Autumn internationals weekly predictions: Injury-hit England to edge resurgent Springboks?

England's Owen Farrell crosses the line against South Africa in 2016. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The opening weekend of the autumn internationals has thrown together some intriguing fixtures, as the world's top teams step up their Rugby World Cup preparations.

An injury-hit England team face a resurgent South Africa, home nations rivals Wales and Scotland meet in Cardiff, Ireland revisit the scene of their famous All Blacks win in Chicago while New Zealand take on World Cup hosts Japan.

ESPN takes a look at the key players and biggest talking points ahead of this weekend's matches.

England vs South Africa

Saturday 3:00 p.m. (GMT), Twickenham, London


Player to watch: Maro Itoje. With the damage that injuries have wreaked on England's forward pack, Eddie Jones can at least breathe a sigh of relief that his rampaging tour de force Maro Itoje is available.

After a dominating performance at blindside for Saracens against Lyon, Jones has elected to slot Itoje back into his more natural habitat in the second row. He will partner Saracens teammate George Kruis, who has also been impressive lately, and the link-up between the pair will be crucial if England are to avoid being overawed by the Springbok's aggressive frontline.

Biggest talking point: Injuries, injuries, and yet more injuries. Say what you want about Jones' performance as England coach so far in 2018 but you must admit, he has not exactly had the rub of the green so far this year on the injury front.

Injuries were one of the many factors behind the dismal Six Nations campaign and they were still a major issue in the summer. It's the same old story again with the likes of Chris Robshaw, Anthony Watson, both Vunipola brothers and Joe Launchbury all out of the campaign. England could form one of rugby's better international teams using the names on their injury list alone.

Prediction: England suffered a 2-1 series defeat in South Africa earlier this year and the Springboks are looking resurgent after a torrid recent spell. Despite England's dreadful year, you have to fancy them at Twickenham to sneak a win. -- Sean Nevin

South Africa

Player to watch: Duane Vermeulen. The Springbok No.8 was given a break during the Rugby Championship after having a massive role in South Africa's 2-1 June series win over England. He remains one of Rassie Erasmus' most important players, as he brings a lot of skill, power and experience to the Boks' cause.

The Springboks' back row just looks a lot more balanced when the big bruiser is available. Vermeulen is a powerful player with ball in hand and is tactically very astute. But he also makes telling contributions for the Boks at the breakdown with his ability to compete for the ball on the ground.

Biggest talking point: The Springboks have battled in the northern hemisphere over the last couple of years, as they have struggled to cope in the cold and wet in the U.K. and even went down to Italy in 2016. England soundly beat the Boks at a cold and wet Newlands in June -- the conditions totally different to the bone-dry pitches they encountered in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.

The Boks need to show that they have learned from the mistakes made in that fixture. The South Africans have a top pack of forwards and exciting backs, but they must be patient and show some intelligence to go with their speed and power.

Prediction: The Springboks head to Twickenham with basically their first-choice lineup, even though they will be without scrum-half Faf de Klerk, lock Franco Mostert and fullback Willie le Roux. They will fancy themselves against an England team missing many regulars. There isn't any rain predicted for London on Saturday, which will also count in their favour. The Springboks to win by eight points. -- John Goliath

Wales vs Scotland

Saturday 2:45 p.m. (GMT), Principality Stadium, Cardiff


Player to watch: Gareth Anscombe is Wales' in-form player coming into the autumn internationals and with Dan Biggar's enforced absence from the opening Test, he has the chance to make his case for the fabled jersey.

The Cardiff Blues utility back was in the form of his life in October with phenomenal displays against Lyon in the Champions Cup and the Dragons in the Pro 14 -- looking lethal with his breaks over the gain-line in both fixtures. He will now have his chance to make his case for the No.10 jersey, but he has never exactly shone for Wales in any of his previous appearances at fly-half.

Biggest talking point: Jonathan Davies will run out in a Wales jersey for the first time since 2017 after suffering a horror injury against Australia last year. Davies needed surgery after breaking his foot and he was only able to return to action in September.

The Scarlets man will line up alongside regional teammate Hadleigh Parkes at centre. The pair have never played together for Wales, so it will be intriguing to see whether Scarlets' winning combination will translate well to the international game.

Prediction: Even without the likes of Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau, Wales will be confident of making a winning start to their autumn campaign against the Scots. It most definitely won't be a repeat of the rampant 34-7 win from the Six Nations, but Warren Gatland's men should be able to get the job done. -- Sean Nevin


Player to watch: Adam Hastings. Finn Russell's move to Racing 92 this summer was undoubtedly a blow for the Glasgow Warriors, but Hastings has filled the void at No.10 and is ready to do the same for his country.

Hastings, who is the son of former Scotland captain Gavin, made his first three appearances for Scotland during the summer and is now thriving in his second season at the Warriors, who top their Pro 14 conference after seven matches.

With Russell unavailable for selection this weekend, Hastings, 22, will win only his fourth cap and will be expected to provide Scotland's creative spark in Russell's absence.

Biggest talking point: The Scots have not won in Wales since 2002 and are still reeling from the embarrassment of the 34-7 drubbing handed to them in the opening game of the Six Nations in Cardiff in February.

Scotland know they can beat any team in the world at home -- and they'll have three opportunities to show that this month -- but they need to prove they can win away from Murrayfield, especially with a World Cup in Japan around the corner. Cardiff would be the perfect place to do just that.

Prediction: Without the injured Stuart Hogg and unavailable Finn Russell, Scotland's starting lineup is at risk of looking extremely ordinary on Saturday. Wales' 16-year home run against the Scots looks set to continue. -- Jamie Braidwood

Ireland vs Italy

Saturday 3:00 p.m. (CDT), Soldier Field, Chicago


Player to watch: Luke McGrath. With Conor Murray injured and Kieran Marmion not travelling to Chicago, McGrath is set to fill in at scrum-half. The Leinster man has been in good form for his province this season and shined in the European Champions' 52-3 demolition of Wasps last month.

Biggest talking point: Ireland returning to Soldier Field in Chicago for the first time since their famous victory over New Zealand should have felt like a glorious homecoming. But with both Ireland and Italy resting players and sending weakened sides, Saturday's match is going to fall desperately short of what the U.S. fans were treated to two years ago.

Cracking into the U.S. market is clearly a key objective for World Rugby and the 60,000-plus crowd at Soldier Field that day showed what that could look like. However, the 21,357 figure for South Africa-Wales in D.C. last summer is a more realistic measure of where the game is actually at. Saturday's match will offer another insight into where the interest stands.

Prediction: With players missing on both sides, Ireland's strength in depth will prove the difference here. They should record a comfortable win. -- Jamie Braidwood


Player to watch: With a lot of key players rested ahead of the vital Georgia clash, there will be a few players to monitor in Chicago. The reunited center-duo of Luca Morisi and Michele Campagnaro will be key, as will the performances of No.8 Renato Giammarioli and full-back Luca Sperandio, who is back in a blue shirt after 20 months on the sideline.

Biggest talking point: After yet another disappointed Six Nations campaign and a far more embarrassing first June Test in Japan, Italy rebounded nicely in Kobe and have, since then, enjoyed a good start to the season with Benetton and Zebre, the country's only two professional teams.

The good thing is that the players at O'Shea's disposal is widening at an unprecedented rate. Young Italian blood and competitive foreign players, turned Azzurri on residency, have allowed Italy to enter its first four-match November series stronger than ever.

Prediction: Ireland have lost only once in their last 15 official outings (back in June in Brisbane). In their last three head-to-head clashes with Italy they have simply destroyed the Azzurri: 58-15 in 2016, 63-10 in 2017 and 56-19 last February. Nevertheless, even if Italy don't win, the Azzurri will finally show the world their maturity. -- Enrico Borra

Japan vs New Zealand

Saturday, 2:45 p.m. (JST), Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo

New Zealand

Player to watch: Richie Mo'unga. The Crusaders star gets the chance to start just his second Test at fly-half for the All Blacks and he'll be after a much stronger showing than his maiden effort against Argentina back in September.

Mo'unga looked a little nervous on that occasion, fumbling a number of balls while also missing touch twice. He has since enjoyed a couple of cameos off the bench, most notably in the surging comeback that saw the All Blacks run down the Springboks in Pretoria. We should expect to see Mo'unga dominate the Brave Blossoms.

Biggest talking point: While it is anything but a first-string All Blacks outfit, this is an excellent test of the Japan's progress towards next year's World Cup. The contest should prove to be an open encounter, a style that suits the Brave Blossoms, and one that the must refine to the same level that saw them upset the Springboks at the 2015 tournament.

A credible scoreline on Saturday can only help foster the confidence they'll need to knock off Scotland and Samoa and earn a maiden Cup quarterfinal berth next year.

Prediction: This is the second time the All Blacks have called in on Japan on their way north for the November internationals, the last occasion coming in 2013 when the world champions ran out 54-6 with a similarly experimental line-up, albeit one that included legends Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

The margin might just be a little tighter this time around given the raft of All Blacks changes, and the improvements in Japanese rugby. Still, we're expecting a New Zealand win by a margin of roughly 33 points. -- Sam Bruce