With the cancellation of the Barbarians’ match against Samoa, we are now 1 week on from the end of the Autumn Test series. A series that saw New Zealand lose 2 weeks on the bounce, Italy get their first win since the World Cup, Wales continue to struggle to beat teams despite a numerical disadvantage and France, Ireland and England suggesting that they will be the teams competing for the Six Nations title in a few months.
So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Series. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. I’m also having to account for the fact that I saw many teams play 3 or 4 times and others just once, so I also have to consider consistency across multiple games compared to one solid performance. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Autumn Tests is:
1) Andrew Porter: He’s been bossing things for Ireland at tighthead in recent years, but with Tadhg Furlong back to his best, Porter has made the transition from tighthead to loosehead without any drop in quality. A great scrummager, this series also highlighted Porter’s ability both defensively and offensively in the loose, with some strong carries and impressive handling skills.
2) Peato Mauvaka: What a series for Mauvaka. The Toulouse hooker found himself a regular in the 23 due to Camille Chat’s injury, and an injury to clubmate Julien Marchand elevated him to the starting spot as the matches went on. And boy did he take his chances, with 5 tries in 3 games to highlight Les Bleus’ continued strength in depth at the position.
3) Tadhg Furlong: Like his teammate Andre Porter, Furlong is everything you could possibly hope to find in a prop. A superb scrummager, Furlong is a wrecking ball when carrying but with the handling skills and rugby IQ to find a pass to keep the ball moving.
4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Adam Beard: Etzebeth wins a spot in a third consecutive one of these, having also featured in my Team of the Lions Series and Team of the Rugby Championship. Initially coming onto the scene as an enforcer to replace Bakkies Botha, Etzebeth has become a fantastic leader and all-rounder, running some great lines when South Africa actually play attacking rugby to go with his excellence in the set piece and defence. Meanwhile, Adam Beard had the tough task of having to step up and be the leader in the second row after another injury to Alun Wyn Jones, providing some consistency at the position despite some variation in who partnered him.
6) Ellis Jenkins: The Welsh flanker made his long-awaited return to Test rugby after a horror injury on his last international appearance and showed us all what we’ve been missing with a series of fantastic performances. He carried well and really highlighted is leadership in the way he dealt with the officials, but really showed his quality with a series of impressive turnovers, often in key moments. Let’s hope that he can now stay injury-free!
7) Josh van der Flier: Probably one of the most underrated players in the Irish squad, van der Flier earned his place on this list with a series of strong appearances for an impressive Irish team. Ever reliable, he can make yards and keep the ball moving in attack, but in defence he just quietly goes about his business stopping the opposition while allowing those around him to receive the plaudits. Ireland would not be able to field 2 carriers in Caelan Doris and Jack Conan at 6 and 8 if it weren’t for the work that van der Flier puts in.
8) Aaron Wainwright: He initially seemed to struggle under Wayne Pivac, but Aaron Wainwright got a chance to start with a number of regular internationals missing and took his chance. He maybe lacks that extra half yard of pace to be one of those elite open field 8s or that extra 10kg of muscle to be a wrecking ball 8, but he is a solid all-rounder whose versatility should always keep him around the 23, if not in the starting line-up.
9) Antoine Dupont: He might not have stood out as much as in some matches, but this was another great series for Dupont. With the added burden of the captaincy in the absence of Charles Ollivon, and with a heavily rotated pack and changes at fly half, the Toulouse halfback was the model of consistency, while also showing off his range of attributes.
10) Romain Ntamack: What a difference 1 performance can make. Playing at 12 for much of the first 2 Tests, we saw solid but largely quiet performances from Ntamack as France lacked the physical runner they needed in midfield. However with a move to fly half in the second half, Ntamack began to look more like the young star we had see in recent years, but he saved the best ’til last with a magnificent performance in the win over New Zealand, with a well-taken try and a break from behind his own try line that will live long in the memory.
11) Monty Ioane: Probably a controversial one in here, given Italy’s results, but Ioane is one constant highlight for the Azzurri. Despite getting little space to work in, he continued to make metres going forward both in contact and by finding and exploiting any gaps, while he also covered back on a number of occasions and held his own against multiple opposition players to allow his team time to get back and secure the ball once he finally went to ground.
12) Damian de Allende: Does de Allende get the recognition he deserves? I don’t think so but he is here. The Munster centre is a true two-way player at 12, with his strong running often requiring more than one defender to bring us down, while defensively he creates a solid midfield pairing with Lukhanyo Am to stop the gain line being breached, and is near-impossible to move legally once he latches on over a tackled ball-carrier, allowing him to win crucial turnovers.
13) Garry Ringrose: Injury to Robbie Henshaw gave Andy Farrell the easiest of selections at centre in Bundee Aki and Ringrose, and the Leinster centre took his chance well. A solid all-rounder, Ringrose excels in a more open game than Ireland ad been playing, but with their more attacking mindset this Autumn, he got a chance to shine.
14) Andrew Conway: The options that Ireland have in the back 3 are incredible, but Conway showed in these Tests that he will take some shifting. His elusiveness and his ability to score a try are well known (though he was happy to remind us with a hat-trick against Japan) but what he really showed in this game was how important he is to the Irish kicking game, not just challenging in the air, but the way he times his runs to perfection to stop the opposition making any ground after taking a kick.
15) Freddie Steward: The first couple of times I saw Steward play (England U20s) I was not impressed. But he’s developed well at Tigers and deserved his chance with the national team. And boy has he taken that chance, surely securing the 15 shirt for the coming years with his dominance in the air and a brilliant all-round game.