Can Warren Gatland’s Wales finally beat Australia? And is Italy-Georgia the match of the weekend? ESPN assesses the biggest talking points and players to watch.
England vs New Zealand
Saturday 3:00 p.m. (GMT), Twickenham, London
Player to Watch: Owen Farrell. It’s been talked and dissected to death, but ultimately Farrell’s last-gasp ‘tackle’ on André Esterhuizen dominated the headlines after England’s 12-11 victory over the Springboks last weekend. After the citing commissioner elected against bringing a case against the Saracens man, Farrell is free to line up against the All Blacks — and that may well leave the New Zealanders begrudging their luck. Undoubtedly one of the leading lights of last year’s drawn Lions tour, Farrell terrorised the Kiwis time and time again and he will need to do so again for England to claim world rugby’s biggest scalp.
Biggest talking point: Chris Ashton will make his first England start in more than four years when he lines up against the All Blacks. With England’s attack looking a little bit blunt last weekend, the attacking guile of Ashton will come in use as Eddie Jones’ men look to break down New Zealand. He replaces Jack Nowell in the starting XV, the man that he came off the bench to replace last weekend. Ashton only touched the ball twice, but England will need the Sale flier at the top of his game Saturday. Ashton has a point to prove and needs to impress ahead of the Six Nations and the World Cup — what better way to do that than putting in a match-winning display against the world’s best side?
Prediction: Given the year England have had, beating the All Blacks, even at home, would be an incredible result. New Zealand showed in the Rugby Championship that they are not invincible, but the way that the Springboks dominated England in the first half last weekend has to give cause for concern. South Africa let England off the hook by not converting their dominance to points, New Zealand won’t let them get away with it. The All Blacks should win by 10-15 points.
— Sean Nevin
Player to watch: Brodie Retallick. The Chiefs lock returns to the All Blacks starting side this week after coming off the bench in the Bledisloe III win over the Wallabies two weeks ago. He had been sidelined by a shoulder injury prior to that, having fallen awkwardly in a tackle during the win over Argentina in Nelson back in September. What England must be wary of, and should be fully expecting, is the rich vein of form Retallick had been in prior to that. England can’t match New Zealand in the backline, and therefore require a mammoth effort from the pack up front. If Retallick is able to reprise his role as the All Blacks forward linchpin, like he did against the Wallabies in August, it will be goodnight England.
Biggest talking point: Ben Smith is the All Blacks best option at full-back, but again he finds himself on the right wing with Steve Hansen preferring to give Damian McKenzie another run in the No.15 jersey. What that does is give the All Blacks another playmaking option from the back, and adds to a counter-attacking threat that would otherwise have the less creative Waisake Naholo on the wing if Smith were filling his usual custodian role. McKenzie is strong under the high ball but you can expect Owen Farrell to test him out early on.
Prediction: Put simply, the All Blacks have too many points in them for this current England team. Down on troops up front, England won’t be able to rally themselves through the middle of the paddock and deny the All Blacks the front-foot ball they are so dangerous off. New Zealand’s ability to strike on the counter is unmatched, and England are going to find out just how ruthless the All Blacks can be on Saturday. New Zealand by 10.
— Sam Bruce
Wales vs Australia
Saturday 5:20 p.m. (GMT), Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Player to watch: Justin Tipuric. With Sam Warburton now retired, the battle at the breakdown against Michael Hooper and David Pocock will be even tougher for Wales. They are going to need someone to step up and be their own powerhouse in the ruck. Fortunately for Wales, Tipuric is a man made for that job. He was immense last weekend, breaking up everything Scotland tried to do at the ruck with a man-of-the-match display. Australia, though, are a completely different proposition to a weakened Scotland side, but Tipuric can help quell the threat that Pocock and Hooper possess. Nullifying them is paramount is Wales are to end their dismal run against the Wallabies.
Biggest talking point: With Dan Biggar’s enforced absence last week, the in-form Gareth Anscombe was the obvious man to fill in at No.10. The Cardiff Blues man performed solidly enough against the Scots, combining well with George North on the outside flank. The way that Anscombe brought Wales’ attacking to life truly helped Gatland’s side, particularly in the first half. Against Australia, Gatland has gone for Anscombe again, despite Biggar’s return to the squad. But the pressure is on to put in a brilliant performance. One single mistake could see Biggar introduced from the bench.
Prediction: History was on Wales’ side last weekend when they took on the Scots. However, that certainly isn’t the case this time around. Wales have never beaten Australia with Gatland in charge during a run that spans 13 matches against the Wallabies. But after Australia’s troubling 2018, it may well be a case of ‘if not now, then when’ in regards to breaking the hoodoo that seems to linger whenever Wales face the boys in gold.
— Sean Nevin
Player to Watch: Israel Folau. He played at centre in the Bledisloe Cup defeat against the All Blacks in Yokohama but is back on the wing for the match at the Principality Stadium and is capable of providing the counter-attacking thrust to hurt Warren Gatland’s side. Michael Cheika’s plan is for Folau to enjoy more freedom to attack from wide in what he expects to be an open game. If he does get that freedom Folau has every chance of adding to his 34 international tries. He’s a game-winner, pure and simple. Wales have to get him under control.
Biggest Talking Point: The line-out and the inclusion of Tolu Latu. In Yokohama the All Blacks were dominant at the set-piece, denying Australia the chance to get quality ball to the half-backs. Against Wales that will have to change, and the responsibility to make it happen rests with Tolu Latu, who has been brought in ahead of veteran Tatafu Polota-Nau at hooker. David Pocock admitted this week that Australia were working on the line-out and Latu must hit his spots in just his second Test start if Australia are to continue their magnificent winning run against Wales.
Prediction: Put simply Wales are favourites for a reason. Australia have not had a good year, with defeats to Argentina and South Africa particular low points in a poor Rugby Championship campaign. History is on the Wallabies’ side without question, but you can’t read too much into their 13-game winning run against Wales this time around. One way or another Wales should end their barren run.
— Alex Underwood
France vs South Africa
Saturday 8:05 p.m. (GMT), Stade de France, Paris
Player to watch: Baptiste Serin. Freshly restored to France’s No.9 shirt courtesy of ill-timed injuries to Morgan Parra and Baptiste Couilloud, Serin has a real point to prove after falling down the scrum-half pecking order. And he will not have much time to prove it. Wunderkind Antoine Dupont is on the bench, just one-and-a-half matches after returning from a knee injury picked up during the Six Nations in February. In his first start for Toulouse — against Perpignan two weeks ago — Dupont scored a hat-trick, made 177 metres, attempted and made 16 tackles and beat nine defenders in 75 minutes — 35 of which he played at 10. Watch out, too, for Louis Picamoles, who starts at eight … possibly against Brunel’s better judgement, as the pair have not exactly seen eye to eye in recent months.
Biggest talking point: We could discuss yet another French half-back pairing, but the absence of Gael Fickou in the starting XV is noteworthy. It’s true Mathieu Bastareaud and Geoffrey Doumayrou did little wrong in the Six Nations and on the June tour of New Zealand. It’s also true that Fickou’s defence is not his strong suit. But he is the form centre in France right now, even more so with the injury-enforced absences of Wesley Fofana and Remi Lamerat. He has made a dangerous habit of beating defenders, finding the smallest of gaps, making metres by the dozen, and scoring tries at will since moving to Stade Francais. Clearly, Brunel expects trial by power from South Africa. It’s the only logical reason for leaving out Fickou.
Prediction: They’re fashionably late to the party as always, but France’s World Cup run-in starts here. After 11 months under Jacques Brunel, we have finally reached the first genuine test of French progress on his watch. Think about it. With scarcely any preparation — remember, he took charge in January 2018 after Guy Noves was sacked — he got Les Bleus to overperform in the Six Nations, and no-one expected anything other than exactly what happened in New Zealand in June. Second to the All Blacks, this opener against a Springboks side, still seething from the injustice of last weekend’s narrow defeat at Twickenham, could hardly be tougher. Brunel has picked a pack that can compete physically with the scrum monsters from South Africa, with yet more power — and no little mobility — ready to launch off the bench. This one will be close. And brutal.
— James Harrington
Player to watch: Faf de Klerk. The World Rugby Player of the Year nominee is back in the side despite confusion surrounding his availability given that his club, Sale Sharks, announced in October that he would not be playing international rugby in November. He was never going to face England at Twickenham, given that match was played outside the Test window, but the Boks certainly missed his direction in the No. 9 jumper. It seems telling that the coach recalled his star as soon as possible. In the injury-enforced absence of Eben Etzebeth, he will also potentially be able to offer counsel to Siya Kolisi, who, let’s remember, is still a rookie captain at Test level.
Biggest talking point: The lineout. The Springboks had the game won against England, and yet they fell short against injury-riddled opponents. And, let’s be honest, they didn’t lose because of a controversial tackle by Owen Farrell; they lost because they scored only 11 points having failed to take their chances created on the back of their dominance of both possession and territory. The Boks, in particular, were left to lament their malfunctioning lineout; they lost four of their 14 set-pieces, with Malcolm Marx culpable with three overthrows. The Boks will need more than a functioning lineout to win in Paris, but it’s fair to say they will not win if the set-piece fails as it did at Twickenham.
Prediction: It is likely to be close again and South Africa cannot afford to let the fine margins go the way of France. That said the Springboks at their very best should win in Paris. France remain a work in progress — a dangerous opponent unquestionably but one that will leave gaps to be exploited. South Africa to edge a decent contest.
— Andy Withers
Ireland vs Argentina
Saturday 6:30 p.m. (GMT). Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Player to watch: Jordan Lamour. The winger lit up Soldier Field with a hat-trick of tries against Italy and will have another opportunity at full-back this weekend due to the absence of Rob Kearney — who is missing due to a shoulder injury. Given his performance last week, Lamour perhaps would have started even if Kearney was fit and another impressive showing from the Leinster back will give Joe Schmidt a serious decision to make ahead of the visit of the All Blacks next weekend.
Biggest talking point: The big guns are back. After being rested for the trip to Chicago, Ireland have recalled the likes of Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony, with Schmidt naming what is close to his strongest team. Maintaining focus for the game ahead will be Ireland’s biggest challenge on Saturday. They can’t be distracted with what lies around the corner or else Argentina could spring a surprise — like they did in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2015.
Prediction: Argentina have failed to win any of their eight trips to Ireland and that record looks set to continue. The visitors will ensure it’s an entertaining affair, but Ireland are too strong across all departments and should win by at least 15 points.
— Jamie Braidwood
Player to watch: Emiliano Boffelli. The player from Rosario had the huge responsibility of replacing injured Joaquin Tuculet — one of the team’s most experienced and respected players — at full-back, Bofelli has exceeded expectations both for the Jaguares in Super Rugby and for the Pumas and he will provide defensive and offensive security in the air, in what could be a very tactical match. His long-range kicking skills could also prove to be key in racking up points for the Argentine team.
Biggest talking point: It´s key for Argentina to have Nicolas Sanchez 100 percent fit, and that will only be known on Saturday when the match begins. He’s been one of the best players for Argentina this year but the side still don’t have a replacement at his level for a Test of this calibre. The Pumas’ chances of winning will depend on Sanchez, who has been the team’s leader so far in 2018.
Prediction: Ireland are one of the two best teams in the world along with New Zealand. Ledesma´s squad is still developing and it will be hard for them to win in Dublin. Ireland will win by 10 points.
— Patricio Connolly
Scotland vs Fiji
Saturday 2:30 p.m. (GMT), Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Player to watch: Sam Skinner. The Exeter Chiefs lock will make his first start for Scotland having been a surprise inclusion in Gregor Townsend’s squad last month. Skinner is a former England youth international but qualifies for Scotland through family connections. Although he is yet to become a name north of the border, the 22-year-old is a highly-rated prospect amongst Premiership circles and Scotland’s move to pinch him from under England’s nose was seen as an extremely smart move. It will be interesting to see how he performs on his debut.
Biggest talking point: Stuart Hogg was thought to have been ruled for 10-12 weeks after undergoing ankle surgery at the end of September but has made a spectacular recovery to start against Fiji. Hogg is a world-class back and his early return is a massive boost for Gregor Townsend’s side. That’s providing he’s fully fit, however. With a big Six Nations campaign and a World Cup taking place next year, serious questions will be asked if Hogg injures his ankle again, having been rushed back into the team ahead of schedule.
Prediction: Scotland have won 11 of their last 12 matches at Murrayfield — with the only defeat coming to New Zealand this time last year. Fiji will have their moments and could score a couple of tries late on to make things interesting, but Scotland will be too far ahead by then.
— Jamie Braidwood
Player to watch: Viliame ‘Bill’ Mata. A fans’ favourite at Edinburgh, Mata will be playing in familiar surroundings when he gets a crack of some of his teammates this weekend. A gold medalist with Fiji’s 7s team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the lock has been one of Edinburgh’s standout performers in the Pro 14 this season and the likes of Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson will be only too aware of the threat he will bring.
Biggest talking point: Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend said Fiji are the “equivalent of Brazil in football” this week, and the challenge for John McKee and his side is now proving they have substance as well as style. More and more of their squad are now based at Europe’s top clubs and the world of rugby are more than aware of their potential. Fiji’s last win against a Tier One nation came against Scotland in 2017. They’d love another one now ahead of a huge year.
Prediction: Fiji will score tries, that’s for sure, but they’ll fall ultimately fall short. Scotland are too strong at Murrayfield.
— Jamie Braidwood
Italy vs Georgia
Saturday 2:00 p.m. (GMT) Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence
Player to watch: Luca Sperandio. Forget Chicago, the 22-year-old from Casale sul Sile is back in the Azzurri mix after almost two years away from the international stage, and will have a pivotal role in Florence as he wins only his fifth cap. He and wingers Mattia Bellini and Tommaso Benvenuti should benefit from centers and back-rowers buzzing around the pitch, and even from the boost of Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna. I expect a brace of tires from the Benetton speedster.
Biggest talking point: While the increased competence of the Italians in every part of the game is now crystal clear, the lack of maturity seen in the Ireland game was scarring. You can’t possibly stay in a rugby game against one of the world’s top three nations when you concede two easy tries in a key part of the match. Against Georgia, Italy have the chance to win, and win big, simply by making safe decisions in the clutch moments. In rugby, games are won by consistency and composure, rarely by improvisation. As soon as the Azzurri understand that, then the world may finally gain another top Six Nations contender.
Prediction: Honestly, I cannot expect anything but a comfortable win. Head coach Conor O’Shea is working well and has all the support of the Italian Rugby Federation. They know exactly the importance of this fixture — on a political side more than anything. Players have grown in all areas in the last 24 months and they can also rely on a depth that the country has never experienced before. Italy to win by 20 to 30 points.
— Enrico Borra
Player to watch: Vasil Lobzhanidze. While Georgia are famed for their forward pack, scrum-half Lobzhanidze is always worth keeping an eye on. Now 22, Lobzhanidze became the youngest player to appear at a World Cup when he made four appearances for the Lelos in England in 2015. Georgia’s scrum and defence are renowned around the world, but Milton Haig’s side also need creativity and guile if they are to develop as a team. Lobzhanidze will be the man responsible for providing that attacking spark.
Biggest talking point: It’s arguably the most important game of the weekend. Georgia have waited 15 years for the chance to play Italy again and Saturday is potentially the biggest game in the team’s history. The Lelos have been consistently ranked ahead of Italy in recent years, but have been made to wait for the opportunity to show it on the field. Victory, or at least a credible performance, will lead to serious talk of them joining the Six Nations.
Prediction: Unfortunately for Georgia, this match is just as big for Italy as it is for them. The Azzuri will be fired up as they seek to secure a rare win on home soil. Italy to win, but by less than 10 points.
— Jamie Braidwood