LONDON (AP) — When England recovered within months from a humiliating home Rugby World Cup campaign to Grand Slam the Six Nations in 2016, it clamored to play the double world champion All Blacks.
Eddie Jones, the new coach, led the cheerleading. For various reasons — money, scheduling, drawing out the hype — the matchup was put off.
Finally, it's here. This Saturday at Twickenham.
And the English ought to be careful of what they wished for. A game that a year ago was being hyped as a preview of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final is no longer the headliner of this November series. That would be New Zealand's visit to Ireland next week.
England can blame only itself. Notwithstanding upsetting the Springboks last weekend in the first skirmishes, England remains tough but unsettled and exposed. After a glamorous 2016 and 2017, including 18 wins in a row, England's losses outweigh the wins this year.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks will next week achieve nine successive years as No. 1.
And could lose the ranking the next day to Ireland in Dublin.
Ireland replaced England this year as Europe's big cheese. Following a Six Nations Grand Slam, Ireland won a first series in Australia in 39 years. Coach Joe Schmidt has capped 36 new players since the last Rugby World Cup, including two last weekend, and is down to fine-tuning.
The crux of the attack remains halves Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray, who did much to end Ireland's excessive respect of the All Blacks in 2016 in Chicago. Murray has been rehabbing a neck injury and returned to training last week.
The Irish will warm up for the All Blacks this week against Argentina, which transformed into a threat again after Jaguars Super Rugby coach Mario Ledesma replaced Daniel Hourcade in August.
The Pumas beat South Africa and Australia in the Rugby Championship, and impressed against the All Blacks. Beside Ireland, they play France and Scotland.
The Springboks are already in Paris, ruing blowing their last two matches to New Zealand and England. South Africa knows what it's capable of after a home series win over England and beating the All Blacks in Wellington, but it remains a work in progress. To their dismay at Twickenham, the Springboks' lineout malfunctioned and their error-rate was alarming, but all of it was fixable.
After France, the Springboks go to Scotland and Wales.
The Welsh opened their series with a rare win, showing off attack and defense in beating off Scotland. Sam Warburton's retirement is a blow but Wales has depth in the back row, and Alun Wyn Jones is a rousing leader. A year of improvement in results and expansive back play would be capped by beating Australia in Cardiff this weekend, less than a year from their Rugby World Cup pool match in Japan.
Wales have let the Wallabies slip through their grasp for 13 straight matches over a decade. But that might finally end with the Wallabies appearing to have lost their killer instinct.
Australia scored only 16 tries in the Rugby Championship, compared to 25 last year. They have been setting up chances, but tending to grind, putting coach Michael Cheika at wits' end.
If the Will Genia-Bernard Foley-Kurtley Beale axis can grow, the attack could sharpen with the return from injury of center Samu Kerevi and the recall of wing Adam Ashley-Cooper against Wales, Italy, and finally England.
The Scots' road woes continued last weekend in Cardiff, but they relish Murrayfield, where they have lost only once in two years, and that narrowly to New Zealand.
The Scots will also welcome back exiles such as Greig Laidlaw and Sean Maitland plus injured front-liners such as Stuart Hogg, John Barclay and Zander Fagerson for remaining games against Fiji, South Africa, and Argentina.
New Zealand, fresh off another Rugby Championship title, split its squad last week so its second-stringers could account for Japan in Tokyo, and the regulars could come to London early and prepare for England.
It's all part of their Rugby World Cup defense planning, including consecutive games at Twickenham and Lansdowne Road to help them prepare for the knockout rounds. It's these games on murky and moist November nights in Europe which force the All Blacks, so rampant in the southern hemisphere, to strategize more.
It keeps on working. They haven't lost a test in Europe in six years.
This month will also complete the Rugby World Cup field, as Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, and Kenya vie in Marseille for the 20th and last berth. Only Canada of the four has previously qualified, and never missed a World Cup.