high of ending that drought as Wales are relatively injury-free with Jamie Roberts the only high-profile absentee. They have also quite clearly kicked on from an outstanding World Cup campaign that came to what many viewed as a premature end at the semi-final stage. If the likes of skipper Sam Warbuton, Toby Faletau, Jonathan Davies and George North can recapture their best form then Wales look well-placed to knock over an Australia side reeling from injuries to key personnel in the form of Kurtley Beale, James Horwill and James O'Connor with another - Quade Cooper - short of game time since returning from a long lay-off. The Brumbies many have been the only Australian side to cause a stir in Super Rugby this season but the national side remain a dangerous outfit.
Wales also look best placed to make a significant move in the IRB rankings. They currently trail the southern hemisphere giants and England but a notable scalp or two in Australia could lift them above their Six Nations rivals into a priceless top four spot that, come the end of the November internationals, would grant them a top seeding in the World Cup draw - ensuring they would not be grouped with any of the other leading sides. A series victory would be the stuff of dreams for Wales with clashes scheduled for Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney and, as with England, that opening encounter will go a long way to defining the tour. A single Test triumph would serve as affirmation that they are a growing force in world rugby but you sense they have their eyes set on more.
Fresh from collecting the Six Nations wooden spoon, no side are in more need of a morale-boosting tour than the Scots. On the face of it, a mid-week clash against an Australia side sure to have one eye on an opening date with Wales a few days later followed by clashes with Fiji and Samoa would appear lightweight compared to the schedule faced by their Six Nations rivals. But it remains laden with potential pitfalls and further ridicule for a side that came up woefully short in the latest battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.
Coach Andy Robinson, who has defied the odds to remain in charge of the side, will be hoping that prolific winger Tim Visser - set to qualify for Scotland on residency grounds mid-tour - can spark something special or at least a revival. With an all-time low ranking of 12th, they are in desperate need of a boost to stop the rot and as welcoming as Lautoka and Apia will be, it will not be a holiday. Their main hope, and it will be one shared by their fellow Home Nations, will be to save face.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.