LONDON, November 2- The eyes of the rugby union world will be on Europe this month with world and Tri-Nations champions South Africa leading a raft of southern hemisphere touring teams looking to finish the year on a high.Whatever happens, the Springboks have already enjoyed a brilliant 2009, defeating the British and Irish Lions 2-1 before trumping New Zealand and Australia to lift the Tri-Nations title.
However, victories over France, Italy and Ireland would be the icing on the cake for Peter de Villiers’s squad.
The Ireland match promises to be a rousing finale with the home side set to feature Lions captain Paul O’Connell and star centre Brian O’Driscoll, whose South African heartbreak will be fresh in their memories.
De Villiers, the 2007 World Cup-winning coach, was taking nothing for granted, saying: "What the Springboks have achieved so far will have little bearing and we will be starting from scratch as we try to put the seal on a very successful season.
Australia and New Zealand, fresh from the All Blacks’ 32-19 Bledisloe Cup win in Japan, arrive in Europe with almost as much attention on their coaches as their players.
The Wallabies, under the guidance of New Zealander Robbie Deans, are embarking upon a traditional Grand Slam tour – playing Tests against England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales on the one trip – as they seek to emulate the 1984 Wallabies by completing a clean sweep of victories over the ‘Home Unions’.
If they do it will say much about the current strengths of northern and southern hemisphere rugby given the Wallabies won just once in the Tri-Nations.
Meanwhile Graham Henry, controversially re-appointed as All Black coach following the team’s 2007 World Cup quarter-final loss to France, has swopped roles with loyal lieutenants Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith after a below par year that has so far featured four defeats.
Hansen takes over the backs from former All Blacks fly-half Smith, who assumes Henry’s former defence portfolio.
"Because we haven’t had a great year I think it creates an extra edge," Henry said.
In rugby-obsessed New Zealand each Test matters, with coaches rarely allowed the excuse of "building for the World Cup" if the All Blacks are beaten.
In Henry, New Zealand are being guided by a former Wales coach while Wales are under the direction of another New Zealander in Warren Gatland.
Former Ireland boss Gatland talks a good game but, as every rugby fan in the principality knows, Wales have not beaten New Zealand since 1953.
Injury-hit England are, nevertheless, set to have Jonny Wilkinson, dogged by all manner of fitness problems for the past six years, lining up on Saturday against Australia, whose hopes the fly-half dashed with a last-ditch drop-goal in the 2003 World Cup final.
England manager Martin Johnson has been accused of being distrustful of ‘flair’ players and for ex-England centre Jeremy Guscott the squad’s injury-malaise is symptomatic of a wider problem.
"The way the game is played in England, all the attrition, they deserve to get injured," he told the Sunday Times. "If they haven’t got the brains to play smarter rugby then expect to get hit harder."
Earlier this year France beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, a notable achievement. But with ‘Les Bleus’, past performance is a rarely a guide to future returns.
However, that they playing both South Africa and New Zealand in the rugby heartland of southern France, rather than Paris, suggests they won’t lack for an emotional surge.
Meanwhile former England coach Andy Robinson’s first match in charge of Scotland is a potentially tricky clash against Fiji, conquerors of Wales at the 2007 World Cup.
And woe betide England, Wales and Scotland if they are not fully focused against Argentina, a team whose run to third place in France two years ago has been rewarded with inclusion in an expanded Tri-Nations from 2012.
Italy face two likely bruising Tests against New Zealand and South Africa but a match against Samoa gives them a chance of finishing with a flourish.