The Autumn Nations Cup is now fully underway, but even though it was meant to skirt around the complications caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is affected nonetheless. Fiji’s participation in the tournament looks increasingly unlikely as the virus ravages through the Islanders’ squad, with their first two matches against France and Italy being cancelled. The other participants have played in cavernous, empty and lifeless stadiums which have done little to capture the imagination. Ireland cruised past a hapless Wales in a very one-sided match. Scotland and Italy provided 40 minutes of entertainment before the Azurri packed their bags and handed the match to Scotland in the second half. Lastly we watched England use a completely outclassed Georgian team as a training exercise in a soulless Twickenham doused by the elements. It hasn’t quite had the same luster as for example the crowds and rugby currently on display in Australia in the Tri-Nations.
Still this weekend it does offer up two encounters that are always worth watching. Scotland and France possess two squads fizzing with talent and energy, while watching England and Ireland renew their age old rivalry is always worth the price of admission. Wales look to Georgia to simply provide them with something they haven’t experienced since the start of the Six Nations – a win! It may be a tournament that is not exactly setting the world on fire, but in a year that has seen our beloved sport struggle to pick up the pieces of the pandemic and make something meaningful out of it, we should be grateful for what’s on offer and hope that this weekend will provide us with something to remember.
England vs Ireland – Saturday, November 21st – Twickenham
Despite our issues with an empty Twickenham, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t looking forward to this one. The silverware at the end of it is irrelevant, and let’s face it there’s never really any silverware on the line when the Southern Hemisphere boys come North in November which is what this tournament replaces. What’s more important is that it’s a match between two arch rivals both trying to establish their position in the global pecking order post the last World Cup. England are determined to put the memory of a final gone horribly wrong behind them and put the focus on the the fact that they are current Six Nations champions determined to be the dominant side in the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland look to start a new Chapter after a bitterly disappointing World Cup and endeavor to build a team that can harness the new talents coming through the system in time for the next global showdown in 2023. England seek to consolidate, with a few tweaks to fix the shortcomings highlighted in the World Cup, while Ireland look to finally give the next generation of Irish players the chance to claim their stake in Ireland’s future.
Consequently, Saturday’s fixture is vitally important to both sides. England may not be the world’s most exciting side at the moment, but few can deny their ruthless effectiveness. They were bitterly disappointed not to take the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations but will want to make a clean sweep of this tournament to fire a clear warning shot across the bows of their Six Nations rivals in 2021. Ireland have slowly started to click since their failure to revive their Six Nations aspirations in the final round against France, and although the jury is out on new Coach Andy Farrell, there is no denying that Ireland are looking a lot more lively and adventurous than they did in the Schmidt era in their last two outings. They too have their eye on the main prize next February/March and Saturday’s match will give us a good deal of insight as to how it may all play out next year.
No place for the faint hearted
Saturday’s clash sees some wise old heads and some angry young men come face to face in the front row. Ireland’s Andrew Porter simply oozes menace up against his seasoned English opponent Mako Vunipola who is probably one of the most immovable lumps of coal in the modern game. England’s Kyle Sinckler (aka Mr. Cheeky) is well practiced in the art of the wind up and the dark arts of what happens unseen at the coal face, while his opposite number Ireland’s Cian Healy excels at skirting along the very edges of the laws. Both sides pack very capable Hookers, though we have to say that Jamie George really has come of age for England in the last eighteen months to the point where we struggle to remember Dylan Hartley. Ronan Kelleher is doing great things at Leinster and that club form is increasingly being translated into Test performances of the same caliber. England though seem to be getting better results when it comes to developing a mean bench in this regard and Ellis Genge is a real thorn in any opposition side. In short, it’s going to be ugly in there on Saturday and rugby’s version of trench warfare at its best. The key will be who gets under whose skin the most and quickest, and we have a hunch that England are likely to be fastest out of the blocks in that regard, although in their eagerness Kyle Sinckler’s poor disciplinary record could trip them up.
A step in the right direction albeit on a very large stage
The best bit of news we’ve had this week, is seeing Ireland’s James Ryan’s name against the Captain’s slot for this match. As regular readers know we have tipped the outstanding second rower for the leadership role for the last two years, and have been adamant that he will be the one taking the armband to France in 2023. The only way he will get the experience needed to help him handle it, is to give him as much time as possible in the role between now and the next World Cup. Consequently, as his opening shot at glory he couldn’t ask for a bigger opportunity than England at Twickenham. It may lack the crowds on Saturday, but leading your troops against a pumped up England in their spiritual home is an extraordinary opportunity to put your skills to the test, and as baptisms of fire go it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
We think he’s up to the Test and then some, and even if he falters as he himself has admitted, he is surrounded by some wise and experienced heads, especially that of Peter O’Mahony who knows the pressure of the role on big occasions like this which should give him the support he needs. Whatever, the outcome as long as he puts in his traditional 110% effort, then the priority must be to stick with developing him in the role.
Talking of future Captains – Tom Curry your chance is now
England need to develop a future Captain and an understudy for Owen Farrell. We’ve said all along Curry is the man for the job, and Saturday is likely to be another opportunity for the outstanding back rower to stake his claim, especially as he gets to grips with one of Ireland’s wiliest characters and a Captain himself Peter O’Mahony. Paired up with his “Kamikaze twin” Sam Underhill this back row unit is quality through and through but then so is Ireland’s offering of O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the exceptional newcomer Caelan Doris. England’s Billy Vunipola though for us is past his best.
Eddie Jones continues to confound and frustrate
Some English supporters love him, others just don’t understand him. While Ireland appear more willing to take some risks in this match, not so England. It’s the same old halfback pairing that we’ve seen a thousand times before in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. Once again England have their younger guns at nine and ten on the bench. If Ireland are willing to throw James Ryan in at the deep end in the Captain’s role for this one, you have to wonder why England is not willing to do the same in the half back department. It’s an ideal opportunity to look to the future beyond Farrell and Youngs, but once more it looks to go begging. Some English supporters are tearing their hair out, especially as England’s young guns didn’t even get the starting berths for the Red Rose’s Saturday afternoon audition with Georgia last weekend for a famous Hollywood musical.
Ireland although injury enforced have no such issues and Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park get the nod. Byrne has not exactly shone in an Ireland jersey, but Gibson-Park did excel last weekend in his debut in the green, despite our reservations. Perhaps together for Ireland they will be able to replicate the award winning form they produce week in week out for Leinster.
Ireland need to score tries and have they found an answer in James Lowe?
We thought he was an option Ireland needed to take a look at, and he didn’t disappoint last weekend against Wales. A constant threat with ball in hand, and had the delivery from his colleagues been slightly crisper he would have got more than just the one try on debut in an Irish jersey. Ireland need to score the big points rather than just chipping away at the scoreline with the boot. It cost them in the final match of this year’s Six Nations against France, as Ireland consistently fail to score more than three tries in matches and often struggle to get past two. In Paris they needed four and as usual came short of the mark. Every time Lowe got the ball against Wales he looked like scoring and as the team figure out how to use him more effectively and deliver him better ball, he could well end up being the missing key they’ve sought for so long.
If Ireland have watched the Argentina/All Blacks match this past weekend, then what’s to say a little bit of good old fashioned grit, passion and pride in the jersey isn’t enough to get them past an English side that does look rather daunting to say the least. Unlike New Zealand though, England have had the opportunity to have a long hard look at Ireland this year and even met them in person already which went rather well for the Men in White. Ireland will play a big game make no mistake and if anything seem to be relishing the kinds of freedoms not tolerated under Joe Schmidt’s tenure. However, we can’t see it being enough to get past an England side that has every intention of making this tournament theirs and theirs alone. Either way we’re in for a cracker of a match!
Wales vs Georgia – Saturday, November 21st – Llanelli
To be honest after watching Georgia be steamrollered by both Scotland and England in the last two weeks, we sadly don’t have a great deal to say about this one. Unfortunately so far Georgia appear to be in this simply to make up the numbers in a cobbled together tournament. We wish we could find more positives but sadly can’t. As we said last week, whoever decided to put Georgia in such a daunting pool, surely needs to be banned from drawing up tournament lists for life, as it is simply unfair. Georgia will play with heart, but are unlikely to emerge with much confidence from this tournament, while the side they are aiming to show up, Italy, has a relative Sunday stroll by comparison against opposition that may at least allow the Azurri some semblance of credibility. In Georgia’s Pool are all three Six Nations Champions of the last ten years – not exactly a level playing field is it? Italy in their Pool have the three Wooden Spoon Holders in the Six Nations of the last 20 years – we rest our case.
Wales may not look the part at the moment, and themselves narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations Championship. However, they were Grand Slam winners last year as well as World Cup semi-finalists. Wales are currently on their longest losing streak in recent memory, and as a result Georgia may sense the chance for a truly historic opportunity. However, we just can’t see a Welsh side desperate for any kind of victory, as well as avoiding the kind of national crisis that a loss to Georgia would create, being the kind of early Christmas present the men from the Caucasus would so dearly love to unwrap. Furthermore, the weather forecast looks to be fairly dismal for Saturday in Llanelli, and this could well be one you may not pay much attention to unless you’re a Welsh supporter. Wales should break their losing streak in a rather bleak and uninspiring encounter for both sides while providing little in the way of a spectacle to lift the spirits of those watching. Sadly this may be more of a damp rubber than a dead rubber.
We wish both sides well, and our hearts go out to Georgia, but we’ll probably stay indoors for this one and let them muck it out in the Welsh rain and mud.
We’ll be back tomorrow with our views on France’s trip to Scotland once the team sheets are out.