Autumn Nations Cup – a resurgent Scotland take on Italy who hope Georgia get a baptism of fire from England!

Posted: November 13, 2020 in General Commentary
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In many ways there are unlikely to be too many surprises tomorrow in Florence or Twickenham, but the subplot running through tomorrow’s fixtures is enormous. What subplot you may ask? Italy and Georgia will both be on show tomorrow, and the Autumn Nations Cup is probably the biggest opportunity to date to lay to rest once and for all the debate about Italy’s place in the Six Nations, and Georgia’s chance to take it from them. Unfortunately we feel that it is Georgia who has been dealt a poor hand in this regard. Italy have to face France, Fiji and Scotland whilst the hapless Georgians have to take on Wales, Ireland and current Six Nations Champions England. Ireland could have won the Six Nations and although they may be going through a lean patch, let’s not forget Wales were Six Nations Grand Slam Champions last year. In short, Italy are likely to emerge looking much healthier in terms of their ability to compete than Georgia when the Autumn Nations Cup draws to a close.

Italy vs Scotland – Saturday, November 14th – Florence

Scotland come into this match feeling rather confident despite their injury list in the fly half department. A positive Six Nations with the crowning achievement being overturning this year’s tournament darlings France is something they can look back on with pride. Scotland may be frustratingly inconsistent at times, but there is no denying they are a team who is playing some very respectable rugby these days. Italy on the other hand remain International Rugby’s perpetual underachievers – with the slogan being “surely this is the year” – but sadly we’re all still waiting. However, there were some sparks in their recent defeat to England in the final round of the Six Nations. This tournament will determine whether or not Italy remain a flash in the pan or under new Coach Franco Smith may be finally turning a corner.

Scotland look tight in the front five but we can’t say the same about Italy

In Scotland’s most recent outings we’ve really liked Scotland’s reliable and solid approach to chores in the tight five. They just look steady and well drilled with everyone having an exceptionally good understanding of their roles. The front row with Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson have been outstanding with some solid support from the bench in the shape of WP Nel and new kid on the block Oliver Kebble. Italy’s unit on the other hand just doesn’t look the part. There have been some improvements in the second row but overall it is not something you feel the Azurri can depend on. Scotland have proved rather adept at using their efficiency in the tight five to create opportunities for rampaging loose forwards like Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson and a set of backs running on high octane fuel. Italy on the other hand struggle to create those linkages, consequently we expect to see Scotland dominate set piece and phase play from the get go tomorrow.

Italy’s back row though need offer no excuses

It may be a unit that Italy is struggling to integrate into its overall game plan – but a classy unit it is nonetheless. Jake Polledri is clearly England’s loss and we were impressed with the work rates of his colleagues Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn against England in the final round of the Six Nations a fortnight ago. Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are not two individuals we’d enjoy testing our mettle against in the Test Arena, but Italy can at least feel assured that they have a unit that can compete here. This undoubtedly will be the best aspect of Italy’s play tomorrow – so keep your eye on it.

Duncan Weir – we think Scotland may have missed you more than they care to admit

We allowed ourselves a wry smile to see who we think is one of Scotland’s most underrated players of the last five years be on the starting list for tomorrow’s game. Unfortunately Weir has had to live in the shadow of Scotland’s dynamic flyhalf duo Finn Russell and Adam Hastings – but make no mistake this guy is a VERY handy number 10. Remember this moment?

Consequently we were thrilled to see him back in Scotland’s starting lineup, albeit as a result of injuries to Hastings and Russell. The guy is a pocket rocket and a man with a keen eye for opportunity. Although he hasn’t worn a Scottish jersey since 2017, which we find really hard to believe, we feel Scotland could well suddenly realize tomorrow that overlooking Mr. Weir was a mistake. He is clearly enjoying his rugby with English side Worcester Warriors, and we certainly hope that his return to Test rugby will meet with similar success. The clash between him and impressive Italian debutant Paolo Garbisi should be a highly entertaining contest.

Another name Scotland will be glad to welcome back is Sam Johnson

Scotland see center Sam Johnson return to the fold, and we feel this is yet another bundle of excitement Coach Gregor Townsend brings to a world class set of backs. Although his performances this year haven’t quite caught the imagination like his debut year in 2019, the Australian import oozes potential. Back to his best and alongside Scottish firecrackers like wingers Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and the legendary Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg expect to see some exquisite running rugby tomorrow, and this unit to genuinely trouble the smoking gun in Scotland’s group – France.

It should be a great contest and we feel that Italy are likely to be much more competitive than we’ve seen so far this year, with Six Nations aspirants Georgia showcasing their talents in the same tournament breathing down their necks. Scotland should still comfortably take the win, but Italy are unlikely to be the whipping boys they were when the two met earlier in the year during the Six Nations.

England vs Georgia – Saturday, November 14th – Twickenham

Georgia will run out on the pitch at Twickenham with big aspirations but we really do fear that, given the squad English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled for this match, Europe’s best Tier 2 team will be brought down to earth with a resounding thump. Their remaining two matches in the Autumn Nations Cup are certainly not going to provide any relief to soften the landing.

England are clearly setting out their stall right from the get go, and we were surprised that for this, arguably the easiest fixture in their group, Eddie Jones has refrained for the most part from blooding new talent, which many feel he should have done. Sure he has made some positional tweaks, but has chosen to blood only 1 new cap in his starting 15, the exceptional Wasps back rower Jack Willis . Perhaps more concerning for English supporters is his seeming reluctance to blood new talent in his halfback selections, as he casts an eye to France and 2023.

Lambs to the slaughter?

Although we have the utmost respect for Georgia we just can’t see them being even remotely competitive against a Six Nations powerhouse trio. Their opener against England is likely to be an exercise in pain management, followed up by Wales who are likely to use the match to once and for all put a stop to the rot that has caused Welsh fans to wonder if rugby is still a national sport. Lastly they have a date with Ireland who are bursting at the seams with emerging talent. Apart from exposure to top level competition, this tournament is not going to be a particularly uplifting advertisement for Georgian rugby, and sadly make a mockery of the argument that they are ready for the Six Nations at Italy’s expense.

Italy are likely to fare much better than their rivals from the Caucasus. Scotland are a known commodity and are nursing a few key injuries, so that Italy’s opening encounter in Florence could well be a positive experience in terms of a respectable scoreline, even though we doubt that a Scottish side humming with talent and enthusiasm will let them have too much to say. With Fiji’s participation thrown into doubt due to COVID-19, Italy may then only have to face France. While the likelihood of them losing to Scotland and France is high, and they therefore will be desperately hoping that their encounter with Fiji does go ahead, they still would emerge from the tournament as more of the underdog than lambs to the slaughter – which sadly could be Georgia’s experience. If Italy are competitive and even manage to sneak a win against Scotland, then the argument about their place in the Six Nations is likely to be put to bed once and for all – sadly at Georgia’s expense.

We sincerely hope that our concerns about this emerging subplot and Georgia’s possible humiliation in this tournament do not come to fruition. We’ll be cheering them on as hard as we can, but the stars do not look like they have lined up well for the Georgians in this tournament. They will play with pride and passion, but as we saw against Scotland last month it simply isn’t enough to compete with Six Nations squads who are sadly light years away from them in terms of their development. A poor showing in this tournament could simply end up consigning Georgia to the wilderness of Test rugby for another decade, as they desperately seek regular participation in a tournament that is both meaningful and provides platforms in which to build and develop their confidence and skill levels. There is likely to be a revival of the Pacific Nations Cup for the Pacific Island countries and Japan, an increasingly competitive Americas Rugby Championship for North and South America – but for Georgia and the other Tier 2 European nations there is little to look forward to that can take them to where they need to be in terms of the next stage in their development in International Rugby. It is our sincere hope that whatever the outcome of the next four weeks, something is done to give Georgia the much needed shot in the arm it craves and deserves in the long-term.

If things are going well early for England – Jones really has no excuse to not bring the bench halfback pairing into play sooner rather than later

England need to develop a future halfback pairing for France 2023. Quite frankly we were left scratching our heads when we saw the team sheet, and saw the same old regulars starting in the 9 and 10 shirt. There is no denying Farrell’s ability, despite some of our reservations about his Captaincy, and Ben Youngs had a glorious 100th cap performance against Italy in the final round of the Six Nations. Georgia will be an awkward opponent but one that England as a unit should have no trouble suppressing. Hence we cannot understand why such prime candidates as Dan Robson and Max Malins don’t get the starting nod at scrum and fly half berths, instead of waiting it out on the bench. If they wobble then you can always bring on Youngs and Farrell to steady the ship, but surely asking them to simply keep the Georgian rout going rather than organize its onset is not how you develop future talent. Enough said, we’re armchair warriors and Jones is the professional Coach but he continues to befuddle us with his selection policies.

Georgia can ultimately hope that England, as they often do, walk into a match like this which on paper they should win blindfolded and proceed to fluff their lines. They’ve done it before and once they get rattled start to unravel rather quickly. However, against lesser sides it is usually rectified by half time. Georgia needs several variables to work in their favor such as Youngs having one of his shockers which appeared with alarming regularity in the run up to the World Cup, Owen Farrell to once more regard wild swinging arm chop tackles above the shoulder as legitimate and England generally to start questioning every decision referee Nigel Owens makes, in order for the men from the Caucasus to at least remain competitive tomorrow. They will wear their hearts on their sleeves and once more we’ll marvel at their bravery and good old fashioned rugby grit, but sadly we fear England will just prove to be too much of a mountain to climb tomorrow for them to emerge with any credibility on the scoreboard. Still on the plus side there’s always Wales next weekend, and they way the Men in Red are going these days maybe they could join the Six Nations relegation debate alongside Italy and Georgia.

We won’t be posting anything on the France vs Fiji match which was supposed to take place on Sunday, as it has now been cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fijian camp. We hope it’s not permanent and sorry for the tardiness in getting this post out, but the day job got the better of me at the end of this week. Enjoy some great rugby this weekend and here’s looking forward to musing over this weekend’s events leading into Round 2!

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