Normally around this time of the year, we would have touring teams from the Southern Hemisphere visiting the European rugby nations and competing against them in matches. However, this year, for coronavirus reasons, that is not happening. Instead, the Autumn Nations Cup has been set up for this year in place of those internationals, with Georgia and Fiji joining the teams of the Six Nations to form two groups of four. In this preview, we will look at each of the eight teams, picking out the key players to look out for in their squads, as well as looking at how each could do against the others in their group.
Having just won the Six Nations, a lot will be expected of England. Eddie Jones has always been known for experimenting with his tactics and player positions, and this tournament looks to be no exception. For their opening game against Georgia, he has made a couple of interesting decisions, with lock Maro Itoje starting as a flanker, whilst Jonathan Joseph starts as a winger rather than his usual centre.
There are a few players worth keeping an eye out for though, with exciting players such as Wasps flanker Jack Willis, the Premiership Player of the Year, making his first start against the Georgians. There are also high expectations for Exeter Chiefs lock Jonny Hill, Worcester Warriors captain Ted Hill, his teammate Ollie Lawrence, Wasps fly-half Jacob Umaga, and Gloucester winger Ollie Thorley, all of whom have had exceptional seasons in the Premiership.
As well as Georgia, they face tough tests against Ireland and Wales, but it will be interesting to see how much they develop over the coming weeks, and how the new additions fit into the team.
Georgia have always been a team knocking on the door of the Six Nations, and, if a promotion and relegation system is introduced, then they will be the team most likely to come into the top competition of European international rugby. Their team, nicknamed the Lelos, mostly plays in France or Georgia, with some notable names being Toulon prop Beka Gigashvili and Racing 92 prop Guram Gogichashvili, but there are a few players that play outside those two countries, including Leicester Tigers hooker Shalva Mamukashvili, who joined the Welford Road club earlier this season.
It is likely that they will finish bottom of the group, but they have plenty of power in their ranks, and that is what England, Ireland and Wales will need to keep an eye on. However, for Georgia, this is a chance for them to show whether they can compete with the Six Nations sides, or whether they would be no better than Italy in the main European tournament if they did join it.
After a disappointing Six Nations by their standards, where they looked like they were in transition between the eras of Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell, this tournament will give Ireland a chance to get back to basics and play as we know they can do. However, in order to do so, they will need to work on the things that went wrong in their other games this year. They do have an interesting squad, with the vast experience of players like Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls, mixed in with other exciting newcomers such as Ulster fly-half Billy Burns, Leinster winger James Lowe and Munster full-back Shane Daly, whilst other players such as flanker Will Connors and winger Hugo Keenan, both of Leinster, have both impressed in their fledgling international careers so far.
Georgia will prove to be a tough test for Ireland, but Andy Farrell will no doubt be looking at the games against Wales and England as a chance for his side to show what they have learnt from their Six Nations campaign.
Wales were another team to have a poor Six Nations tournament, and questions have already been asked about whether they have gone forwards or backwards under Wayne Pivac so far. However, it is too early to start judging Pivac’s reign at the moment, as he has only had one tournament, and it was a disrupted one. This upcoming tournament will give us a much better idea of how they will look going forwards.
There has been no denying that their squad is good enough, and they have plenty of notable names available for these games, including the likes of captain Alun Wyn Jones, who will win his 150th cap against Ireland, Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies, and Cardiff Blues winger Josh Adams. Of the squad, those who play their club rugby in the Premiership are Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis, Wasps lock Will Rowlands, Bath number 8 Taulupe Faletau, Northampton Saints fly-half Dan Biggar, Bristol Bears’ exciting fly-half Callum Sheedy, his teammate and full-back Ioan Lloyd, and Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit, so we can see how much quality they have.
Like with Ireland, they will see Georgia has a tricky team to beat, and one that will give them a tough game. However, they will see the games against Ireland and England as a chance to show how much they have improved and worked on following their disappointing Six Nations campaign.
The second team who have joined in for this tournament, along with Georgia, will be a big test for the other three teams in the group. If we look at their team, the wings will likely be their biggest threat, with Bristol Bears’ Semi Radradra and Leicester Tigers’ Nemani Nadolo both in the team. If both are on the field at the same time, opposing defences will have to be really well organised, because they will take advantage of any inch of space they can get, and both are difficult to stop as well. Radradra could well be deployed as a centre, which is where Bristol have played him, and that would only increase the threat he poses.
Other names you might recognise in the team include London Irish lock Albert Tuisue and another Leicester player, full-back Kini Murimurivalu, so they do have players who can hurt opponents and punish any mistakes they make.
This is the first tournament in charge for new head coach Vern Cotter, who was appointed back in January of this year, but they could be a surprise package in this tournament.
France have been a team that many have found easy to beat in recent seasons, but this year in the Six Nations, they were one of the best teams in the tournament, and have taken a huge step towards winning the tournament in the future. They look much more dangerous, with some really exciting players in their squad, such as number 8 Gregory Alldritt, scrum-half Antoine Dupont, fly-half Romain Ntamack, centre Arthur Vincent, and full-back Anthony Bouthier, all of whom can and do cause problems for their opponents when in form.
However, the other thing that is very noticeable about them is that they are defending much better, which comes from their new defence coach Shaun Edwards. He has made them more organised, and we can expect them to defend as well as Wales did when Warren Gatland was in charge and Edwards was the defence coach there.
These games will give us an opportunity to see how France can get even better, improving on things even more, and it will be interesting to see just how good they can become with the players they have at their disposal.
It has not been a happy few years for Italy, with it being several Six Nations tournaments since they last had a win. However, they also have several players who, when playing individually, can cause plenty of problems for opposing sides, such as Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri, young Benetton fly-half Paolo Garbisi, Zebre winger Mattia Bellini and Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi. The problem is that, when you put them together on a field, they don’t seem to be able to connect, and that is the problem. This lack of connection leads to disjointed performances and gaps left open for opponents to attack through.
This tournament will see them face three other teams who will all play attacking rugby, and that means that Italy will need to play really well if they want to not finish bottom. However, the chances of that happening seem very slim.
Scotland are another team who have had a few tough Six Nations campaigns, but this year looked ten times better. This was because they seemed to have more quality in everything they did, and were able to threaten other teams. This is possibly because Ireland and Wales weren’t defending as well as they normally do, giving Scotland more chances to attack, but nothing should be taken away from Scotland for the way they played.
They have made some really good selection choices for this game, with experienced Edinburgh prop WP Nel recalled, whilst Exeter Chiefs lock Jonny Gray will add an aerial threat at lineouts in particular. Another Exeter player, scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, has established himself as a reliable backup option for first choice Sam Maunder, and deserves his place in the team. Worcester Warriors’ fly-half Duncan Weir has also been recalled, with Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both ruled out through injury. Chris Harris has been one of Gloucester’s most attacking players in the Premiership this season, whilst their wingers, Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland and Duhan van der Merwe are all very highly-rated, and will all add a threat to opposing defences; captain Stuart Hogg will only add to that threat from full-back.
Overall, Scotland have a well-balanced team, and that will really help them in these games, as they will be a handful for all three of the other teams in the group.
In conclusion, this analysis has looked at all eight teams in the Autumn Nations Cup, previewing how each team could do, the key players in the team, and where they could finish in their groups. It is certainly an exciting tournament, but we need to also remember the reason that we are having it, and it has already been confirmed that Group B’s game between France and Fiji this weekend is off, after a spate of positive tests in the Fiji camp; their other games are now also at threat. We hope, though, that this tournament gives us some good rugby to enjoy in these difficult times.