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Autumn daze

Owain Jones, Jamie Lyall, Jack Zorab

The inaugural Autumn Nations Cup is now done and dusted, with England adding more yet silverware to their Twickenham trophy cabinet. But is everything so rosy with the Red Rose? Can France steal their Six Nations crown in 2021? Could Ireland cause an upset? And is it doom and gloom for Wales and Scotland or is there some light at the end of the tunnel? The XV assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the teams going into the new year.

England

The inaugural Autumn Nations Cup is now done and dusted, with England adding more yet silverware to their Twickenham trophy cabinet. But is everything so rosy with the Red Rose? Can France steal their Six Nations crown in 2021? Could Ireland cause an upset? And is it doom and gloom for Wales and Scotland or is there some light at the end of the tunnel? The XV assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the teams going into the new year.

England

England have the Autumn Nations Cup title to go with their Six Nations crown, but still the question remains: Are they the best team the northern hemisphere has to offer?

Results demand that the answer is, ‘Yes they are’. But as Owen Farrell beamed a broad smile of relief at slotting his 96th-minute ‘golden’ penalty to triumph in the final 22-19, it was hard not to feel that France had climbed to some sort of higher ground than their opponents in coming so close to winning with a matchday squad that contained just 119 caps.

For international coaches, Test matches are not just be there for the winning, but also to provide valuable data points to crunch and shape their team accordingly. In that battle, France came away with a war chest of knowledge, whilst Eddie Jones learnt very little he didn’t know already from England’s matches against Georgia, Ireland and Wales.

The big negative that stalks newspapers and fan conversations is, ‘Where on earth have England’s attacking instincts gone?’

We all recognise that England have an incredible physicality about their game and can achieve a relentless accuracy in contact, even when they don’t play well. To be able to rely on that every match will warm the hearts of all England fans.

There are also big ticks in the strength and maturity of England’s kicking game. France may have kicked more creatively at Twickenham, but England’s patience in the kicking exchanges throughout the autumn was torturous for all their opponents. Their defence, as per usual, looks rock solid – and was thoroughly examined by France in the first half and then in extra-time.

So, positives aplenty if you’re Jones and the England team. However, the big negative that stalks newspapers and fan conversations is, ‘Where on earth have England’s attacking instincts gone?’

Jones has admitted that he’s putting attack on the to-do list for “post the Lions, when we’ll have the players for a more consistent period of time”. That technically means parking it for a whole season. From the evidence of Sunday’s final, England cannot afford to park it until next week.

What happened to Jones’ statement pre-Six Nations that England “can become the best rugby team ever and that’s the exciting bit. I want to make a team that’s worthwhile watching”?

Jonny May
Jonny May scored a spectacular try against Ireland but England’s creativity was otherwise lacking (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Although there were individual errors made against France, England’s attacking woes seem to be a collective malaise. They were bereft of ideas against Les Bleus, just as they have been against Wales and (Jonny May aside) against Ireland too.

There were huge individual – and collective displays – by England’s forwards throughout the Autumn Nations Cup. From Jamie George’s nose for the line, to Tom Curry’s unfading battery pack, to Maro Itoje’s leadership, to Billy Vunipola’s uncompromising hitting. They will no doubt pick up in 2021 exactly where they downed tools at Twickenham as the most feared pack in the northern hemisphere.

Yet the backs are a different matter. George Ford is playing supremely well at fly-half when all around him – with the exception of Jonny May and possibly Henry Slade – have either forgotten their lines or are waiting to be issued with them.

Ford’s role in helping his backline free the shackles and reconstruct a potent attacking threat behind the scrum will be significant. England need their fly-half more than they ever have.

Player of the tournament

Despite protestations to the contrary, Maro Itoje showed that he belonged rarefied company in another campaign where his consistent brilliance has come to be expected. A freakish athlete, his strength over the ball, will-to-win and physical dominance at the contact area – ask James Ryan – mean that talk of him wearing the captain’s armband for the Lions against South Africa is not idle talk.

France

What France have you can’t bottle. And if you can’t bottle it, you can’t prepare against it.

What France seem to be getting so right under Fabien Galthié is delivering consistently good performances, whoever they select. That’s a deadly mix indeed.

When France are good, it’s because they’ve selected good players who have been given the confidence to play. Their first-choice team is full of them: Romain Ntamack, Virimi Vakatawa, Gaël Fickou, Gregory Alldritt, Antoine Dupont. When you put them on the field and tell them to play, they play. 

Their team who started against England – viewed as a third or fourth string in some quarters after Galthié was prevented from picking those who had already played three times this autumn – are all very good players in their own right, we just hadn’t heard of many of them before. 

What’s so exciting is that in one match they have found out that these rookies are more than up to the task of challenging their established names.

The likes of flanker Cameron Woki, lock Kilian Geraci and back-up fly-half Louis Carbonel have all won the World Rugby Under-20 Championship with France in the past two years – they aren’t just young French stars, they are the best of a global pool of emerging players.

Then throw in a few familiar names in Brice Dulin, Alivereti Raka and Matthieu Jalibert and France shouldn’t have been written off in the manner they were. Easy to say now, of course.

Matthieu Jalibert
Matthieu Jalibert created a stunning France try that nearly led to a shock victory (Photo by Ashley Western/Getty Images)

What’s so exciting for French rugby is that in one match they have tested a relatively new squad against the toughest possible opponents in the northern hemisphere – and found out that these rookies are more than up to the task of challenging their established names.

New France is predictably reliable in terms of quality, but they seem committed to retaining their unpredictability in how they play – with the luxury now of being unpredictable in who they select.

Player of the tournament

Antoine Dupont was a majestic presence for France throughout the Nations Cup with his strength, ability to find space and impudence from the base of the ruck, but a special mention must go to Brice Dulin who hadn’t played for France since Les Bleus toured South Africa in 2017 yet his composure at full-back against Italy and England instilled confidence in his young team-mates. A worthy option if Anthony Bouthier is not fit for the 2021 Six Nations.

Ireland

It seems the perfect irony that as fog engulfed Lansdowne Road on Saturday, we were able to see Andy Farrell’s Ireland in a clearer light. All that experimentation throughout 2020 – 10 new caps, 42 players used – all this talk about a fun environment in training, has finally given way to something visible to the outside world. Ireland, belatedly, are rediscovering their identity.

Until Saturday, inconsistency had become a byword for the Farrell regime. They had been good against Wales and Italy, awful against Georgia and down and out in Paris and London, each department taking it in turns to have dysfunctional meltdowns. It was the scrum against Georgia; their defence against France; the lineout at Twickenham, their attack against almost everyone. 

It is all well and good to hear that the players were having a laugh on the training paddock but, in international rugby, it is matchday that matters, not a Tuesday afternoon when the world has eyes for other things.

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland were systematic, whereas Andy Farrell has liberated their minds.

This stop-start year is over, though, and if you were to reflect on it with the cold eye of a historian, you’d do so with more than a degree of sympathy for their new head coach. To start with, six wins and three defeats is a far from shabby record, especially for those who remember the 1990s, when Ireland never mustered more than five wins in a calendar year.

More pressingly, there was always going to be teething problems with the change of regime. Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland were systematic, whereas Farrell has liberated their minds. It’s ‘heads-up’ rugby he wants, the freedom to make decisions depending on the game’s circumstances rather than adhere to a rehearsed script.

So used to being institutionalised in the Schmidt way, the players clearly struggled with their adjustment to freedom, a little like Brooks and Red in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ after their release from long-term internment. 

Caelan Doris
Back-row Caelan Doris was a standout performer for Ireland in attack and defence (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

The win over Scotland offered hope, though. Tellingly, after all that experimentation, Farrell settled on a conservative selection, 13 of the starting XV being veterans of last year’s World Cup; 11 of them being regular starters in the 2018 Grand Slam year.

With four more players who featured prominently in that unforgettable season due to return from injury – Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour – hopes for a tilt at the 2021 Six Nations are growing, especially as the fixture list has fallen kindly for Ireland, with trips to Rome, Edinburgh and Cardiff mixing with home dates with England and France. Whisper it, but they may be in better shape than people think.

Player of the tournament

Caelan Doris emerged to become a regular in the most-hotly contested area on the teamsheet; the back row. The young Dubliner carries hard, tackles bravely and his all-round athleticism has him nailed on to start Ireland ‘s Six Nations campaign and beyond. In many quarters, he’s seen as a Lions bolter.

Scotland

It is hard to know where to place Scotland right now, a team on the up but still firmly in transition. A side who reinvented themselves admirably in the wake of the mortifying 2019, but still bears obvious flaws. 

The autumn programme brought joy – the rarest of wins on Welsh soil – and encouragement – the calmness and accuracy to deal with a searing Italy – but it also stirred up familiar angst.

The finals loss in Dublin was a bitter blow… because much of it was a movie that, for Scotland fans, has had more sequels than Fast and Furious.

No longer are Scotland an élan-first, palpitation-inflicting court jester of a team, but nor are they quite rugged and ruthless enough to live with the real power sides of Europe. France bludgeoned them; Ireland feasted on their mistakes. The alarming – and infuriating – tendency to point the gun at their foot and empty both barrels remains.

The finals loss in Dublin was a bitter blow, not because it was yet another defeat across the Irish Sea but because much of it was a movie that, for Scotland fans, has had more sequels than Fast and Furious. After a terrific opening, errors compounded errors. Penalties followed penalties. Ireland made hay. Whatever you thought of Duncan Taylor’s yellow card, Scotland had an age to mend themselves and regain their grip on the game when the sin-bin period was over.

Gregor Townsend has made them far harder to beat, no question. Defensive ferocity has become a huge focus. So too has pragmatism. All of this is positive.

Duhan van der Merwe
Duhan van der Merwe has burst on to the Test scene and made a big impression for Scotland (Photo by Brian Lawless/Getty Images)

Scotland need to infuse that new-found steel with a little more of their old spark. The return of Finn Russell, their most precious attacking asset, and Adam Hastings in the months ahead will help. Duhan van der Merwe emerged as a monstrous weapon in the Test arena; Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt performed well with the two main pivots sidelined.

Getting Taylor, a Townsend favourite ravaged by injuries, Huw Jones, who finally looks at ease in a Glasgow jersey, and Rory Hutchinson, fit-again but playing in an oddly beleaguered Northampton team, up to speed will boost their midfield firepower.

In the end, there is sufficient evidence that Scotland are getting better and learning to stay in the fight longer against teams they have struggled to subdue for an age, but the autumn still leaves niggling questions unanswered.

Player of the tournament

Jamie Ritchie has emerged as Scotland’s most effective backrow. A perfect compliment to Hamish Watson on the other flank and Matt Fagerson, At 6ft 4in, he is rangy, but does not lack aggression and his snarl around the breakdown had led to countless turnovers and bruised opposition back rows. He will have to watch the penalty count against him, but a player with a huge future.

Wales

This has been a tortuous campaign for Wales. After being run ragged by a rejuvenated France in Paris as a curtain raiser to the denouement of the Six Nations, they succumbed to Scotland at home for the first time in 18 years, losing 15-11 in the biting winds of West Wales. 

A insipid loss to Ireland left Wayne Pivac with six losses in a row and despite a hard-fought 18-0 win over Georgia, Welsh fans were left fearing humiliation against an England side playing with awe-inspirin physicality. 

Indeed, it shows how much Wales’ stock had fallen, 15 months after being proclaimed No 1 side in the world, that the 28-13 loss, was seen as a moderately successful damage limitation exercise. The failings had become familiar. A ragged set-piece, a barely functioning lineout, breakdown penalties being handed out against them like candy, and little evidence of any verve out wide gave the impression of a rudderless ship, drifting in the international wilderness. 

When summing up, Pivac promised to make Wales competitive for the Six Nations and he will privately acknowledge that his veterans  – Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb and if fit, Ken Owens –  may have to pull him through one final campaign.

Mitigating circumstances proffered by Pivac included testing out the next generation of Welsh stars and to his credit, he has dished out 11 new caps to debutants, but after 58 minutes against Italy, in another error-strewn  display in the second and third-quarters, Wales were trailing 18-16, and the knives were being sharpened. 

Gareth Davies
Gareth Davies gives Wayne Pivac a lift against Italy (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Disaster was averted with Gareth Davies’ trademark acceleration beyond Italian defenders and tries from George North and peerless Justin Tipuric to see the game out, after Taulupe Faletau capped a brilliant display with an unselfish ‘assist’. When summing up, Pivac promised to make Wales competitive for the Six Nations and he will privately acknowledge that his veterans  – Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb and if fit, Ken Owens –  may have to pull him through one final campaign before the squad is given a more youthful sheen.

This is before he can fully embed the likes of James Botham, Louis Rees-Zammit, Ioan Lloyd and Shane Lewis-Hughes, who all showed they have a future in red, into a side ready for France 2023.

The clash against Ireland on February 7 will be a pivotal fixture for not only the Welsh management but for players looking to press their claims for Lions inclusion. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Player of the tournament

For more than a decade, Wales could count on first Jamie Roberts and then Hadleigh Parkes to fill the No 12 jersey with aplomb but in the last 12 months, the challenge has become infinitely harder. 

Fortunately Johnny Williams has given the Wales management hope that he can offer the sort of ball-carrying and defensive zeal that the aforementioned players had, while adding the subtle offloading game that has Wales believing the 24-year-old can be a huge asset towards France.

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