Five takeaways from the Autumn Nations Cup round

Adam Kyriacou

The second round of the Autumn Nations Cup is over across Europe and here’s five things we learned from the series of international games.

Congestion charge

Rugby has become congested. The space available to players in midfield meant that, this past weekend, only seven passes between 12 and 13 were seen in three rather attritional games of rugby.

The modern blitz defence has removed much thought of attacking ambition off phase play rugby at international level and in each fixture in round two of the Autumn Nations Cup, the side with the least possession in the game emerged victorious. England overcame Ireland without difficulty based upon a 32% possession statistic, remarkable considering at no point did they look like losing. In the three games, six tries were scored only, two from ‘no-pass’ kicking moves, and in those games, there were 19 attempts at lineout enabled rolling mauls within the 22 of the opposition.

Rugby coaches are intelligent folk, by and large. If the stats tell them they’re better playing without the ball, or kicking for territory rather than running for space, then they’ll do so. It is, after all, their neck on the line.

With rugby fighting for eyeballs, something needs to be done urgently to open up attacking opportunity for teams. Whether that be asking touch judges and TMOs to officiate the offside line in midfield or whether it’s a more fundamental law change, something needs to be done to catalyse attacking ambition because right now, rugby is becoming over reliant on defence and error management and if this continues, the floating supporters might just start swimming away.

French depth

Whilst the Home Unions may be in a little bit of disarray, France appear to be going from strength to strength as they carved out a gritty victory in Edinburgh, gaining revenge for the Scots ending their Grand Slam hopes back in March.

The most pleasing aspect for Fabien Galthie and his coaches will be the way France saw out a close victory away from home, something that has often been the downfall of even the best French team.

But away from that, five changes in the pack and two in the back division showed that France, like England, have a depth of quality in their squad that other nations can only dream of. On the flank, the enormous Dylan Cretin performed admirably in the role that France call the ‘le grattoir’ (the fetcher), and, with an average height in their back-row of 6’5 and a half, (1.98m) they fielded the tallest starting trio in the history of Test rugby.

With Matthieu Jalibert showing a range of kicking skills at 10 – that contrast well with the style of Romain Ntamack – and Camille Chat putting in a ferocious display of abrasion at hooker, France are looking odds-on certs to challenge when they host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. Their depth is impressive, their organisation is precise, but above all, they’re starting to win on the road, a worrying sign for the rest of the rugby world.

State of the Unions

If you picked a British & Irish Lions side right here, right now, based upon form, then the simple question you’d ask is how many players from Scotland, Ireland and Wales would get near to the current England side? The answer would be ‘not very many’ and the only two certainties that we can think of would be Liam Williams and Stuart Hogg in the back three.

Yes, you could also argue that those three sides are in different phases of a rebuilding programme, but the paucity of high-quality players coming through the ranks of those nations is palpable. Wales and Ireland appear to have grown old together and look shadows of their former selves in recent years. Scotland are showing some signs of improvement and are sweating every qualification asset they have, to the point that Gregor Townsend is rumoured in danger of crashing the Scottish National Records Office website in his search for compliant birth certificates and residency visas.

But here’s the thing – a British & Irish Lions team relies upon a blend of culture and experience; the fusing of four international identities into one coherent vision. So, whilst the raw numbers suggest that England may have 20 or 25 players on the tour, the reality is the Lions need diversity to perform and survive and when Warren Gatland names his team in April, character and personality will be as important as performance in his selectorial thoughts.

Fiji’s fever

The saddest part of the Autumn Nations Cup is that we’ve yet to see Fiji fire a shot in anger. Covid-19 has decimated their camp, with 29 positive tests, and the running and handling style they’d have brought to the tournament would have been a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the turgid, defence-based rugby we’ve seen thus far in the competition.

Whether or not it’s fair to award the customary 28-0 victory to their hosts in each game Fiji are unable to fulfil is a moot point. Considering the combined governments of virtually every country in the world are unable to cope with Covid-19, it seems churlish to penalise them for something that is very much out of their own control.

Maro

On Saturday, Maro Itoje put in an individual display of flawless, intense and brilliant forward play. His presence on the field was all-enveloping and his influence was absolutely huge. All afternoon, his deep and polite voice could be heard gently keeping referee Pascal Gauzere on side and his leadership of an England pack was one done both by personal example and by inspiring words.

Whilst not the biggest lock (6’5″ and 110kg) his athleticism in the lineout destroyed Ireland’s set-piece possession as he performed a roving stealing role on the visitors’ throw. At maul defence, his ability to pressure the half-back pass or kick meant Ireland never got an inch of go forward, despite 68% of the possession on the day, and his 23 tackles are a number that a world class openside would be proud of.

Eddie Jones continues to hang his hat on the peg of Owen Farrell’s leadership but surely it’s only a matter of time that Itoje, the one player certain of selection for either England or the British & Irish Lions, takes the captain’s armband off his fellow Saracen.

Right now, Itoje is the best player in the world. This time next year, he’ll probably be the best leader in the world too.

by James While