post

Autumn Nations Cup 2020 – Everything You Need to Know

If you’ve been following our blogs you may remember that Charlie PM had a stab at predicting the final table of 2020 Six Nations. Although his predictions were proven wrong, we couldn’t resist giving Charlie a chance at redemption by asking our current reigning Forward of the Year to share his thoughts about the Autumn Nations Cup. So, without further delay sit yourself down and get ready to see what he thinks will happen…

Hello, dear members and followers. In February this year, I had a stab at predicting the final table of the 2020 Six Nations. Although they were looking surprisingly accurate for the first 3 weeks, inevitably I was a way off; only getting Italy in last place correct (top marks for that shout) following its belated conclusion last weekend.

So when asked to do a similar article for the Autumn Nations Cup, I was equally excited to be proven drastically wrong again. However, as it is a new tournament, I thought it best to do a quick run down of the teams, format and schedule of the event. I’ll also give some insight into the different teams, their current form and my predictions for how it will finish. Without further delay, here is my breakdown of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup.

As it is a new tournament, I thought it best to do a quick run down of the teams, format and schedule of the event. I’ll also give some insight into the different teams, their current form and my predictions for how it will finish. Without further delay, here is my breakdown of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup.

What is it and why is it happening?

 In the regular rugby calendar, the period of November and December is when the Southern Hemisphere nations (including New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) tour the Northern Hemisphere countries and play the Six Nations sides. Due to enforced travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, these fixtures have been cancelled this year. Therefore, World Rugby have implemented a one off tournament between the Six Nations teams and two additional countries as a replacement.

Who is playing and what is the structure?

 The tournament will consist of eight teams. The regular Six Nations sides: England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy, in addition to Fiji and Georgia. Japan were originally intended to be involved, but their strict regulations rendered them unable to travel; as a result Georgia took their place.

The competing nations will be divided into two pools. The groups are as follows:

The competition will take place over four weeks. In the first three weeks, the teams in each group will play each other once. Then, there will be one week of ‘finals’, where the first-placed team in Group A will play the first-placed team in Group B, the second-placed team in Group A will play the second-placed team in Group B, and so on. As the last week concludes, the final table will be decided and the winners announced.

That should just about cover the nitty gritty of how the competition will function. I’ll now look at each team competing and discuss their recent form, strengths and weaknesses and keys to success, starting with Group A.

As newly crowned Six Nations Champions, England will be looking to cement their elite status with a strong showing in the Nations Cup. Just over a year on from their devastating World Cup Final loss, on paper they look to be carrying on firmly in the right direction. However, there is context to be applied to their success.

Firstly, an opening performance in Paris that saw them obliterated by a resurgent French side. They had talked big before the game, and it came back to haunt them, the score line not reflecting the one sided occasion. Additionally, in the last weekend of the tournament, they were poor against an improving Italy side and showed that a small amount of sh*thousery can be enough to get them rattled. However, in both games they managed to scrape some success in the final quarter; gaining a losing bonus against France and building a solid score line against Italy that ultimately won them the Championship. This habit of winning whilst under-performing is often indicative of serial winners, which is what Eddie Jones’ men will hope to become over the next World Cup cycle.

Keys to success:

England are at their best when they are dominating the gain line. In some games they have outnumbered their opponents’ dominant tackle count nearly 5:1, and this physicality will be key to succeeding in what is a very tough group.

Players to watch:

Jack Willis – A turnover specialist coming off the back of a sensational domestic season, blindside flanker Willis will be hoping for an opportunity to add his immense firepower to England’s back row.

Jonny Hill – The big second row was instrumental in securing Exeter’s domestic and European double this season. Having made his debut against Italy, he will be hoping to add more big performances in an England jersey, and justify his selection over more experienced counterparts Joe Launchbury and Charlie Ewells.

Ben Youngs – The veteran scrum half has never played better in an England shirt. Becoming only the second player to earn 100 caps for England after the legendary Jason Leonard, Youngs seems to be back to his probing, sniping best. Combined with his flawless tactical kicking, he is a vital part of England’s machine and will be, once again, a huge part of their tournament.

Moving alphabetically, we come to late additions Georgia. Georgia have been slowly but steadily moving up the ranks of international rugby; from minnows to a solid Tier 2 nation capable of giving top sides a decent game and dominating competition around them. However, they have been somewhat unfortunate in their group allocation. Coming up against three high ranking Tier 1 nations is less of a hurdle and more of a mountain range to overcome in the pursuit of victory. Realistically, they will not be expected to win any of their three pool games, and that will not be the parameter of their success. However, that does not mean they have nothing to play for.

It has currently been several years since Italy have won a Six Nations game, and their inclusion in the tournament has become gradually more disputed. One team often mentioned in talks of replacing them is Georgia, as they have soundly beaten all other European competition below this standard. For those talks to gain some merit, the Georgians have an incredible opportunity to put in some strong performances against the top sides, and will be really targeting that ‘finals’ week to potentially pull out a victory against the bottom side from Group B. They have some memorable World Cup games under their belt, but a recent thumping by Scotland exposed their ability deficit at an elite level. They have potential, but I doubt many people are expecting an upset.

Keys to success:

One area the Georgians are renowned for is their scrummaging. This scrum will have to be operating at top capacity for them to try and find an angle to put pressure on their opposition. Combined with aggression and physicality, this could prove frustrating and disheartening for their opponents and they must maximise their output in these areas.

Players to watch:

Mikheil Nariashvili – The loose head prop is a regular player for Montpellier in France’s top division, and his experience and technique will help stabilise the Georgian set piece and pressurise his opposite number in the scrum.

Beka Gorgadze – Not to be confused with his positional counterpart and Georgian rugby legend Mamuka Gorgodze, Beka Gorgadze has some way to go before scaling the same heights. However, he is a strong, ball-carrying Number 8 who plays his rugby for Boudreaux and could be a talismanic figure for Georgia in their pursuit ofpenetrating the gain line.

Ireland will probably reflect on their Six Nations campaign as a little disappointing but overall a positive step. After a big impact as their defensive coach, Andy Farrell has taken over the national side after one of the country’s most successful head coaches, Joe Schmidt, departed following last year’s World Cup. His side started the Six Nations incredibly strongly, with powerful and entertaining wins against two good sides in Scotland and Wales. However, they fell short against England and France, and there were some consistencies in their losses.

Whilst boasting a good depth of forwards at their disposal, Ireland showed that they can be dominated by physical, abrasive packs, and struggle to find ways into the game if they lose that battle up front. This was epitomised against England; the likes of Mario Itoje and Sam Underhill flew into every tackle, breakdown and carry and did not allow Ireland to get their game going. If they can overcome this hurdle and give a platform to their scintillating back line, I see them being strong contenders in the tournament.

Keys to success:

As mentioned, they will need to win the battle up front in order to facilitate possession. But how they use that possession will be determined by half backs Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton. If their tactical kicking and ball distribution is of the standard it was when they beat the All Blacks, then they should give space and opportunity to their back three players.

Players to watch:

Tadgh Furlong – The return of the big tight head will be a huge boost to the Irish pack. Arguably the best player in his position worldwide, his destructive scrummaging and rampant carrying will be crucial in enforcing his team’s will over opposition.

James Lowe – Finally qualifying for the national side after moving from New Zealand three years ago, James Lowe is already on his way to being world class in a Leinster jersey, and I anticipate his transition to international rugby to be smooth. A well-rounded winger with no real weakness, look for him under the high ball and slicing through defensive lines.

Gary Ringrose – Another returning star, his distribution and class in midfield provides the fluidity of Ireland’s back line when it is functioning at its best. A Lions contender with a balanced game, he is an influential player in Ireland’s midfield who could make the difference upon his return.

Wayne Pivac hasn’t found early life as Wales’ head coach to be all that easy. Whilst it was going to be impossible to immediately emulate the ridiculous success of predecessor Warren Gatland, losing all but one Six Nations games (their only win coming against Italy) and finishing fifth in the final table is about as bad a start as Pivac could have hoped for.

Whilst there is plenty of context to be applied – an ageing core of star players and stronger-than-usual-competition – there is no getting away from the fact that he inherited a Grand Slam winning side who narrowly missed out on a World Cup Final and took their fortunes immediately downhill. However, there is some optimism to be had from the tournament. The games were all lost by narrow margins, the largest being 10 points against Ireland and 3 points against England the smallest. Furthermore, in these games they were often evenly matched as far as stats are concerned, only really out-performed by England in dominant tackles, something which other sides also experienced. Their set-piece generally functioned well and they were able to score some fantastic tries. Therefore, it is small tweaks and improvements that are required to bring them back to the summit of international rugby, and I see this happening as Pivac is given more time to implement his tactics. That being said, I’m not confident about their ability to compete for the title in this competition.

Keys to success

Discipline was a huge factor in Wales’ most recent loss to Scotland, with an unforgivable penalty count for test-level rugby. Therefore, accuracy around the breakdown will be fundamental to their success, with a big impetus on their back row to show restraint and class.

Players to watch:

Josh Adams – It goes without saying at this point, but keep your eyes on Josh Adams. A five-point machine; Adams is a quick, strong winger with lethal finishing instincts. Give him half a chance and you’ll most likely be trudging back under your own posts.

Nick Tompkins – A surprising exclusion from Wales’ final Six Nations game, I think Nick Tompkins is starting look look every bit like an international centre. Incredibly athletic and powerful, he is comfortable in both the 12 and 13 jerseys and appears to be the natural long-term successor to Jonathan Davies. Hopefully he gets more game time.

Alun Wyn Jones – The most capped international rugby player of all time. It was heartbreaking to watch this legend of the sport receive his honour in front of an empty stadium, but it did little to stifle his performance. Elevating his teammates whenever he plays, he is an experienced leader who can still influence test matches at 35. With the likes of Maro Itoje and James Ryan throwing in their names for starting Lions second row, Alun Wyn will be keen to nail on his place as tourist and, potentially, captain next summer in South Africa by putting in more characteristically huge performances.

Prediction for final Group A table:

  1. England
  2. Ireland
  3. Wales
  4. Georgia 

Fiji were the other original addition to this expanded tournament. Aside from Japan, no other national team has made more steps towards transitioning from second to first tier level rugby as Fiji in recent years. Their Rugby Sevens team won the country’s first Olympic Gold Medal in 2016 and that momentum seems to have precipitated into the 15s code.

However, they will always have significant challenges facing them and their progress. They are serial over-achievers; for a country with a population hardly bigger than Sheffield they have done incredibly well to even compete at this level. Their best players are often scouted and recruited by other, larger rugby nations (New Zealand being the main offender), limiting their already small player base. Additionally, most of their players are cross-code athletes, meaning they play mostly in the sevens or league format of the game, not union 15s. Financially, their unions are also incredibly under-funded and touring can often be counter-beneficial for them.

Yet, despite all this, they remain an incredibly talented, ludicrously fun team to watch and often win over the hearts of the neutrals. With pace, power, flair, spontaneity and a roster of players who are all capable of playing in almost every position; they have the potential to cause problems for any and every team they encounter. If you are the opposition, beware the Fijians in open play. If you are a spectator, sit back and enjoy some bat sh*t crazy rugby.

Keys to success:

Fiji’s best chance is to play their own game, not try and match their opposition’s tactics. Modern rugby is intricate and tactical; accurate box kicking and well-drilled defensive sets being defining features of most successful teams. Fiji are at their most dangerous in broken, unstructured play, where they can utilise the speed, strength and skill of their freak-of-nature back line runners. Counter-attack and be creative: it might not always be victorious but my word is it fun.

Players to watch:

Semi Radradra – Bristol’s all-action centre/winger/terminator is a bona fide rugby superstar. Electric feet, Lomu-esque power, mad offloads… the hyperboles don’t run out for this guy. A potential game-changer: you won’t miss him.

Dominiko Waqaniburotu – The greatest name in rugby and one of its greatest captains. This guy does everything; smash breakdowns, chop tackles, break defensive lines and give filthy passes all over the park. A warrior of the Fijian side and a galvanising figure – look out for his work rate and energy.

Leone Nakarawa – A veteran second row with all the ability you could ask for. Athletic, intelligent, a good leader and a great servant to Fijian rugby. He’ll be right along side Waqaniboruto providing aggression and skill to a stupidly mobile pack.

I predicted France to win the Six Nations, and they came bloody close. Almost unrecognisable from the underperforming sides of recent years; head coach Fabian Galthie and defence guru Shaun Edwards should be commended for rejuvenating the side and giving them the tools to start realising some of their enormous potential.

This has, of course, been assisted by the simultaneous rise of two world class half-backs in Antonne Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Player of the tournament Dupont has already elevated himself to be on par with the greatest scrum-halves in the world, if not sitting at the top, whist Ntamack is such a classy operator he barely seems to sweat. If France continue to build their team around this duo, they will quickly rise to the peak of world rugby again in no time.

However, I am not predicting them to win the tournament. They have a desirable pool that they’ll be favourites to top, but I see there being external factors which could affect them. Whilst the home nations teams have Lions selection to think about and the other smaller nations have huge points to prove, France are going into this competition with relatively little to gain or lose. Coupled with the fact the notoriously gruelling French league has already restarted, their players could potentially not live up to expectations following a strong finish to the Six Nations. That being said, they are more than capable of winning it and I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if I am proven wrong.

Keys to success:

France’s problem for over a decade now has been the full 80 minutes. When they are fresh and firing, they can be unstoppable. However, they have developed a nasty habit of letting teams back into the game in the late stages, either through tiredness or ill-discipline. Their World Cup Quarter Final against Wales or Six Nations opening round against England are perfect examples of this. It is becoming less significant under Galthie, but needs to remain that way if they are to truly become world-level competitors.

Players to watch:

Virimi Vakatawa – I have already spoken enough about Dupont and Ntamack, so let’s focus on their marauding centre instead. An enormous 13 with quick feet and great hands, he is proving to be a nightmare for defences at European and International level. Look out for Ntamack’s chips behind, Vakatawa will likely be on the end of them.

Bernard Le Roux – Possibly one for the purists, but if you want to see what a quintessential, old-school, nasty second row looks like; look no further than Bernard Le Roux. He is strong in the line out, unbelievably physical in the tackle and a nuisance at the breakdown. He is also adept at antagonising and frustrating the opposition, and his mastery of rugby’s dark arts make him an invaluable asset to the team.

Charles Ollivon – His back row partner, Gregory Aldritt, might receive more of the plaudits, but I want to put the spotlight on the French captain. I’m ashamed that I knew little about him when he took the armband from veteran Guilredo, but he has made a serious impression since. A tidy and capable player in all aspects of the game, but it is his pace and intelligence to support line breaks as frequently as he does that make him stand out to me, particularly considering his 6ft5 frame. You might not immediately notice him, but if you keep your eye out then you begin to realise the impact he is having.

Italy have some big points to prove in this competition. As previously mentioned, their last win in a Six Nations game came some years ago and they didn’t look like coming much closer to it this year either. However, I believe the calls for their removal harsh and undeserved.

The wealth of their union and the size of their professional player base dictates that they will always struggle to compete at the top of international rugby. However, they have earned their place there, as no other second tier nation has come close to competing at their level consistently, with the exception of Japan recently. Italy recently gave great games to the two best teams in the Six Nations; in comparison, Georgia got smashed by Scotland and looked dreadful. Italy will be looking at their pool clash with Fiji and a potential last weekend meeting with Georgia to make a big statement and put some doubts to bed over their status as a rugby nation.

Keys to success:

Italy did a fantastic job of winding England up recently, showing an old-fashioned performance of niggle and antagonisation. If they bring this level of passion and aggression into every game, especially in the pack, it could give them a platform to build against a variety of opponents.

Players to watch:

Jake Polledri – England missed a trick with this lad. As his try last weekend demonstrated, he is an athletic, direct powerful runner with a good skill set for a big man. He is fast becoming Italy’s best player and looks to be filling the large whole left by the legendary number 8, Sergio Parisse.

Paolo Garbisi – At only 20 years of age, Paolo Garbisi is pulling the strings of this Italy side with confidence that exceeds his years. An exciting 10 with an eye for the try-line, he is dynamic and fluid in his play style; capable of facilitating his teammates as much as he is playing himself in. A maverick playmaker, always worth a watch.

Scotland will be very happy with their Six Nations outing this year. After an abysmal World Cup and similar form at the start of the tournament, they capped it off with memorable wins over France and Wales. They have a strong pack with some players who have come out of nowhere to be challenge at elite level, and their back line is capable of some genuinely brilliant rugby at times. What are their chances in the tournament?

Overall, surprisingly strong. They have been drawn in what is undeniably a weaker group than their other home nations counterparts, and this gives their players an opportunity to showcase to Warren Gatland why they deserve to become th unfashionable Scottish players on next year’s Lions tour. The fitness of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings is a big concern, however they will be feeling optimistic about their chances. Considering their opposition and how their last result against France concluded, I have to admit I am optimistic about their chances too.

Keys to success:

Quick, clean ball will be vital to their chances of success. Their backs love to play at a fast, high tempo and securing fast ball from the breakdown is imperative in ensuring this. Their outstanding back row will have to show their worth once again.

Players to watch:

Hamish Watson – ‘The Human Pinball’ as referred to by Squidge Rugby, Watson is an explosive ball carrier and breakdown irritant. A thorn in the sides of oppositions, Scotland often look a different team with him in the lineup.

Jamie Ritchie – Watson’s flank partner can bask in the equal share of praise on Scotland’s back row. Whilst not as dynamic with ball in hand, he is a defensive genius with a range of tackle and breakdown techniques to boast of. A lethal partnership that no team will enjoy facing.

Ali Price – The live wire scrum half can go up and down in form, but his performance against Wales showed why he deserves his spot in Scotland’s side. He keeps his side ticking over and looks for scoring opportunities regularly, an important cog in the Scottish machine.

Predicted final Group B table:  

  1. France
  2. Scotland
  3. Italy
  4. Fiji

Final round predictions based on hypothetical group finishes:

I hope you are still following this! If my hypothetical groups do end up finishing this way, it will mean that in the ‘finals’ week: England will play France, Ireland will play Scotland, Wales will play Italy and Fiji will play Georgia. Based on these games, here are my final week predictions:

1st place final: England vs France (England win).

2nd place final: Ireland vs Scotland (Ireland win).

3rd place final: Wales vs Italy (Wales win).

4th place final: Georgia vs Fiji (Fiji win).

 Therefore, my final table would look like this:

  1. England
  2. France
  3. Ireland
  4. Scotland
  5. Wales
  6. Italy
  7. Fiji
  8. Georgia

I hope some of you are still reading to this point. Hopefully a few of the predictions might have some accuracy this time, if not at least we had some fun on the way.

Take care,

Charlie.