Where will Test matches be won and lost this weekend? Here are a few pointers

Autumn Nations Series Key Battles

There’s a feast of Test rugby in Europe this weekend, so we’ve had a look at what could be the crucial areas in determining which team triumphs.

Ireland (1) v South Africa (3) – Set-piece supremacy

Ireland’s No 1 world ranking is underpinned by their set-piece. They had the best scrum (96%) and lineout (94%) efficiency in this year’s Six Nations. Not only that, ten of their tries originated from the lineout whilst remarkably they conceded none.

The strength of the Springbok maul helped carry them to World Cup glory, so it will be fascinating to see if Ireland can repel the Boks just as they negated the best in Europe.

The all-Leinster Irish front row of Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong has been touted as the world’s best front row. Then you see Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe coming for them and wonder how big the explosion will be.

Should they win, South Africa will replace Ireland as the world’s top-ranked team. Another incentive should the visitors want one.

Wales (7) v New Zealand (4) – George North v Rieko Ioane

You almost forget that Rieko Ioane was a world-class winger, so good has he become at 13. His first start at outside-centre was on his 30th appearance, against Australia in 2020, yet he makes the position look easy. His pace is electrifying and in defence he is brilliant at getting in passing lanes, blocking a pass that could result in a score.

North, too, is a convert from wing and not yet in Ioane’s class. But we all know how he can take a match by the scruff of the neck. The two players have never met in a WalesNew Zealand match. It should be a hell of match-up.

Referee Wayne Barnes

Wayne Barnes will referee his 100th Test when taking charge of Wales v New Zealand (Getty)

England (5) v Argentina (8) – Ruck speed

At times, the Pumas can look irresistible, going through phases with a speed and slickness that belies their relatively lowly world ranking of eighth.

In this year’s Rugby Championship, they had the fastest attacking ruck speed (2.77 sec) and the second-best ruck success rate (94%) behind South Africa.

They have some big units but hold on, who are they up against? Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola, that’s who. Itoje and Curry will revel in slowing down and turning over Pumas ball. Argentina must stop them if they are to end a ten-match losing run against England.

Scotland (9) v Fiji (12) – Structure v fluidity

Fiji’s work in the tight has improved considerably in recent years but one thing will never change – they prefer throwing the ball around. They beat 73 defenders in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup and that was in just three fixtures!

Scotland will want to control the ball and avoid the silly mistakes and penalties that undermined their performance against Australia. Pierre Schoeman hurdling a tackle. Sione Tuipulotu and Grant Gilchrist dropping passes with a try beckoning. Duhan van der Merwe and George Horne leaving the kick-off to each other. Glen Young being held up over the line.

Tidy up their game and the win will be theirs. Play with laxity and life will be uncomfortable.

Autumn Nations Series Key Battles

Fiji training this week at BT Murrayfield. They can destroy you if let off the leash (SNS Group/Getty)

France (2) v Australia (6) – In search of belief

The Wallabies lost out on the tackle line at Murrayfield last week. They made two line breaks and conceded 15 penalties. Blair Kinghorn’s penalty miss enabled them to scrape a win but France will be a different beast altogether.

Led by Antoine Dupont, the reigning Grand Slam champions are on a run of ten straight wins and haven’t trailed at half-time in their last 23 matches. They had the best tackle success in the Six Nations at 90.2% and only conceded 11 line breaks.

Can Australia break them down? Nic White increased the tempo when he came on last week but the big ball-carriers looked tired. It’s time for James Slipper and Michael Hooper, 246 Tests between them, to rally the troops.

Coach Dave Rennie, juggling his resources during an exhausting five-match schedule, has selected “a good enough side to be competitive”. Sounds like he’s not expecting too much. Australia have four wins in 12. Their first and most important battle is finding belief.

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