To say Covid-19 flipped the world upside-down is to beat an already-dead horse, but we can acknowledge once more how it’s made sizable waves across the rugby universe.
After a challenging four-month hiatus of rugby, New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition breathed life back into the wonderful sport. The excitement, the passion, and the entertainment reminded us the importance of finding a way to get the players back on the field. Oh, and having fans helped too.
Soon after, Super Rugby Australia followed suit by treating fans to a robust and hard-hitting ten-week season that offered a glimpse into the new wealth of riches Wallabies coach Dave Rennie would be inheriting. Not long after that, the Premiership, the Pro14, and the Top14 resumed their truncated seasons, and now seven months into the pandemic rugby is alive and well.
All this brings us to into fall, a time where international rugby takes precedence. In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand and Australia have kicked off the Rugby Championship with a thrilling pair of Bledisloe Cup encounters, while Argentina prepares its squad to join the fray in the coming weeks (South Africa has opted out of this year’s Rugby Championship due to Covid-19 concerns.)
But we’re not here to talk about the Rugby Championship. In the other hemisphere, the Six Nations, Georgia, and Fiji are poised to commence the unprecedented Autumn Nations Cup (ANC), which will be a hot presser of 16 international test matches over a four-week period from November 13 to December 6.
It’s without question the best thing to happen to rugby in 2020. Given South Africa’s absence from the Rugby Championship and given the manner in which the Six Nations Championship was unceremoniously cut into two parts, the Autumn Nations Cup serves as the pinnacle of test rugby in this wild and unpredictable year.
What’s At Stake?
Immediately before the Autumn Nations Cup begins, the Six Nations will finish off the final round that was left un-played in the spring. One of Ireland, England, or France will be crowned the winner, but their ruling of the roost will last only a short couple of weeks before the slate is wiped clean and the teams begin anew.
The Autumn Nations Cup is perfect tournament to establish which teams are the best following rugby lockdown.
It is also a massive proving ground for the Georgians and Fijians.
For over a decade, cries for Georgia to be included in the Six Nations in place of Italy have fallen on deaf ears. Despite Georgia’s continued dominance over the rest of Tier-2 Europe, they have been repeatedly rejected the opportunity to join Europe’s top competition. They believe they belong, and all they want is a shot to show it.
If there was ever a chance to prove the doubters wrong, it’s now.
Fiji, meanwhile, has produced as many world-class players as any nation, but time and time again see those players leave home to ply their trade overseas. The shortage of money is one obvious reason for player exodus, but another could be the lack of high-level test match rugby. Fiji has never been a part of the Rugby Championship, and competitions like the Pacific Nations Cup against Tier-2 teams don’t pull the top Fijian talent out of the French, English, and other domestic professional leagues.
Well, expect to see Fiji at full force in the ANC, and don’t be surprised if a successful outing leads to more inclusion at the Tier-1 level.
Changes Across The Six Nations
Following last autumn’s Rugby World Cup, the Six Nations teams have transformed in varying degrees. France, Wales, Ireland, and Italy all underwent coaching changes, and all six squads have seen a great deal of roster turnover as veteran players make way for young up-and-comers in the next World Cup cycle.
France looked well-and-truly back to its old self in this year’s Six Nations, showcasing a disgusting depth of talented youth. If not for one only-France-could-do-this moment of bone-headedness against Scotland, France would be staring down the barrel of a Grand Slam title. The French will be co-favorites for the ANC.
After reaching extraordinary heights in last year’s World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand, to experiencing a full-blown crash in the subsequent final against South Africa, England’s 2020 must have felt like waking up with the world’s worst hangover only to find out you do indeed still have work the next day. The World Cup grog sure got to them in their Six Nations opener, as the Red Roses fumbled their way to a first-round loss to France. Eddie Jones’ men did however right the ship and look the odds-on favorite to win the Six Nations after all. They too will be co-favorites.
Ireland was blasted out of the World Cup quarters by the All Blacks, despite having beaten them in two of the previous three meetings before then. 2020 began on a much different note than 2019 ended, with the Irish taking its first two games of the Six Nations over Scotland and Wales before losing to England in Round 3. Ireland still has a shot to win the Six Nations, but will likely need a bonus point victory over France to do so. Look for the Irish to make some noise at the ANC.
Wales began life in the post-Gatland era with a shutout victory over Italy, but have stumbled to three consecutive defeats to Ireland, France, and England since. With healthy bodies back in action, Wales hopes to regain its outstanding 2019 form in the ANC.
Scotland failed to get out of its World Cup group last October, then came out of the gates in the Six Nations with two close losses to Ireland and England. However, two straight wins over Italy and France have the Scots feeling optimistic moving forward into the Autumn Nations Cup.
It’s been business as usual for the Italians, who once again look like they’ll take the Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations. Italy has not won a Six Nations game since 2015, which only raises the volume on shouts to replace them with Georgia. They need to put in a strong showing at the ANC, particularly if they are to face Georgia on Finals Weekend.
Don’t Forget About Lions Tour
It sure doesn’t seem like three years since that epic British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand culminated in a draw, but here we are. In less than 10 months, the Lions will be on a plane to South Africa to challenge the reigning world champions, and what better way to assess the talent in Britain than staging a marquee tournament like the Autumn Nations Cup in the fall?
Although Warren Gatland left his post at Wales after 12 years to move back to New Zealand, the Kiwi legend will take the British Lions on his third tour. The last two have been an overall success, with the Lions defeating Australia in 2013 and splitting with the mighty All Blacks in 2017.
Gatland will have plenty of difficult decisions ahead, so you can bet the house he’ll be fixated on the ANC as he starts building his squad for South Africa. For the players, there’s no mistaking the gravity of this event for their British & Irish Lions chances. As one of the greatest honors in rugby, the opportunity to represent the Lions should bring the absolute best out of each and every player from the British Isles this autumn.
We’ll Have A True Championship Game
Unlike the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship events, the Autumn Nations Cup will stage a true title bout between the winners of Pool A and the winners of Pool B. Whereas a typical international tournament (sans the World Cup) would simply be a round robin crowning the team with the most points in the standings, here we’ll get to actually play out a grand final between the top two teams.
It’s no secret that title matches bring out a different kind of beast. That same championship pressure that causes some to crumble turns others to diamonds. It’s a rare treat to see two heavyweights go at it with everything on the line, and the ANC will give us just that.
There is optimism that this tournament could salvage a tumultuous 2020 for rugby and possibly lay a framework for future tournaments in the fall. There will be no shortage of pulsating action, drama, and passion in the next six weeks, and remember you can watch each and every match from the inaugural ANC right here on FloRugby.