The Breakdown | Autumn international awards: Steward stands out as France flourish

Champagne moments from dramatic run of autumn internationals … and the Rassie Erasmus water-carrier award

The 2021 autumn international series has been eventful, with northern hemisphere nations enjoying some striking successes over their increasingly weary southern counterparts. Here is The Breakdown’s definitive end-of-year report …

Best game France’s 40-25 thrashing of New Zealand in Paris offered a tantalising glimpse of what might lie ahead in the 2023 Rugby World Cup. It was the first time the All Blacks have conceded 40 points to anyone since Ireland beat them in Chicago in 2016 and the 24-6 half-time deficit was the widest New Zealand have ever known.

Best men’s player Antoine Dupont (France). An absolute dead cert for the world men’s player of the year award. Les Bleus have a scrum-half with no apparent weaknesses.

Best women’s player Sarah Bern (England). Back from injury and looking as strong, mobile and influential as ever.

Most impressive individual performance Caelan Doris (Ireland v NZ). The Irish back-rower was all over the All Blacks in Dublin, his side’s best performance since the heights of the Joe Schmidt era. What a shame that injury ruled Doris out of contention for the British & Irish Lions tour.

Most dominant team of the month England’s Red Roses. They walloped all comers, including the Black Ferns twice. Will take some beating at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.

Best try Waisea Nayacalevu (Fiji). The Flying Fijians could not beat Wales with 14 men but they did score the most exhilarating try of the month, a counter-attacking gem following a quick tap in their own 22. The rampaging Nayacalevu’s unstoppable dive probably merited this award on its own.

Sarah Bern’s return from injury has made England’s women’s side even stronger.
Sarah Bern’s return from injury has made England’s women’s side even stronger. Photograph: Bob Bradford - CameraSport/CameraSport/Getty Images

Champagne moment Romain Ntamack turning a tight defensive spot into a glorious attacking opportunity from behind his own line against New Zealand in Paris.

Best male newcomer Marcus Smith is front and centre of the “new” England but the 20-year-old Freddie Steward at full-back barely put a foot wrong.

Best female newcomer Heather Cowell. Two tries and some nifty footwork on her Test debut from the former gymnast now playing on the wing for England.

Biggest letdown Australia without Samu Kerevi, Quade Cooper and Sean McMahon. Their decision to return to their Japanese clubs for pre-season training robbed the Wallabies of any collective momentum.

Head coach of the autumn Andy Farrell (Ireland). His side’s improvement in attitude, sharpness, desire, fitness and intent has been clear for all to see.

Best tackle Courtney Lawes. How he managed to get back and catch Tonga’s flying Telusa Veainu as he surged for the line was a minor miracle.

Best pre-match backdrop A tie between Wales v New Zealand in Cardiff and England v Australia at Twickenham. Dramatic lighting, fireworks, flame throwers … rugby union stages its biggest days increasingly well.

Best referee Wayne Barnes (England). It was a nice touch by the Rugby Football Union this month to present all living English international referees with their own “Test caps”.

Rassie Erasmus water-carrier award Richard Cockerill (England). If anything is finally going to propel World Rugby into banning coaches from running water on to the field it will be the sight of Cockerill on the Twickenham turf as the pressure mounted in the second half of the England v South Africa game. Provocative, moi?

Biggest captaincy work-on Courtney Lawes (England). Did an outstanding – and unbeaten – job as England captain in place of Owen Farrell. That said, running on to the pitch after being substituted and remonstrating with the opposition with the game still ongoing is not a globally recognised diplomatic technique.

Most emotional moment The Wallaby prop Ollie Hoskins, drafted in at late notice from club duty with London Irish following a raft of front-row injuries, shedding tears of pride and joy after learning of his first Test call-up at the age of 28.

Biggest missed team-sheet opportunity What a divine moment it would have been had Wales’s Christ Tshiunza and New Zealand’s Josh Lord faced each other this month. Let’s all pray it happens one day.

France are the northern hemisphere’s front runners as the Six Nations approaches.
France are the northern hemisphere’s front runners as the Six Nations approaches. Photograph: John Spencer/Sipa/Shutterstock

Best quotes

1) “Our forward pack isn’t weak and we’ll show that on Saturday.” Eddie Jones throws down the gauntlet to the world champions South Africa.

2) “Well, we threw the kitchen sink at them first half and its 5-10. We are going to have to throw the garden shed at them second half!” Donncha O’Callaghan commenting on the Ireland v New Zealand game.

3) “I’m not going to lie, that one hurt.” The All Black hooker Dane Coles after his side’s 40-25 loss to France in Paris.

4) “Due to the actions of Mr Erasmus, my family and I have endured a significant amount of distress and we will only have negative memories of the whole experience.” The Australian referee Nic Berry, whose post-Lions tour testimony was belatedly released this month by World Rugby.

5) “I thought some of the decision-making by the officials was horrendous. We’ll end up getting an apology next week but it won’t help the result.” The Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie fumes at the officiating of the Wales v Australia game. He has already forgotten about 4) above.

6) “Sad not to be with the boys. I do however get the feeling the two months will not be so bad as feared.” A tweet from Rassie Erasmus accompanied by a picture of a pint of Guinness.

End of year northern hemisphere pecking order: 1 France, 2 Ireland, 3 England, 4 Scotland, 5 Wales, 6 Georgia.

Autumn series XV F Steward (England), W Jordan (New Zealand), H Slade (England), D De Allende (South Africa), M Mapimpi (South Africa), R Ntamack, (France), A Dupont (France); S Kitshoff (South Africa), P Mauvaka (France), T Furlong (Ireland), E Etzebeth (South Africa), C Woki (France), C Doris (Ireland), T Basham (Wales), A Savea (New Zealand).

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Robert Kitson

The GuardianTramp

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