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Five things we learned from the Autumn Nations Series: France firing but uncertainty elsewhere

Another Autumn Nations Series has concluded and left some countries with more questions than answers with less than a year to go until the World Cup.

Both England and Wales still have doubts over the futures of their coaching teams, while a closing win in Cardiff for Australia seems to have bought Dave Rennie some time.

Barring the ever-physical South Africa, the teams need to move towards a more attacking gameplan, with tries, not territory, becoming the order of the day.

Put faith in your mavericks

Marcus Smith and Finn Russell are arguably the two most flamboyant fly-halves on the planet, but both face questions on the international scene.

Smith stepped out of the shadow of captain Owen Farrell after his captain's injury as England - 11/2 to win the World Cup - scored 19 points in the final 10 minutes of their draw against New Zealand.

However, he again looked to be playing a supporting role in Saturday's 27-13 defeat to South Africa.

There are signs the Smith-Farrell axis is working, but the former needs to be given room to flourish.

Although Eddie Jones likes a ball player at 12, it may even take dropping the skipper and playing a big ball carrier at the inside centre, as at Harlequins, to bring the best out of the 23-year-old.

Meanwhile, north of the border, Scotland struggled before Gregor Townsend relented and recalled Finn Russell, who showed the side what they had been missing, dismantling Argentina 52-29.

It is unfair to speculate why the two men get on but as a precocious playmaker who was not always trusted during his own career, it would make sense for the coach to have more empathy with Scotland's standout number 10.

The Scots are a different team with Russell in the side and like England, need to do more to let their greatest talent flourish.

Ireland still need Sexton

The elephant in the room regarding Ireland over the last decade has been who will step up if Johnny Sexton is unavailable.

The 37-year-old fly-half has confirmed he will retire after next year's World Cup but it is still unclear which player will inherit the number 10 shirt.

Injuries continue to plague Joey Carbery, while Jack Crowley started the win against Australia but needs minutes. Ross Byrne finished that match, while Billy Burns and Jack Carty have also been tried.

However, still no one knows who will succeed Sexton, but more pressingly, Ireland need to find an alternative if, as happened at both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, the captain struggles to find both fitness and form.

Despite being ranked number one in the world, Ireland are 5/1 to win the World Cup. That might be down to Sexton's fragility as if he gets injured again - Andy Farrell's men do not just lose their playmaker but also their undisputed leader.

France are flying

Less than a year out from a home World Cup, France look fabulous and extended their winning run to 13 games with last Sunday's 35-17 victory over Japan.

After winning their first Grand Slam since 2010, Les Bleus surged through the summer before beating Australia, South Africa and the Brave Blossoms this November.

Whats more, Fabien Galthie's men did it without some key players, with Antoine Dupont sent off against the Springboks and suspended for the Japan game, while his Toulouse half-back partner Romain Ntamack has been out of form and is under real pressure from Mathieu Jalibert.

With their pack flying and Thomas Ramos both kicking his goals and stepping up to first receiver from full-back, the pieces are falling into place.

Another Six Nations 2023 title at 11/8 would set France up nicely for their home tournament next year, with Les Bleus 5/2 to win the World Cup for the first time.

Wales may need a change

When Wayne Pivac succeeded Warren Gatland, Wales were second in the world rankings after reaching the semi-finals of World Cup 2019.

Since then, they have come within seconds of winning the Grand Slam in 2021, but have generally struggled and now sit ninth in the global standings.

Questions have been raised about the game's infrastructure in the Valleys, especially regarding the United Rugby Championship teams. However, there needs to be more clarity as to how they are trying to play.

Pivac might not be entirely at fault but having only beaten Argentina and lost to New Zealand, Australia and Georgia, the WRU could do a lot worse than get on the phone to Gatland to try and get him back in time for next year's global showpiece, as has been reported.

Big boys need to find their combinations

Injuries have not helped South Africa and Australia, but it remains unusual to be having genuine conversations regarding who your number one fly-half is with 10 months to go until a World Cup.

The Boks are favouring Damian Willemse despite his lack of playing time at 10 for the Stormers, while Bernard Foley will be Australia's best option after returning from a three-year international exile over the summer.

South Africa are 5/1 to retain the Webb Ellis Cup and Australia 12/1. The latter ended the year on a high with that dominant win over England in which their forwards excelled.

Meanwhile, Australia showed real spirit to come from 21 points behind to beat Wales and after fielding a depleted team in Cardiff, will take real pride, if not continuity and familiarity, into the New Year.

On the other side of the argument, New Zealand have finally settled on their back-line.

A 9-10-12-15 combination of Aaron Smith, Richie Mo'unga, Jordie Barrett and Beauden Barrett has proved to be the best way of going about things for the All Blacks in an inconsistent November.

They are 11/4 to lift a fourth World Cup and while they have been drawn in the same Group A as France, Ian Foster's men might finally be getting it together.

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