LONDON (AP) — The Autumn Nations Cup got the final it didn't deserve.
Hastily arranged to replace the canceled traditional European tours, the eight-team Autumn Nations Cup was dominated by defense and kicking at no-atmosphere stadiums in not-helpful wet conditions.
Results at this time of year were supposed to finalize the seedings for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but the pandemic forced World Rugby to base the seedings on the rankings a year ago, when every team last played.
That decision, and the one-off nature of the Autumn Nations Cup, prompted most teams to experiment, to debut and reintroduce a ton of fringe players and combinations for the next Six Nations in February.
The on-field action was not easy on the eye, and the tournament came alive only on this past finals weekend, thanks to the belated appearance of Fiji and natural improvements on the part of the other non-finalists.
There was no getting around the final being set up as a sham after France wasn’t allowed by its clubs to pick its 30-odd best players. It was a shock then at Twickenham in sunny, dry conditions as the second most inexperienced starting Tricolors team in history with 68 caps was seconds away from beating a settled England side with 772 caps, and lost only by a sudden-death penalty in extra time.
Here's what we learned of the teams in order of finish:
After beating Italy in Rome to win the Six Nations on points difference in October, coach Eddie Jones and the players confidently said they had much more to give. But they have yet to show it. England effectively used the same brutal defense and kick-chase tactics to win the Autumn Nations Cup. The incessant kicking was even booed by the handful of fans at the final. Jones called the fans and media reaction “disrespectful,” but even he admitted the team’s attack had regressed in rugby’s restart after the pandemic shutdown. They made as many offloads in the final -- 7 -- as they did across three group matches. The backs beyond the flyhalf were hardly involved. The deficiency was exposed by a France B side in the final when it matched England in the tight. Yet, England prevailed, though its still having trouble mentally dealing with starting a final as the raging favorite. It will start the Six Nations in two months as the favorite again, on an eight-test winning streak.
Pencil a circle around March 13. That's the next scheduled instalment of the best renewed rivalry in European rugby: France vs. England. France won their Six Nations matchup in Paris in February and England won the Autumn Nations Cup final in London on Sunday. France was second in both tournaments but not by much. After a decade of futility, France is a force again: Young, fearless, exciting, and proud. The foundation is a Shaun Edwards-coached defense. Their tryline stand to repel England for 13 phases at the end of the first half at Twickenham was inspirational and a message. The overall display by the likes of Pierre Bourgarit (3 caps), Killian Geraci (2), Anthony Jelonch (4), Matthieu Jalibert (8), Gabin Villiere (2) and Brice Dulin (31) is giving core stars Marchand, le Roux, Alldritt, Ntamack, Thomas and Bouthier a run for their money.
The Irish did well to confirm they are the best of the second tier sides, without leading prop Tadhg Furlong, center Garry Ringrose and fullback Jordan Larmour. Talismanic halves Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray also missed big chunks and coach Andy Farrell got to pose questions of prop Andrew Porter, rival hookers Ronan Kelleher and Rob Herring, Tadhg Beirne as a flanker, alternative halves Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns, new backs James Lowe and Hugo Keenan, and Jacob Stockdale at fullback. The answers were mainly good, which puts the Irish on a positive rebound 12 months after untimely decline in a Rugby World Cup year. Farrell has been making the atmosphere in camp more democratic after the autocracy under predecessor Joe Schmidt, especially with 11 new players capped. The talent is there when its not limping or laid up and the Six Nations schedule is friendly -- home games against England and France -- for the Irish to have hope. Lock James Ryan said, “We just need to grow now.”
Scotland went to Dublin last weekend with an experimental side holding high hopes of a first win there in 10 years. Those hopes went down in flames again and captain Stuart Hogg suggested after they were well beaten 31-16 that their progress might have taken a step back. But coach Gregor Townsend’s selection was deliberately cagey. He’s not showing his best team until the Six Nations where they have first crack at defending champion England on Feb. 6. Scotland hopes to have back injured flyhalf Finn Russell and tighten a defense which conceded a 2020 Six Nations-low 59 points but 70 points in three games in the Autumn Nations Cup. For now, the Scots have gone back to being merely tough to beat after failing to execute and stay focused against France and Ireland who overhauled them in the second half.
No other team was more affected by the pandemic-enforced shutdown. Beforehand, Wales was getting a handle on the attacking approach of new coach Wayne Pivac. But seven months later when rugby restarted in October, Wales had lost its edge. The dropoff in all meaningful attack statistics amplified a losing streak that didn’t end until lowly Georgia dropped in. Wales won only three out of 10 tests this year but Pivac continued to dig around for new talent and found some diamonds, among them hooker Sam Parry, flankers Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham, halves Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy, midfielder Johnny Williams, and wing Louis Rees-Zammit. They ensured the autumn wasn’t a total loss. Pivac says he knows his Six Nations team already. Whether it has its edge back will be revealed on Feb. 7 against Ireland.
Italy finished a familiar last among the Six Nations teams but coach Franco Smith did the right thing for the team: He kept them together. Italy used only 26 players, the least in the tournament (excepting Fiji) and two less than England. They averaged more time in possession than any team in the group stage but suffered from a failure to execute, and fitness. They stayed with Scotland and France for an hour and led Wales but then fell away. Its hoped the time together will pay off in terms of cohesion and instinct because its a young group. Giosuè Zilocchi and Danilo Fischetti, 23 and 22, have established themselves in the front row, and halves Paolo Garbisi -- the accurate and composed flyhalf Italy has missed for two decades -- and Stephen Varney, and fullback Jacopo Trulla started the year in the under-20s.
The ordeal Fiji endured while stuck in isolation after 29 players and management were infected by the coronavirus can’t be understated. That they came through it, forced to forfeit their three group matches, and beat a match-tough Georgia 38-24 with a brilliant display at Murrayfield can't be overstated. Fiji debuted eight players, including flanker Mesulame Kunavula, who scored a try and was embraced by all of the team. His mother died while he was in isolation. Fiji's first and last match of the year was also vindication for Nemani Nadolo’s decision to come out of international retirement. The wing scored a hat trick of tries. Fiji’s time in Europe also developed fresh contacts with administrators that may pay dividends next year with test matches.
Critics who believe Georgia should replace perennial doormat Italy in the Six Nations were quietened by the Lelos’ results. Five tests in Britain and five losses. Even the Georgians said they wouldn’t be ready to play in the Six Nations for a few more years. The Lelos replaced Japan in the Autumn Nations Cup and came to learn and evolve from infrequent matches with tier one opponents, and that they accomplished. In successive tests they improved; lost to Scotland 48-7, to England 40-0, to Wales 18-0, to Ireland 23-10 and to Fiji 38-24. Center Giorgi Kveseladze was outstanding against Ireland with a nominee for try of the tournament and a couple of try-saving tackles. No. 8 Beka Gorgadze showed he’s the heir apparent to Lelos great Mamuka Gorgodze, and new flanker Tornike Jalaghonia and scrumhalf Mikheil Alania offered huge promise.
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