We are now two rounds into the Autumn Nations Cup, so let’s see how the seven teams are getting on (Fiji have had to cancel all three of their group matches). In this tactical analysis, we will go through all the teams, looking at how they have performed in their games so far, and picking out the positives and negatives of their performances. The roundup will begin by looking at Group A’s four teams, and then Group B’s three remaining sides.
For the Six Nations champions, this was always going to be a chance for them to try things out, bring in some new players, and generally freshen the squad up a little; these are all things that we know Eddie Jones likes to do at this time of the year. They have been trying things out, and one particular thing we have noticed in their tactics is the use of kicks from the central areas out to the wings, looking to use the space quickly before opposing defenders can get across and cover it. This worked particularly well against Ireland in their second game, and Jonny May’s first try came from one of these kick passes, so we can see how effective it can be.
Against Georgia, in their opening game, they looked to play grubber passes through the defence, rather than across the pitch, but they sometimes kicked the ball just a little too hard, and that meant that the players looking to get on the end of it couldn’t.
Their pack drive has also been notably good too, and both Georgia and Ireland have struggled to keep them back at times. England’s players all know what to do and how to work together to support each other, which was particularly crucial against Georgia, given that their forward pack is known for its strength. However, they were no match for England in their opening game.
Defensively, England have also looked confident, well-drilled and organised, and it has been difficult for their opponents to break them down so far. Overall, the tournament favourites have looked good so far, and will hope to continue their good form against a Wales side struggling for form in Llanelli this weekend.
This has been billed as the tournament for Georgia to prove to everyone that they deserve a chance in the Six Nations tournament, but they haven’t yet shown whether they can compete with any of the top sides in the competition yet. They are famed for their strength at the front, but they struggled to keep England back, and looked to be caught in the headlights a lot, not sure how to go about breaking England’s constant attacks down.
Their performances overall have looked very scrappy, and they have always had to react to their opponents’ tactics, rather than coming up with their own play and directing the game. Defensively, against England and Wales, they have been too open, and that has given their opponents the spaces to operate in and cause problems. This was particularly notable against Wales in their second game, with Bristol Bears fly-half Callum Sheedy and Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit getting in between the Georgian defenders, creating many dangerous moments.
Against England, they didn’t have many attacking opportunities, if any, but they did have a penalty kick from a good position against Wales, which was missed. These are the opportunities they need to take, and this is the reason that they are bottom of the group, having lost both games without scoring a single point. They have Ireland in their final group game, but have yet to show that they could perform in the Six Nations so far if they were to be given a chance in it.
We knew that this tournament was going to be a chance for Wales to get back into form and show us that they had just had a bad Six Nations tournament. However, it has been mixed from them so far, with an indifferent performance overall against Ireland in Dublin, before a much better showing against Georgia.
Defence is their main issue at the moment, and it does seem that Shaun Edwards’ departure after the World Cup has led to gaps appearing in their ranks, as well as other things that we didn’t previously associate with them. They were better against the Irish in this department, but still not as good as we know they can be, with the gaps in between their players still too big, which makes it easier for opposing teams to break them down.
Their second game against Georgia was always going to be a chance for them to try something different, and look to dominate the game. The decision to start Callum Sheedy at fly-half definitely helped them to do this, and we know how Sheedy is the source of all creativity at Bristol Bears. He was the one making the key passes to teammates, setting up attacking opportunities, and linked up well with winger Louis Rees-Zammit. We have mentioned how Georgia left gaps open, but Wales still needed to take these opportunities, and Sheedy and Rees-Zammit in particular proved to be a handful for the Georgians throughout the whole game.
This improved performance should give them a bit more confidence, and they need to now build on this going forward, starting with their game against England this weekend.
Ireland are another team who are looking to get back into form after a disappointing Six Nations tournament. However, they look to be in better form than Wales, and have found their feet much quicker under Andy Farrell than the Welsh have under Wayne Pivac. In their opening game against Wales, they had plenty of attacking intent, but just couldn’t take their chances, struggling to create gaps.
The second half saw them take more opportunities, and this was the reason that they came out as eventual winners. The reason for this change was that they got more of their quick players involved, such as winger James Lowe. This stretched Wales out much more, leaving gaps in between, giving Ireland the spaces to then get behind and win the game.
However, the same thing happened against England, with them not finding spaces to break through. Again, they had to change their tactics in the second half, playing more kick passes behind the England defence. Chris Farrell almost scored a try from one, but was held up on the line, but full-back Jacob Stockdale did get a try from one of these kicks.
This shows that they are adaptable in their tactics, and can make tactical switches to help them win games. This is a good thing for them to have, but there is still a bit of disjointedness in their general play, and that is what they now need to work on and fix going forwards.
Scotland were one of the surprise packages of the Six Nations, winning more games than most thought they would. In this tournament so far, we have seen them continue to play their quick attacking rugby, which works when they are in possession. However, no-one was expecting Italy to be so strong in their opening game, and the Scotland team looked a bit taken aback by how much threat Italy were posing.
Defence is an area Scotland have really strengthened in, and they managed to keep France back in their second game, which is not easy, because we know how good France were in attack in the Six Nations. Scotland had to push at times and throw everything into keeping Les Bleus back, but they did, even when holding tries up on the line. We are currently watching a very different Scotland to the one we have seen in recent seasons.
As far as their to-do list goes, the attack was not as well-oiled against France as it has been, with some grubber passes going too far up the field, but this was because they were put under pressure by France a lot. However, overall, with Scotland having played both group games, they have not disgraced themselves.
We have only seen one game from France so far, which came in the second round of fixtures against Scotland. They had plenty of power in their side, and were able to get players into dangerous areas to support the forwards whenever they needed to. This was crucial against a Scotland defence that has really improved over the last year, as it gave France the best opportunity to attack and create good chances.
That creative edge to their attack is something we got used to during the Six Nations, and they brought that to their opening game against Scotland in this tournament too. Having players like scrum-half Antoine Dupont playing passes out and setting up opportunities makes them very hard to play against. Defensively, they looked to be as well-drilled as usual, with the Shaun Edwards effect still working wonders for them.
Against Italy, they will be the favourites, but they need to just keep pushing and look to dominate the game, because Italy have already shown that they have a point to prove in this tournament.
Italy shocked us all in their opening game against Scotland, playing some really good rugby and causing plenty of problems for their opponents. In fact, their first try of the game, scored by Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi, came after the best phases of play they have had for a very long time. All players were working together, passing at the right times, and a great break by centre Marco Zanon also helped, as they showed what we have been looking for from them for a long while.
However, they still made plenty of defensive errors, and tend to switch off at key moments, and this is something they need to keep focusing on as the games go on. They have only played against Scotland so far, and face France this weekend, but hopefully their performance against Scotland, despite losing, will give them hope and confidence that they can compete with the other teams in this tournament and going forward into other competitions.
To conclude, although we are only two rounds into the Autumn Nations Cup, we have already seen some great rugby, some bad mistakes, and some outstanding individual players who have shown that they can be the focal point for their teams going forward. With Fiji’s squad unfortunately ravaged by coronavirus, it means that we aren’t going to see them at all in this tournament, but the final group games this weekend still have some interesting matchups, and hopefully we will get some good final games from them.