WHERE once the Autumn Internationals were akin to a mini-World Cup, bringing eager anticipation and genuine excitement, this year’s schedule must leave some wondering whether it is all much ado about nothing.
Not only is there still no New Zealand to whet the appetite at Twickenham – the last time England faced the world champions anywhere was there in 2014 – but there is no South Africa either.
Australia, therefore, are the only one from the ‘Big Three’ southern hemisphere powerhouses to venture to HQ in the coming weeks.
Moreover, they arrive after today’s visit from a desperately out-of-sorts Argentina and before the visit of a struggling Samoa side whose union was this week declared bankrupt.
Nevertheless, when it comes to England themselves, under the tutelage of Eddie Jones, things always manage to seem intriguing regardless of who they face or what is happening around them.
Perhaps it should be no surprise; the Australian, after all, is a great storyteller.
When it comes to intrigue this afternoon, for instance, it will be fascinating to see Henry Slade start at inside centre for the first time in Test football.
Undoubtedly, with his clever footwork, sleight of hand and acceleration, the Exeter Chiefs man is one of the most naturally gifted midfield operators around even if, at the age of 24, he has never managed to cement an England place for barely longer than 80 minutes.
One of the main reasons for that has been the relentless reliability, durability and all-round world-class ability of a certain Owen Farrell, the British Lion who has been so integral to the red rose for the last five years or so.
He, though, has been rested today, much to his chagrin apparently; Farrell is a born winner who – and anyone witnessing his hunger for defensive action will understand this point – simply refuses to counter any such need for ‘rest’.
Yes, the Wiganer may have faced an “exceptional workload” with both the Lions and, since his return from New Zealand, Saracens but he was desperate to play again today. Likewise his club-mate and fellow Lion Maro Itoje who has similarly been given the afternoon off.
But, for all it will be strange not seeing Farrell blasting around the Twickenham turf, it will be exciting to see Slade hopefully demonstrate his own array of talents.
If he orchestrates and makes the sort of incisions everyone knows he can, and operates that booming left boot with all his usual efficiency, will we see the start of a change in Jones’s midfield thinking building towards the 2019 World Cup?
Farrell and No 10 George Ford go together like fish and chips but could Slade impress his coach sufficiently to prompt a switch of Farrell to his favoured fly-half role for the remaining autumn games and perhaps beyond?
It remains to be seen but what is clear is that the Devonian simply must seize his chance as the competition in midfield is so great that it is unlikely he will gain another shot like it.
For example, Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi – is that a pipe dream? – and former Leeds Carnegie star Alex Lozowski all also have designs on the role.
Similarly, Ford will be mindful of all the potential permutations and realise he, too, has to deliver to let Jones know he is irreplaceable at 10.
One way of doing that will be to successfully fulfil duties that are not normally his domain – goalkicking. Farrell’s absence means Ford will takeover in that department and it is well-documented that the 24-year-old’s accuracy is not as unerring as his prolific team-mate’s.
Admittedly, Ford is flourishing back at Leicester with his attacking and game-management, components that he has often highlighted with England, too.
But if he can become a consistently accurate goal-kicker at Test level he will add another string to his bow and strengthen his own position.
Argentina, meanwhile, are in a bit of a mess.
Certainly, their 2015 World Cup semi-final appearance now seems a lot longer than two years ago. In this year, they have managed just one win in nine Tests and that was against Georgia while they suffered a whitewash in the Rugby Championship.
It is argued they have tried to play too much expansive rugby when such a tactic is a real departure from their traditional style of forward-dominated play with an emphasis on high-quality set-piece.
Whatever, the Pumas do not enter the game in any sort of confidence and England will be ready to strangle them further as soon as possible. That said, any sort of slow start from Jones’s side, who do still field their remaining eight British Lions from the summer, will offer Argentina encouragement and that is something he will look to extinguish.
It has been revealed Argentina’s players have consulted psychologists to improve their mental toughness ahead of this game. As well as losing all six games in the recent Rugby Championship against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, they were beaten twice by an under-strength England at home in June.
Yet the Pumas have led in several of those matches, including at half-time in New Zealand and in the first Test against England.
Head coach Daniel Hourcade admitted: “We lost the opportunity to win against England because we dominated the first game. The second game was more equal, but we had opportunity to win, but we were unable to take the opportunity.
“It’s probably mental and that’s what we have to work on, so we don’t have those ups and downs during the games. Some of the players have consulted (people) in terms of mentality, some individually with psychologists and some as a group with coaches.”