The Autumn Nations Cup wasn’t just a measuring stick for international teams, but also a proving ground for players looking to either break into the national team or reestablish their place in it. For the four British Isles, it was also an audition for Warren Gatland’s 2021 British & Irish Lions team which heads to South Africa next summer.
Here we highlight the players who stood out in their respective positions across the competition, which was ultimately won by England in extra time over France:
Mako Vunipola | England
England’s trusty loosehead was on form for the time he played in the ANC, as he scrummed well, carried hard, and put in workman’s shifts on defense each game. There are plenty of front row options for Warren Gatland to look at for the Lions next summer, but one guy who will certainly be on the plane is two-time Lion veteran Mako Vunipola.
Luke Cowan-Dickie | England
Cowan-Dickie has long been behind Jamie George on the England pecking order, but the Exeter Chiefs man capped off an almost perfect 2020 of rugby with a clutch outing in the ANC final. Having already won the Champions Cup and the Premiership for Exeter, as well as the Six Nations for England, LCD came up with the goods in the 80th minute to hit his lineout throw and then peel off the maul to score the game-tying try against France. He needs a closer look ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour next summer.
Andrew Porter | Ireland
In place of the injured Tadhg Furong, Andrew Porter showed there is more than one world class tight head in the Ireland team. The big Munster man was a set piece monster across Ireland’s four games, while also adding some power in open play. With more quality performances in the green shirt, Porter has the chance to earn more playing time, even with a healthy Furlong.
Maro Itoje | England
One pundit described England’s Itoje as “an 80-minute pain in the a**”, and if truth be told he’s absolutely right. Few, if any, other players in world rugby are as disruptive to a game plan as the England second rower, who was at it again this autumn. Itoje is growing into a future legend, and with each game he seems to add more tools to his tool belt. Look out.
Joe Launchbury | England
As if one wasn’t enough, England in fact have two of the world’s best locks when you include Joe Launchbury in the mix. The towering giant of a man seems to go about his business out of the spotlight, but he’s an unbelievable presence in the set piece, and does just what he needs to do across the pitch. He was very strong this autumn.
Cameron Woki | France
One of many up-and-comers from the French U-20 sides that won the World Junior Championships in 2018 and 2019, 21-year-old Cameron Woki looked right at home at the senior test level. His performance in the final against the vaunted England back row was superb, and enough to turn plenty of heads as we move into the new year.
Tom Curry | England
Curry may have been wearing the #6 shirt, but he’s as open side a player as you can get. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player of Curry’s caliber at the breakdown, and over the past four weeks he showed that time and time again you need more than one player to clear him out. In addition to his work in defense, Curry also showed his acumen for the game with some lovely running lines and well-timed pop passes. At only 22 years old, Curry is well on his way to a brilliant career in white.
Taulupe Faletau | Wales
Faletau has been riddled with injury problems ever since the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand, but at long last it appears he’s put those in the rear-view mirror. The all-around star is without a doubt one of the best in the world at his trade, and this autumn he looked back to his best. He’ll have some fierce competition from Billy Vunipola and Caelan Doris for Lions #8 jumper, but after the Autumn Nations Cup you’d have to think he’s just got his nose in front.
Conor Murray | Ireland
While none of the halfbacks were overly impressive this fall, Ireland’s Conor Murray was his reliable self, marshalling the team around the park and delivering towering box kicks. At this point Murray can always be expected to play pretty well, so it’s easy for his strong play to go unnoticed.
Jonny Sexton | Ireland
The oft-injured Ireland outhalf may be 35 years of age, but he’s still the best first receiver in the British Isles, and miles away the best in Ireland. Sexton drives the Ireland bus like nobody else can, and that was startlingly apparent again this autumn, as backups Ross Byrne and Billy Burns were not up to snuff in their respective starts. Sexton plays every game like it’s his last, and you can believe he’ll play until he physically can’t anymore. Ireland missed him against England, and will need him to hold the ship for a few more years until another option comes along.
Jonny May | England
Jonny May has scored some of the best tries of the decade, but there have been none better than the second one he bagged against Ireland at the Autumn Nations Cup. Once known as just a lanky speedster, May has developed into one of the best all-around wings in the world and he put his wide skillset to effective use all tournament.
Owen Farrell | England
Yes, Farrell had a real stinker off the tee in the final against France, but he’s still the heart and soul of an English backline which has now won the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup in 2020. His defense, distributing, and leadership from the center position is irreplaceable for England, and even with his poor kicking stats on Sunday, he still topped the competition in points scored by a long shot.
Robbie Henshaw | Ireland
Henshaw might a player who often goes overlooked by those of us outside of Ireland, but there’s a reason the former British & Irish Lion has been a staple in the Irish backline the past four years. He does all a center is asked to do; he carries well, he distributes well, and he defends well. Henshaw was a consistently strong performer in a solid Ireland team this autumn.
Duhan Van de Merwe | Scotland
South African-born Duhan Van de Merwe has been a force on the wing for Edinburgh for over three years, and finally earned eligibility to represent Scotland at the international level this fall. It’s taken the massive speedster little time to make his presence known, as he shined for the Scots during the Autumn Nations Cup. Look out for Duhan as a potential Lions bolter next summer.
Brice Dulin | France
Dulin had fallen somewhat out of the fullback pecking order in France this year, but after his performances in the Autumn Nations Cup, Fabien Galthie will need to take another long look at the little fullback. Dulin was superb in every facet of the game when he played this autumn, taking high balls, starting counter attacks, beating defenders, and using his boot well. Had he played in more of France’s games this tournament, Brice Dulin would be the surefire player of the competition.