A clean sweep of the southern-hemisphere “giants” in the same calendar year is Ireland’s for the taking this weekend if they can beat Australia in Dublin. And it is testament to the changing face of international rugby that it would not even be for the first time. They managed it in 2016.
This time, though, it feels solid. In 2016, they beat the All Blacks for the first time in their history, let alone all three of them in one year, but now the Irish lord it over the rest at the top of World Rugby’s rankings. Beat the Wallabies in Saturday’s evening fixture, and that is where they will finish the year. More poignantly perhaps, it is where they will start a World Cup year.
Having dispatched Fiji last weekend, they recall as many of the big guns as they can. Johnny Sexton is the most reassuring of the returnees, but reassuring too is the return of his fellow nominee as world player of the year, Josh van der Flier. If Sexton has embodied Ireland these last 10 years or more, Van der Flier might be said to represent the current wave of excellence.
Who knows, their future may be represented by Jimmy O’Brien, who shows off his versatility by lining up in a third different position of the autumn, this time on the wing. The Leinster youngster came off the bench in the first half of the win over the world champion Springboks to play centre with some aplomb. Last weekend he turned out at full-back.
Australia, as if to confirm the shifting tides, these days languish in the lower reaches of the top 10. They started the autumn in ninth, then bounced up to sixth following their surprise (yes, surprise) win against Scotland on the opening weekend. Alas, they have slipped back to eighth with consecutive one-point losses on the continent. The one against France might have been accounted a good effort, but the defeat against Italy was definitely not part of the script.
Their most notable selection for Dublin is that of the athletic wing, Mark Nawaqanitawase, who is being likened to Israel Folau. He is of Fijian heritage and will line up for his second Test, having been one of the few to impress against Italy last weekend, which was his debut. At the start of the year, he was ranked sixth-choice wing for the Waratahs.
Ranked sixth was where Scotland began the autumn. Now it is their turn to languish in ninth, following up that defeat to Australia (also by one point) with an unconvincing win over Fiji and last weekend’s agonising defeat to New Zealand. We have become used to the rollercoaster ride that Scotland like to take us on, but even by their standards that failure to clinch a first win over the All Blacks was trying on the nerves. They lost the first seven minutes by 14-0, won the next 55 by 23-0 and lost the final 18 by 17-0.
Finn Russell, the fly-half in from the cold, retains his place at No 10 for the visit of Argentina, while Jack Dempsey starts at No 8, having replaced Hamish Watson in the first half last weekend. Watson misses out now because of the concussion he suffered then.
The Pumas have had an interesting calendar year themselves, having won in New Zealand for the first time in their history and, two weeks ago, at Twickenham for the second time. Their defeat to Wales last weekend was a disappointing comedown, but they change four for this visit to Murrayfield, including the return of captain Julian Montoya, who pulled out late from the Cardiff Test.
Wales will expect to follow up that victory with the same result against Georgia, but that would be to reckon without the rollercoaster that is Wales at this time of year. Although a cynic might call theirs a particularly low-flying ride in the autumn. Certainly they were well beaten by the All Blacks, as ever, on the opening weekend, and the win last week against Argentina could not be termed exciting.
Perhaps the most interesting match will take place in Genoa, where Italy take on South Africa after beating Australia in Florence last weekend. That was their first win over the Wallabies, but beating the Springboks for them is old hat, having broached that seal in that storied year of 2016. They make two changes in the front row but will have their work cut out against South Africa, who include the mighty Quin Andre Esterhuizen at inside centre.