November, and the first week of December, offered international coaches a chance to experiment as they trained their sights on the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Scotland and Gregor Townsend grasped the opportunity with both hands, while England, Ireland and New Zealand all ended their campaigns with perfect records.
But what did we learn from the end-of-year Tests? Our experts have their say.
Player of November: Joaquin Tuculet. Once again, he proved to be a world-class player in a tour with special meaning for him, as it marked his 50th Test with the Argentine national team. He was his usual reliable self in defence, was solid under the high ball, and crossed for tries against Italy and Ireland. He was one of the best players of the year.
Flop of November: Set pieces were once again an issue for the Pumas, especially in the Italy match, but they also had some problems against Ireland. The Pumas lacked their powerful scrum of old, which is no small concern. The lineout yielded both positive and negative results, but it was not a solid platform of attack.
Biggest surprise: Marcos Kremer. Even though he is just 20 years old, he stood out in all three matches and earned a starting spot in the back row. Up until now he had mostly been considered for the second row, but he proved that he has what it takes to be a flanker. Once a promising player, he is now a key member of the team.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? There was some progress in defence. After a poor Rugby Championship in that respect, the Pumas were more consistent in that field. How they responded in the second halves was also important, as the team showed both physical and mental strength. Discipline is still a big problem for the team as it fell through in key moments.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Argentina is in a process of definitions. Daniel Hourcade’s continuation as head coach is not guaranteed, but he has a good chance of making it to the 2019 World Cup. The Pumas need to regain their strength in defence, tackling and scrums, and to preserve the attacking style introduced by Hourcade. To achieve that, they will need to bring in new players in 2018, with the World Cup as their main objective. — Patricio Connolly
Player of November: Sean McMahon. The Wallabies No. 8 had two fine outings after a quieter night against Wales, tirelessly throwing himself into the English and Scottish defensive lines. After an injury-interrupted Super Rugby season, McMahon got better as the Test season went on. He will be sorely missed next season when he heads for Japan. Special mention must also go to Marika Koroibete who only enhanced his burgeoning reputation.
Flop of November: Sekope Kepu. The tighthead prop’s red card against Scotland was inexcusable and made even worse by the fact the Wallabies had just got themselves back into the match with two quick tries. Kepu could have no defence for his actions and was rightfully rubbed out for three weeks. Any player who launches a shoulder charge in this era of technology should expect only one result. Kepu now has the summer, and some, to ponder his action.
Biggest surprise: While the loss to Scotland didn’t come as a massive surprise given their victory Down Under in June, the Wallabies’ performance left a lot to be desired given it was the Australians’ final outing of 2017. Kepu’s shoulder charge aside, Australia looked disinterested and confused inside the first half hour and only worked their way back into the contest via a couple of Scottish errors. Given they were only beaten inside the final 10 against England, the motivation to sign off with a victory should have been there. And any excuse about tiredness should be tempered by Scotland’s victory in Sydney: they were certainly up for it near the end of their year?
Moving forward or slipping backwards? A strong victory in Argentina and then a long overdue Bledisloe triumph had reinvigorated feelings about the Wallabies but after consecutive losses to end the season, it’s almost a case of back to the drawing board. Sure, there was no Israel Folau. But would he really been the difference against England? It’s doubtful. The highlight of the win over the All Blacks was arguably the shape the Wallabies had supposedly been working on all year. Sadly, it was nowhere to be seen at Murrayfield.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Does discipline run from the top down? If it does, then it’s time Wallabies coach Michael Cheika takes a look in the mirror in a moment of personal evaluation. Cheika’s outburst when quizzed after the loss to England was disappointing and so too was the lack of discipline his side showed in November. Australia were shown four yellow cards, as well as Kepu’s red, up north. Furthermore, skipper Michael Hooper has now had more yellow cards than any other Test player in the history of the game. — Sam Bruce
Player of November: Elliot Daly has had another brilliant spell in the England shirt. Versatility can sometimes be to a player’s detriment when it comes to Test rugby but he has nailed down the wing spot with Eddie Jones also keen to see how he fares at fullback at some juncture.
Flop of November: The Twickenham pitch took a battering from the NFL. Given the limited number of games a year on their home patch, you can understand the Rugby Football Union’s ire at the state it was left in.
Biggest surprise: Some thought it would be the Test window where Jamie George leaped ahead of Dylan Hartley. But the England captain stood tall, improved and is now favourite to lead the team into the 2019 World Cup. Two years ago when Jones announced Hartley, he was their foundation captain — he’s now the man taking them into the next phase. He had a fine autumn series.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? England have progressed. Three wins from three, just 80 minutes for Owen Farrell and more players given a chance to see how they fare at Test level. Combinations were tried, mixed up and then tweaked. This will have been an invaluable three-game spell for Jones and his staff.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Can they keep this going? Jones has had a remarkable two years in charge of England, with 23 wins from 24. They are constantly talking about how they are evolving their gameplan, with the focus shifting from one area to the next. They are developing the squad depth and are now going for their third Six Nations title on the bounce. — Tom Hamilton
Player of November: Aurelien Rougerie. It’s an indictment of French rugby that a 37-year-old nearing retirement who was given a chance to bid farewell to international rugby, in one game, created a more lasting impression than the 67 other players who donned a France shirt last month. Rougerie captained the Barbarians — now, officially, France’s ‘A’ side — for their match against Maori All Blacks and gave an 80-minute midfield command performance.
Flop of November: So. Many. Choices. But captain Guilhem Guirado — more than the continually absent, mojo-stripped Louis Picamoles, or the ineffectual Yoann Huget — needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. The almost total absence of anything approaching on-field leadership from the hooker has prompted predictions that ‘petit general’ Morgan Parra could return for the Six Nations.
Biggest surprise: That Guy Noves — for now at least — remains in the Marcoussis hotseat. FFR president Bernard Laporte said in the hours after France escaped the U Arena with a scarcely deserved draw against Japan that he would give himself a fortnight to “reflect,” while a defiant Noves has admitted he “can no longer make any mistakes.” He has even issued a stern warning to ‘his’ players ahead of the Six Nations. Whether he’ll still be in charge when February comes remains to be seen.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? No question — France have shot backwards at pace, performed a J-turn and carried on going in the wrong direction. Les Bleus’ record under Noves now stands at a dismal seven wins from 21 matches. Even his hapless predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre could usually engineer a November win over one of the Southern Hemisphere tourists to give long-suffering fans reason to feel marginally less gloomy.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Where to begin? France have to start all over again -oc- which is not something they have ever been any good at. So, who should be in charge? Who should play? Can a mix of old heads and new hearts work? Can the FFR and LNR actually find a workable answer to France’s perennial international problems? What happened to pride in the jersey? — James Harrington
Player of November: Jacob Stockdale. He scored a try on his international debut against South Africa and followed it up with a brace against Argentina. There is a spark to Stockdale that the Irish backline has been crying out for in recent times, with injuries curtailing Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo set to depart Munster at the end of the year.
Flop of November: Some of the players who played against Fiji. For Joe Schmidt it is all about the small details and barring injury Dave Kearney, Stuart McCloskey, Jordi Murphy and Rob Herring might be waiting until next summer’s tour of Australia to make their next appearance. The level of opposition didn’t help, neither did 13 changes, but they should have put Fiji to the sword.
Biggest surprise: Chris Farrell. A year ago Farrell was playing in France with Grenoble, but the 24-year-old’s switch to Munster this season has seen him propelled into the international team with injuries to Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne. He did well, but would need further injuries to put him in line for a first Six Nations start.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? It is very difficult to say either way. Ireland didn’t face a worthwhile opponent this autumn, with an abysmal South Africa blown away, while they eased up when ahead against Fiji and Argentina, doing just enough to win. On the flip side Schmidt has blooded a few youngsters who might yet give Ireland the depth that has been craved at previous World Cups.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: The IRFU’s decision to let the contracts of key players to run down, a year out from a World Cup is bizarre. They obviously feel that the likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Garry Ringrose, Rory Best, Rob Kearney and Iain Henderson value playing for their country over earning a better living abroad. But who will blink first? — Cillian O Conchuir
Player of November: Tommaso Castello. The Zebre captain had his first meaningful taste of life in an Azzurri shirt and was simply rock solid. He played three complete matches and showed his granitic attitude in every way he could. His November stats were impressive as he amassed 33 runs for 118 meters, three clean breaks and four defenders beaten against the Pumas and Springboks. He is still a one-dimensional player, but he almost ignited the dull Italians backline all by himself.
Flop of November: Leonardo Sarto. It may sound disrespectful but more must be expected from a player universally recognised as a top international winger. He played a pretty good game against Fiji but then he simply disappeared from the pitch against the Pumas in Florence. He therefore travelled back to his unbeaten Glasgow Warriors and played a heck of a game in Swansea. It’s an annoying riddle.
Biggest surprise: Giovanni Licata. The 20-year-old big block from Sicily went from a training camp with Zebre to a permit player contract with the PRO14 side, making his debut in the very first game of the season. He has missed only one game so far. Conor O’Shea gave him 20 minutes against Fiji, another 20 against Argentina [he made 12 tackles in a difficult finale] before he was entrusted with the No. 6 shirt against the Springboks. The result? 23 runs for 57 metres, one clean break, three defenders beaten and one offload… This guy has some balls folks.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? There’s not really much to say about this November. Italy got the crucial Fiji scalp, competed with Argentina and ended being smashed by the Springboks, as predicted on these same pages. The Azzurri entered the month sitting 14th in the World Rugby rankings and will finish the year in the same spot. A long way to go but the path to follow is crystal clear now.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: When you end up in a Pool with the All Blacks and the Springboks you already know life will be pretty miserable. But then you get overpowered, outmuscled and overshadowed by the South Africans at home and you realise that probably even a miracle won’t prevent you to getting kicked out at the end of the group stage. Again. End of story. New young faces stepped in offering some solid contribution and the general organisation is still slowly developing. Wayne Smith is set to land in Italy next year and would be a worthy addition to O’Shea’s staff. — Enrico Borra
Player of November: Rieko Ioane. Could we have imagined a more impressive season from the Blues flyer when he was thrust onto the left wing against the British & Irish Lions in Auckland? To many good judges, Ioane’s finish to 2017 should have seen him pip teammate Beauden Barrett as World Rugby’s Player of the Year; the Breakthrough gong wasn’t a bad consolation though. Ioane’s November campaign netted 12 clean breaks, an average of 84 metres per game and was rounded out by two tries against Wales. The sky’s the limit for the 20-year-old Aucklander.
Flop of November: Perhaps not a flop in and of itself, but Steve Hansen’s refusal to tinker too much with his Test match squad in November was disappointing. Following a brutal season, the front-line cast of Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Whitelock started all three Tests meaning that there was little indication of the quality of their understudies.
Biggest surprise: Damian McKenzie. The fullback appeared to have slipped below Jordie Barrett in the pecking order earlier this year but started each of the three November Tests and did so with aplomb. An excellent attacking weapon, his try and assist proved pivotal in the narrow win over Scotland while his open-field running caused both France and Wales problems. Looks at home in the Test arena.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? Given they were without Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and, for much of the tour, Dane Coles, the All Blacks will have returned home unbeaten and pretty happy. The world champions were only really pushed by Scotland, who created space against the All Blacks in the wider channels arguably better than anyone in recent times, and always had control of the Tests with France and Wales, albeit for some flighty moments of ill-discipline. They were also able to get more Test rugby into the likes of Vaea Fifita, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Laulala et al which could be vital on the road to Japan.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Steve Hansen used 55 players in 2017, and only time will tell how many of those players are still in contention come 2019. New Zealand have always prided themselves on having at least 30 Test-ready players at their disposal. But as more and more of the All Blacks’ supporting cast head to Europe that will become increasingly more and more difficult.
Player of November: Finn Russell. Unfortunate not to be included in the summer’s Lions tour as more than one of the ‘geography six’, Russell has continued to improve this season. Stuart Hogg gave Scotland’s performance of November as the All Blacks were given a scare but the team’s most consistent player was their fly-half. A threat with ball in hand, his kicking game ensured that Scotland played in the right areas and he was sound, too, in defence.
Flop of November: It is difficult to pick too many holes in the performances last month. An inability to put Somoa away almost cost them, and could come back to bite them against better opposition. However, given what followed against Australia and New Zealand that can be chalked up to rustiness. Meanwhile, they were ultimately undone against the All Blacks by a lack of ruthlessness in their opponents’ 22.
Biggest surprise: Strength in depth. This time last year Darryl Marfo faced an uncertain future as London Welsh lurched towards bankruptcy. However, having moved to Bath and then Edinburgh the prop started all three November Tests and looked at home in the international arena. Sale wing Byron McGuigan was another who shone unexpectedly, scoring two tries as Australia were overwhelmed at Murrayfield.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? Scotland have taken a sizeable stride forward over the past month and will head to Cardiff for the Six Nations opener against Wales full of confidence. Two wins from three while running New Zealand so close is clearly encouraging for the future, as was the fact that those performances were so positive. Scottish rugby fans are no strangers to hope, but whisper it, they look in fine fettle.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Can Gregor Townsend maintain this momentum? We will learn a lot more about where Scotland are at the moment during the Six Nations. Last season, a promising autumn and encouraging start to spring ensured that Scotland travelled to Twickenham to face England with belief. They were comprehensively beaten. Townsend will know his side cannot afford to rest on their laurels. — Martyn Thomas
Player of November: Pieter-Steph du Toit. Loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff and hooker Malcolm Marx have the ability to become the best in the world in their positions, while captain Eben Etzebeth never stopped trying. However, du Toit, who missed the France match with concussion, was simply outstanding. The lock/loose forward was tireless in taking the ball up and trying to create momentum for the uninspiring Bok backs. He also tackled everything that moved, and his lineout work was outstanding.
Flop of November: Andries Coetzee. The Lions fullback struggled under the high ball in Northern Hemisphere conditions and his general play was also poor. The Lions man is a wonderful counter-attacking player in Super Rugby, but the Test arena seems to be a bit too fast for him. He took some terrible options at the back, while his attacking play was pedestrian at best.
Biggest surprise: Francois Venter at No 12. Venter replaced the one-dimensional Damian de Allende after the Ireland Test, in which the Bok backline failed to create space and couldn’t quite cope with the Irish team’s rush defence. Venter, who is normally an outside centre, added some spark to the Boks’ effort against France and was steady in the matches against Italy and Wales. His distribution was also surprisingly good.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? The Boks definitely went backwards if one considers how well they played against the All Blacks in their final Rugby Championship fixture. South Africa are in a much better space than where they were at the end of their 2016 European tour, but are still not at the level to compete with the best in the world.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Where to now for the Boks? It seems likely that they will be without a coach before the end of the year. The Boks need to rediscover that ruthlessness that made them the top team in the world between 2009 and 2010. Whoever takes over next will also need to find backs who can ask questions of the opposition. The Bok pack can’t win matches on their own in the modern era. — John Goliath
Player of November: Rob Evans. Wales are not blessed with international-class loosehead props at present, so Warren Gatland would be wise to wrap Evans up in cotton wool ahead of the Six Nations. A sound scrummager that comes alive in open play, the losehead’s ability with ball in hand was showcased against the All Blacks as he made 16 carries, and threw three offloads. A case can be made that Evans is now the player Wales can afford to lose least.
Flop of November: While it is refreshing that Wales are trying to play a more expansive game there is a worry that it has come at the expense of their once-sound defensive structure. The flip side of spending so much time on the front foot against Australia, New Zealand and — in the first half at least — South Africa, is that when those sides countered, Wales seemed ill-equipped to keep them out.
Biggest surprise: Josh Navidi. The strength of the Welsh back row over recent years forced Navidi to bide his time when it came to international recognition. However, he earned his second cap — four years after his first — over the summer and stamped his authority on this autumn campaign, covering admirably for the carrying and breakdown talents of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. His performance against the All Blacks in particular suggests that those two players will not merely walk back into Gatland’s side.
Moving forward or slipping backwards? Judged against the other home nations it would be easy to feel deflated by a campaign that many would have predicted before November even began. However, while England, Ireland and Scotland grabbed the headlines, there are signs of gradual improvement in Wales. The experiment with a second playmaker worked while options emerged in the back row, centres and on the wings. Prop stocks remain worryingly low, however.
Biggest talking point on road to Japan: Wales’ strength in depth was again called into question last month as a second-string side toiled against Tier 2 Georgia. There are positions — prop and second row — where Gatland will undoubtedly like to be better stocked, while the dominance of the Springbok scrum Saturday will be a worry. Rhys Webb, meanwhile, offers something at scrum-half that none of his rivals do, and the side invariably plays better when he is in it. Could rules be bent to ensure he makes it to the next World Cup? — MT