Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales: why form in Autumn counts for very little in 2023

Form fluctuates on the rugby field just as on the racecourse where many a sure thing has cost punters money. So, looking ahead to the Six Nations and, more distantly, to the World Cup, it is rash to be either elated or cast down by the results of the Autumn internationals.

Scotland's Finn Russell with his man of the match award during an Autumn Nations Series match between Scotland and Argentina at BT Murrayfield, on November 19, 2022, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Scotland's Finn Russell with his man of the match award during an Autumn Nations Series match between Scotland and Argentina at BT Murrayfield, on November 19, 2022, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The balance swings even on the day, let alone from week to week. How many articles were already on the way to being composed bewailing or gloating over England’s toothless display against New Zealand at Twickenham until, suddenly, a dozen or so minutes from the end, the match was turned upside down. England woke up or the All Blacks went to sleep, and the game ended in a draw.

Or look across the Irish sea. Ireland may deservedly be ranked the best team in the world, but anyone subjected to the dismal game against Australia at the Aviva Stadium might be excused for thinking this a joke in poor taste. It was truly dreadful, two teams apparently incapable of departing from a very dull script. If there was no queue of disgruntled spectators demanding a refund well, Irish fans are a remarkably easy-going lot.

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Then consider Wales, beaten in Cardiff by Georgia, just as back in March they lost there to Italy. A nation in mourning with only energy enough to demand the head of their unfortunate coach Wayne Pivac, deemed the guilty man even though everyone really knows that it’s the players who win or lose matches, not the man on the sidelines. What’s the truth? Wales have been inconsistent for years, all my lifetime indeed. Even in the glorious 1970s they sometimes lost matches, two indeed at Murrayfield.

What then of Scotland? Two weeks ago there was a good deal of angry muttering. Now after two exhilarating performances there’s a spring in the step, even though the New Zealand game was lost. The return of Finn Russell with a smile on his face is of course the first reason for the change of mood. I’ve been a member of what the former England scrum-half Matt Dawson called “the Finn Russell Appreciation Society “ for years, but even I had to admit that last season he had scarcely shone, but at best only flickered. If he maintains his present form, if he and Gregor Townsend see eye to eye, hope of our best season for years will revive.

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The back division we fielded last Saturday may be the best we have had since 1999 when we won the last Five Nations tournament. That was Townsend’s own golden year when he scored in every match. Now we have prolific try-scorers in the back three. Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe are, in their very different styles, as dangerous as any trio in the Six Nations. Just as importantly, Townsend may at last have happened on the centre partnership we have been needing. Chris Harris has of course been our established 13 for some time, but Sione Tuipulotu may be the 12 we have been looking for, even though young Cammy Redpath will be nibbling at his heels. In short, if the forwards can supply the backs with clean quick good quality ball, this looks like a team that can score tries against anyone. Defence, of course, may be another matter.

Yet the optimism of late autumn has often turned to gloom in February and March. It may indeed have dimmed before then unless Glasgow and Edinburgh can give good accounts of themselves in the European Cup competitions. We are all aware that Ireland’s success has been based on he European achievements of Leinster and, if to a lesser extent recently, Munster. Conversely the inconsistency and sometimes feebleness of Wales reflect the generally disappointing form and poor record of the four Welsh regional teams.

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Both Edinburgh and Glasgow should now have enough strength in depth and established international players to make a better show in Europe than they have been accustomed to offer. But if there is one message from the November Tests to be taken to heart, it is surely that form is as variable as Scotland’s weather. Any team can play like champions one week, numpties the next, and the switch from one to the other may even happen in the same match.