In this strangest year of sporting upheaval, few sights were odder than England winning the Six Nations a mere 273 days after the tournament began, with Owen Farrell giving a victory interview from a socially distanced corner of his team’s Rome hotel.
Inevitably, the planned summer tours were cancelled and the annual autumn arrival of the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights in Europe has also fallen by the way side. However, international rugby will continue with a new tournament in the shape of the Autumn Nations Cup.
The tournament will see eight nations split into two groups of four teams, to play an initial three rounds of matches to determine the group standings. In the final round the winners, runners up, third-placed and bottom-placed teams of both groups will play to determine the final tournament standings.
Group A: (Wales, Ireland, England, Georgia)
This year has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune for Wales, from Grand Slam winners and World Cup semifinalists in 2019 to just one Six Nations win in 2020.
This year was always going to be a new beginning for Wales with Warren Gatland ending his 12-year stint in charge. Wayne Pivac has stepped into Gatland’s sizeable shoes and has retained an experienced squad. Pivac makes just one change for the opener in Dublin with Justin Tipuric making a welcome return at flanker, however Ken Owens is still absent. There is also pressure on the coach to pick a more adventurous side with Louis Rees-Zammit and Callum Sheedy likely to receive more playing time.
Ireland are also in transition with Andy Farrell now at the helm. The Six Nations campaign saw Ireland get close to regaining the title they won in style two years ago, only to fall short against France. Defeat to England also underlined the task facing Farrell, and this tournament could be used to audition long-term replacements for the legendary half back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray. Despite criticism of his display in Paris, Sexton has retained the start for the opener, but Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park starts at scrum half and New Zealand born James Lowe gets his first start on the wing.
For England, the hangover from that flat performance in the World Cup final looked set to sink their Six Nations campaign with an opening day defeat to France. However, Eddie Jones quickly signed a contract extension to keep him at the helm until the next World Cup and England rebounded to claim the title and the Triple Crown. With a relatively young side and coaching continuity, England start as favorites to win this series. Jones will however be looking to blood new talent with Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis amongst those earning a chance. Jones should look to try out successors to Ben Youngs at scrum half with Northampton’s Alex Mitchell hoping for his debut.
For Georgia, this series represents an opportunity to test themselves against tier one opposition, starting with only their third ever game against England. As ever their strength is in their giant pack, with Montpellier prop Mikheil Nariashvili the star turn. Being thrashed 48-7 by Scotland doesn’t bode well for their prospects this autumn, but the heightened profile they’ll receive could prove a shop window for some of their unattached and home-based players.
Group B: France, Scotland, Italy, Fiji
England may have won the Six Nations, but it was France who gained the most from this year’s tournament. Having failed to win the the title in a decade, France impressed with wins over England, Ireland and Wales only to be turned over by Scotland and underwhelm against Italy.
Young halfback duo Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont continued to showcase their burgeoning talent, while Fabien Galthie’s surprise decision to make the inexperienced Charles Ollivon captain has paid off. As hosts of the 2023 World Cup, the rebuild of France with young dynamic players is starting to reap rewards, but familiar problems remain.
France remain erratic, perfectly illustrated by that defeat at Murrayfield. They produced an excellent second half display in their last Six Nations game against Ireland, yet were on the ropes when Robbie Henshaw broke free for a spectacular solo try.
France’s opening fixture should be easy on the eye as sevens specialists Fiji arrive in Vannes. The last time these two met was two years ago, with Fiji pulling off a shocking win at the Stade de France. As ever, Fiji will try to hit the front foot with their offload game and the likes of Semi Radradra, Leone Nakawara and Ben Volavola are included. They do however bring an inexperienced squad in the back row and at scrum-half.
Italy enter the tournament opener against Scotland in free fall, having picked up yet another wooden spoon in the Six Nations and sunk to 14th in the world rankings. Coach Franco Smith can no longer call on Sergio Parisse, but Italy’s biggest strength remains the back row with Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn leading the charge. Smith is bringing through a new generation lead by fly-half Paolo Garbisi, but the need to put some wins on the board will dictate Smith’s selections this autumn.
For Scotland, the Six Nations represented a return to respectability after a disastrous showing in Japan. Gregor Townsend illustrated his authority by dropping Finn Russell for a breach of discipline back in February but patched up his differences with the fly-half to ensure he stays in the fold. However both Russell and Adam Hastings are now injured meaning a first start in four years for Duncan Weir. Townsend will be looking to finish a good year on a high rather than experiment but he has made an intriguing selection in Edinburgh’s South Africa born winger Duhan van der Merwe.
Round One Fixtures
Friday Nov 13, Ireland v Wales, 7pm, Aviva Stadium
Saturday Nov 14, Italy v Scotland, 12.45pm, Stadio Artemio Franchi
Saturday Nov 14, England v Georgia, 3pm, Twickenham
Sunday Nov 15, France v Fiji, 3pm, Stade de la Rabine
Predicted Final Standings: 1st England, 2nd France, 3rd Ireland, 4th Scotland, 5th Wales, 6th Fiji, 7th Italy, 8th Georgia