Like everything, international rugby has been affected by the pandemic. New Zealand, Australia and Argentina had been due to play the Six Nations sides, but understandably they didn’t fancy a trip to the coronavirus hotspot of Europe. The autumn international calendar looked bleak for the teams, while no games at all would have had serious financial implications. Instead of leaving the calendar empty, the sides invited Fiji and Georgia to join them in the one time only, Autumn Nations Cup, in an attempt to make up for the lost time and revenue that Coronavirus had already caused.
No one knows what to expect from this tournament. The two groups appear unfairly weighted and the scheduling of the final round by team rather than position could result in a larger anti-climax than England’s Six Nations trophy lift. Giving Amazon Prime their first rugby broadcasting rights appears to be a shrewd decision. New broadcasters helps grow the game, and this one ensures rugby fans get their Christmas presents delivered quicker.
Regardless of why this tournament is happening or who is broadcasting it, the games are crucial for the eight teams as they all attempt to claw back the time lost during this World Cup cycle.
This imaginatively titled competition is split into two, with each team playing everyone in their group once. Sides then advance to a finals weekend where they play their equal from the opposing group (i.e. first plays first, second plays second etc.). From this, each team given is a definitive placings from first to eighth.
The groups are as follows; England, Wales, Ireland and Georgia battle it out in Group A, while France are hefty favourites against Scotland, Fiji and Italy in Group B. How the groups were decided is unknown, but the toughness of Group A raises questions whether Gavin Williamson’s algorithm was involved.
England showed they had no World Cup final hangover by winning the Six Nations and are looking ahead to 2023 by blooding some new faces. Jack Willis will hope to become as famous as the brand he almost shares his name with by ousting one of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill or Billy Vunipola from the back row. In the midfield, Ollie Lawrence’s power and unexpected pace could fill the large Manu Tuilagi shaped hole.
Ireland must decide whether to stick or twist. Andy Farrell’s halfbacks are both one bad injury away from international retirement but dropping either would be a gamble. Conor Murray is still playing well and despite being 35, Johnny Sexton is currently captaining the side. Farrell may not realise it but his decisions at nine and ten in this tournament could define Ireland’s World Cup. If he sticks with the incumbents, other Irish halfbacks won’t have time to gain international experience ahead of 2023. If Farrell doesn’t change things now, he may never get the chance to.
Wales’ Wayne Pivac appears to be struggling to find his feet in international rugby. He’s failed to masterminded the same form he produced at the Scarlets and record cap holder Alun Wyn Jones seems to be the only thing preventing Wales from earning tier two status. Wales have lost their last five and a tough opening night fixture against Ireland could see this run extended. They’re offered relief in round two when they face Georgia, but should they fail to dispatch them then calls to see the kiwi sacked after only a year in charge may be justified.
Despite their gnarly pack and dominant scrum, Georgia seem destined to finish last in Group A. Although seeming like a harsh way to greet the team who filled in following Japan’s withdrawal, this could be a blessing in disguise. Recently, eyebrows have been raised over Italy’s inclusion in the Six Nations instead of the Georgians. Should the Azzuri also finish last in their Group, then there will be a seventh/ eighth playoff between the two, giving Georgia the opportunity to snowball their argument for Six Nations inclusion.
For Italy, it’s the opposite. Unless they shock everyone by beating France, Scotland or Fiji, then they must solely focus on beating Georgia. If the Azzuri manage this, then they are probably safe in the Six Nations for another decade. If they don’t, then their last twenty years of progression seems in vain.
Although France missed out on the Six Nations title, they are the form team in the Northern Hemisphere. The revival of the French pack has given Antoine Dupont the chance to make the case for being the best scrumhalf in the world. His partnership with Romain Ntamack is electric and allows France to play with an attacking fluency that was last seen when Ntamack’s father was in a French shirt. Les Bleus have leaders throughout their squad and are subtly building a strong side ahead of their home World Cup in 2023.
Scotland were set to be the third attacking outfit in this group, but injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings have squashed any chances. The flyhalf crisis has seen Duncan Weir recalled after three years in the wilderness while Jamie Ritchie will continue to do his best Richie McCaw impression at the breakdown. Captain Stuart Hogg will seek to cement a place on his third Lions tour next year, while Jonny Gray must keep performing to ensure he makes his first.
The Autumn Nations Cup kicks off this Friday (13th November) on Channel 4 at 7pm. All games are available via Amazon Prime or Channel 4, with the tournament running until finals weekends on 5th/ 6th December.