Joshua Hughes reviews the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup and how each team fared in an imperfect tournament for an imperfect year.
Drama, sudden death, competitive, a point to prove – these are the adjectives that everyone could have hoped for to describe the culmination of the Autumn Nations Cup. The final was an incredible display from a weakened French team that is only beginning to show glimpses of what is in store for this World Cup cycle. This was contrasted with an England performance that had many fans of the Red Rose in serious doubt up until the 95th minute of the match. The final was in many ways, a mirror image of the games building up to the tournament, with several commentators suggesting that rugby is in dire need of change as a result of long arm wrestles that are dictated by box kicks, punts and just about every other word that can be used to describe a ball being booted. While the style of rugby was, at times criticised, there are valuable takeaways from each match that leave the eight teams in the competition with both questions and answers as we end an international rugby season like no other.
Wales – Grade: B-
Wales have had somewhat of a learning experience this Autumn with a respectable two wins out of four. In the context of the overall year, Wayne Pivac’s men have not had an easy ride, with only three wins, against Georgia and Italy twice. What’s more, coaches Sam Warburton and Byron Hayward have both left the coaching setup which has certainly contributed to the issues they have faced in defence. However, there are positives to take as the Welsh depth has certainly been increased with the debuts of Callum Sheedy, Louis Rees-Zammit, James Botham, Kieran Hardy and Johnny Williams to name a few. Glimpses have been seen of the Welsh attack in full flow but without consistency, Wales are going to struggle come the Six Nations next year.
Italy – Grade: C
As opposed to the expectations of Welsh fans, Italy have been able to play without the pressure of bigger tier one (or tier 2 if you’re Dylan Hartley) teams. This has allowed Italy to develop a solid game plan and structure, whilst also trying out different players in new positions, such as the versatile Carlo Canna at inside centre. On the flip side of this, without the pressure to perform, Italy have slipped into a repetitive cycle of defeats – gallant or not.
Scotland – Grade: B
The Scottish team, while being talked up for their away win in Wales, (a feat achieved by several other teams in 2020,) are in the odd position of seeming better than they are. Scotland only managed a tight victory against Italy and fell short against France and were well beaten in Dublin. Although this could be viewed as a depth-building exercise, playing five different players at fly-half over the course of four matches certainly did not contribute to any consistency both in attack and results.
Ireland – Grade: A-
The Irish certainly have had a promising few weeks and, although a loss away at Twickenham was unfortunate, the championship allowed them to build depth and experience. The introduction of Jamie Gibson-Park at scrum-half in the first match against Wales provided a strong partnership with Jonny Sexton. Hugo Keenan has also grown into his role in the backs, along with the debuts of James Lowe and Billy Burns. Andy Farrell is successfully forming strong contingent of new players that should leave Ireland in a promising position moving forwards.
France – Grade: A
While France had an unfortunate club agreement that restricted many of their usual starting XV from taking the field for the last two games, it can also be viewed as a positive. Matthieu Jalibert’s performances against Italy and England have highlighted him as a genuine threat to Romain Ntamack and with the promise of Toulon fly-half Louis Carbonel to boot, France are rich in that department. While the final ended in a loss at Twickenham, the young French team probably left feeling like they had won. The strength in depth that France now enjoys and the consistent standards that they are achieving makes them the team to beat in 2021.
Georgia – Grade: B-
Georgia’s inclusion in this championship was the perfect opportunity for the team to prove themselves amid growing calls for their inclusion in the Six Nations. The performances were typical of what we have come to expect from Georgia; physical, tough affairs that tested all the teams they came across. While scoreless against Wales and England, the problems that Georgia caused Wales pointed towards the physical battle that Georgia present. A fierce battle in Dublin which produced the try of the championship scored by Giorgi Kveseladze is another indicator of Georgia’s improvement and the attack they can produce. A word as well for EURFC alumni Lasha Jaiani who acquitted himself superbly in the second-row.
England – Grade: A
England’s autumn has been everything that Eddie Jones could have wanted. A convincing win against Georgia, a dominant performance against Ireland, the first England win in Wales since 2017 and another trophy to add to the cabinet. Furthermore, the English stars have shone with a fantastic solo try from Jonny May against Ireland and a huge physical shift from Sam Underhill against Wales. The introduction of Jack Willis and the fact he isn’t starting just further demonstrates the depth that England have at their disposal. Although the final was disappointing and led to England fans booing their own team, the overall progress that England have made since the loss in Paris in February is testament to the great players and leaders in the team.
Fiji – Grade: N/A
Considering they took part in one of the most entertaining games of the championship, the absence of Fiji from the pool stages was a real shame. Superb performances from Semi Radradra and Nemani Nadolo highlighted what Fiji can bring to the table. They must be given more opportunities to show their talent against top tier sides in the coming years.