November internationals are one of the key dates in the rugby calendar. The last chance for coaches to try out new teams and tactics ahead of the following year’s Six Nations Championship. It is also one of the few occasions where clashes between Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams are on display. But as with most things, the impact of Covid-19 has changed the lay of the land. Hampered by the limitations on travel imposed by the pandemic, World Rugby decided to organise a new tournament, the Autumn Nations Cup, instead of the traditional winter fixtures. So how does this new competition work, how has it gone and are we likely to see it again in the future?
Eight teams were invited to take part in the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup: the Six Nations roster of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales France and Italy as well as perennial European outcasts Georgia and high-flying Fiji. Teams were broken into two pools of four, where it then operated as a round robin. After those three matches, fixtures would be held between the corresponding positions in each pool (first would play first, second would play second etc.) to determine the winner. This promised at least four games of Test rugby, one more than the traditional November series. Due to the similar line-up, some have wondered if this competition is intended to replace the 2021 Six Nations. While it is an understandable concern, World Rugby has confirmed that this is not the case.
The inclusion of the two new teams offered a few interesting dimensions to the tournament. Northern Hemisphere rugby has often been accused of being overly-reliant on forwards and not attractive to watch, especially when compared to that played in the Southern Hemisphere. Many would have hoped that the inclusion of Fiji, a team renowned for their fast-paced and offload-centric style of rugby might have forced the European nations to adapt or at least posed a new set of problems for them. Alas, we didn’t get to see the best of Fiji as they were unable to participate in any of their pool matches due to an outbreak of Covid-19 within the team. However, in their last match against fellow newcomer Georgia, we saw their potential as they ran out 38-24 winners in a nine try thriller, with superstar winger Nemani Nadolo grabbing a hat-trick.
“Georgia only scored 10 points across their pool games, all of them coming against Ireland.”
Georgia, however, will not have seen this as a chance to break the mould but as an opportunity to be included within it. For a number of years, there have been calls for Georgia to be included in the Six Nations and they are not unfounded. The team won’t improve if they only play significantly weaker opposition and Italy, who were added to the Six Nations roster in 2000, have been below Georgia in the Rugby World Rankings since 2017. In spite of this, Georgia remains on the fringes of European rugby. They weren’t even originally invited to take part in the tournament, but replaced Japan who declined due to their national travel restrictions. The Autumn Nations Cup provided a golden opportunity for Georgia to show the world why they must be included going forward. Unfortunately, they haven’t really taken it. Georgia only scored 10 points across their pool games, all of them coming against Ireland. And while the try scored by Giorgi Kveseladze was sensational, it is still a disappointing return. Again, their final game against Fiji showed off a little of what they could do but considering that the Fiji squad had been racked with illness in the lead up to this match, this feels like a wasted opportunity from Georgia.
Returning to our regular programming, inaugural champions England have performed with the ruthless efficiency expected of Eddie Jones’ men. Their line speed in defence has been particularly impressive as opposition teams find it next to impossible to make any ground against them. They have been accused of playing boring rugby, which was very much on display in their title decider against France as the game was predominantly kick tennis, but Jones will have no qualms if the results keep going his way. Their triumph over France in the final was hard won however, especially as the French were effectively fielding a second-string team with only 64 caps between the starting XV. Head coach Fabien Galthié has shown a lot of confidence in his younger players, such as Matthieu Jalibert, and it is certainly paying off. Their play is fluid and clever, making full advantage of the numerous playmakers in their backs. And despite the plethora of injuries they sustained, this young French side pushed England so far that fans were treated to the rarest of spectacles: extra time. A sudden death, golden point scenario where France were unlucky not to seal it, having been much the better side. France’s versatility is proving to be one of their strongest assets. Having comfortably dispatched Ireland during the remaining fixtures of the 2020 Six Nations, France are just beginning to hit their stride and while they will certainly be disappointed with the loss, ultimately they’re already looking at the Group A decider against New Zealand when they host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
“Ireland has made an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors.”
The other teams with new head coaches have not been faring as well. Wayne Pivac’s Wales side managed to end a six game losing streak by beating Georgia but have been poor even so. Their organisation across the park is lacklustre and they seem to be lacking any coherent plan of attack. Just ahead of the tournament, Wales fired their defence coach Byron Hayward. While that can’t be said to explain away all of Wales’ problems, a reshuffle ahead of a competition, especially in an area as crucial as defending, is going to create a number of issues. Ireland, now being helmed by Andy Farrell, have also been underperforming of late. Having thrown away a chance to win the Six Nations, many expected the Autumn Nations Cup to be Ireland’s chance to bounce back. There was also a lot of hype around new caps coming into the fold, particularly Leinster’s James Lowe who is an exceptionally prolific winger. However, despite the shiny new toys at his disposal, Farrell’s men let themselves down by neglecting the basics. While they may have technically taken third place after their victory over Scotland, Ireland has made an uncharacteristic number of unforced errors and their set pieces, which used to be a key attacking platform, are now a liability. It is also clear that Farrell has yet to discover his best XV. There appears to be a desire to play Jacob Stockdale at full-back despite his poor defensive record and his lack of confidence under the high ball. Many believe that his cannon-like left boot is what secured him his place in the team but that still doesn’t explain why he can’t play on the wing like he used to.
All in all, the tournament has been a middling success. Fiji being absent from the majority of the competition certainly took some of the shine off the first incarnation of the Autumn Nations Cup as every round of the pool games included a cancelled fixture, rewarding the other team a 28-0 victory. Instead of standing on its own as a new event, the tournament ostensibly felt like Six Nations Lite with half the matches and one team doing nothing every weekend. It has yet to be announced if the tournament will stay around in the years to come. It seems hard to imagine that the Autumn Nations Cup as it is now could replace the draw of a clash against the All Blacks or South Africa. However, conceptually, the addition of new teams to the European fixture list will only improve the quality of rugby across the continent as time goes on. It may not become a staple of the rugby calendar but the Autumn Nations Cup has been an experiment worth carrying out.