Le Crunch D’Automne – Autumn Nations Cup Final Preview
After three rounds of autumn internationals, England are set to face France in the final of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup. The tournament, devised as a pandemic alternative to the regular autumn internationals, has pitted two groups of four teams against each other in a round robin format over the last month in an entertaining competition that has certainly satisfied international rugby fans during the current COVID-19 crisis. Following nine games and plenty of action, England have won all three of their fixtures to top Group A and set up a thrilling finale against similarly unbeaten France on Sunday.
Eddie Jones’ side are favourites to go on and win the competition, having eased their way past Georgia, Ireland and Wales on their journey to the final. The former were crushed 40-0 by a rampant England side during the first round, when Jamie George became the first English hooker to grab a Test hat-trick in what became a bonus-point victory for the Red and Whites. It was Jonny May’s turn in the spotlight come round two, as England dug deep and defended well against Ireland to ultimately edge the contest 18-7 thanks to the brace scored by the former Gloucester winger. Finally, Jones’ men overcame Wales 24-13 on a bitter night in Llanelli to seal top spot in Group A and ensure their place in Sunday’s title decider.
France also went unbeaten in their Autumn Nations Cup campaign, although Fabien Galthie’s side played one less game than their rivals. Fiji suffered complications after a number of COVID cases were discovered in their camp prior to the tournament starting, thus have been unable to play a game since, with each of their planned fixtures instead rewarding a default 28-0 victory to their opponents. As such, Les Blues had no first round fixture and instead launched into action in week two against Scotland in Group B. In a thrilling back and forth battle, French hooker Virimi Vakatawa scored the only try of the game as his side won and ended the Scots’ five match winning run with a score of 22-15. A much changed France side went on to crush Italy 36-5 in the third and final round to secure a shot at the title, scoring an impressive four tries in a second half blitz to top Group B.
Unfortunately for Les Blues, an agreement between France’s rugby federation and the top clubs in French rugby league means most of Galthie’s top players will be unavailable for the final on Sunday. The agreement limits players to just three international fixtures during the extended autumn test window, so first choice players including Antoine Dupont, Charles Ollivon and Virimi Vakatawa will be unable to compete. Instead, France will be relying upon their younger players to step up this weekend and take the game to a full-strength England side, with young stars such as Killian Geraci and flanker Sekou Macalou getting the chance to prove themselves on the big stage. The inclusion of former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards as part of Galthie’s staff will also give French fans hope, as the vocal 54 year old has brought assurance and depth to Les Blues’ defence this year. France will want to remain resolute at the back and catch England out with their youthful if unexperienced line-up if they hope to shock the Red and Whites on Sunday.
For Eddie Jones, the focus will undoubtedly be on rectifying the mistakes made in England’s last major final – the surprise 32-12 defeat to South Africa in the final of last year’s Rugby World Cup. England were also favourites going into that final, only to become undone by the Springboks on the day. Jones will be eager to banish the ghosts of that devastating defeat and lead the Six Nations champions to their second international trophy of the calendar year. To do so however, he will need to overcome the only side England have been defeated by this year, as Les Blues emerged victorious in Six Nations 2020’s Le Crunch with a score of 24-17. France have only ever beaten England twice in the same calendar year once back in 2007, and the odds certainly seem stacked against them going into the final, but this mouth-watering fixture looks like it could go either way if Galthie’s energetic young side bring their ‘A’-game on Sunday.
It’s all to play for then this weekend, and the other nations will be battling it out for an overall placement too. Ireland face Scotland to fight for 3rd place on Saturday, whilst Italy travel to Wales in the 5th/6th place play-off earlier that day. Should Fiji be clear of COVID, they will play their first match of the tournament against Georgia to settle 7th/8th place.
Tune in to the BurnFM Sport Show next Wednesday to hear the team’s reactions to all the weekend’s action!
By Jake Davies