Jacob Whitehead assesses the big talking points ahead of a busy weekend of international rugby
George North selection at centre points to puzzled thinking and other Test talking points
We’ve reached the end of another calendar year of international rugby – a year like no other in the global game. How long ago does it feel since France blew England away in the first half at the Stade de France? Or that Stuart Hogg’s name was a punchline for dropping the ball?
We’ll be straight back into the action in two months for the 2021 Six Nations – but there is silverware and bragging rights to be sealed first. First the Tri-Nations concludes and then the Autumn Nations Cup reaches its finale – and the European teams have finally been joined by Fiji!
So, with five games to be played this weekend, what should we be looking out for?
Wallabies look to take positives from up-and-down campaign
Australia v Argentina, 8.45am, Saturday 5 December, Sydney, Live on Sky Sports
If you’re Dave Rennie, looking back on this campaign must be more of a head-scratcher than a nits outbreak at a primary school.
Australia’s performances have gone from the abject to the amazing to the average, as a heavy loss against New Zealand was avenged sensationally a week later, before an error-strewn 15-15 draw against Argentina in their most recent game.
It’s meant that Australia can still win the title, but their chances are slimmer than a snake’s back – they need to beat Argentina by 101 points to take the crown! They’ve only scored a century once – and their opponents that day were Namibia.
However, Rennie has been experimenting to find his first-choice squad, picking 33 players during this championship, so to only lose the trophy on points difference would still represent a major step forward.
It feels odd to call any side with Jordan Petaia in it experienced, but Rennie has picked a veteran group, starting James O’Connor at fly-half on his return from injury. This means Reece Hodge will shuffle to full-back.
It sometimes feels as if Hodge has played more positions than he’s had hot dinners and he’ll now join Mat Rogers as the most flexible back in international history – the two having played every position except scrum-half, each taking only four years to achieve the feat.
Finally time for Fiji
Georgia v Fiji, midday, Saturday 5 December, Edinburgh, Live on Amazon Prime (UK) & Premier Sports (RoI)
Fiji’s long overdue entrance to the competition on Saturday will be Vern Cotter’s first game in charge of Fiji, the highly respected New Zealander taking over from John McKee after last year’s World Cup. He impressed when in charge of Scotland and now has possibly the most naturally gifted talent pool in the world at his disposal, so the future of Fijian rugby looks brighter than the Suva midday sun.
They’re up against Georgia in the seventh-place play-off, with the Lelos having impressed in holding Ireland to only 23 points last Sunday.
We all know about the Fijian ball-carriers – a back-line with Nemani Nadolo, Levani Botia, Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova is absolutely terrifying. It’ll be like whack-a-mole on the collarbones of opposition tacklers.
However, great sides need control and experience from their half-backs – and so the influence of scrum-half Frank Lomani will be vital going forwards.
He is an absolute livewire, a man with the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe on acid, whose penchant for the spectacular belies a rapidly developing sense of game management – his box-kicking is excellent. Whether he needs to use it on Saturday is another question entirely – but 80 minutes against Georgia is a chance to shine.
Perhaps the Fijian nine with the best all-round game since Mosese Rauluni and Isimeli Batibasaga, the Rebels playmaker reportedly turned down a move to Wasps a season ago and has reaped the rewards of spending time backing up Will Genia to now start for the Melbourne franchise.
It was a shame we didn’t get to see him up against Antoine Dupont at the start of the championship, but he’ll still get his first chance to strut his stuff on the European stage this weekend.
AUTUMN NATIONS CUP PREVIEWS
Autumn Nations Cup Georgia v Fiji Preview Georgia…
Autumn Nations Cup Ireland v Scotland Preview Criticism…
Two teams in need for a pre-Christmas lift
Not all doom and gloom for Ireland
Ireland v Scotland, 2.15pm, Saturday 5 December, Dublin, Live on Amazon Prime (UK) & RTE (RoI)
Listen to some observers and you’d think Irish rugby was in freefall. But let us look at the basic facts – they comfortably beat Wales, lost by 11 to the best English side in more than a decade and recorded an ugly win over a fired-up Georgia with some second-choice players.
Andy Farrell has the roots in place and has done a good job integrating some younger players into the side – Caelan Doris and Will Connors have been two of Ireland’s more impressive performers. If Ireland win this game against a rising Scotland, they’ll finish third – which, based on the Six Nations and the respective profiles of their teams – will seem about right.
For me, this game will come down to two key questions. The first is how Jamie Ritchie, shorn of partner Hamish Watson, can cope with the Irish back row.
The Edinburgh flanker has been in sensational form for the past 18 months, but Ireland have picked a heavyweight trio to oppose him in the shape of Doris, Peter O’Mahony, and CJ Stander. It gives you some clue as to how they’ll play – close, physical and aggressive. There will be breakdowns galore – how Ireland shackle Ritchie will be key.
The second question lies at fly-half, with Gregor Townsend giving a debut to Ritchie’s Edinburgh team-mate Jaco van der Walt. Territory is the name of the game against Ireland, with Johnny Sexton one of the best tens in the world at getting his team in the right areas.
Townsend has talked up his ten’s hard-hitting defence, but true success for van der Walt will be us not having to see it in action too closely on Saturday afternoon.
Also keep an eye out for Huw Jones, currently plying his trade at full-back, who has dropped out of favour in recent months, but will make his first appearance of the autumn off the bench. On his day, what a player to watch.
George North selection at centre points to puzzled thinking
Wales v Italy, 4.45pm, Saturday 5 December, Llanelli, Live on Amazon Prime (UK), Premier Sports (RoI) & S4C
I started off this column by remarking how long ago it seems like some things in 2020 occurred. Another example is Nick Tompkins’s international debut, with the Dragons née Saracens centre coming off the bench against Italy.
It feels like years ago since Tompkins burst through the Italian defence with his trademark running style that is somehow both fleet-footed and bustling. He’d help set-up Justin Tipuric’s wonder try against England a few weeks later and his future in the Welsh midfield was rosier than an August sunset.
Yet Wayne Pivac has returned to George North at 13 for this weekend’s rematch against Italy, which seems odd. It’s never been his favoured position for Wales and one wonders if it might have been a better idea to give Tompkins more experience at international level in a game that is relatively meaningless.
Pivac has spoken about selection being ‘a balancing act’, but it’s been hard to see a Welsh identity emerging throughout the autumn, after some encouraging attacking signs during the Six Nations. Choosing North here feels slightly like looking back rather than forwards to 2023, to what might have been rather than what might be.
On the future of Welsh rugby, watch out for 19-year-old Ioan Lloyd off the bench – the Bristol back did this on Saturday against Worcester. No pressure backing that up!
Yoram Moefana given a baptism of fire
England v France, 2pm, Sunday 6 September, Twickenham, Live on Amazon Prime (UK) & Premier Sports (RoI)
It’s unfortunate that the showpiece final of the Autumn Nations Cup will be affected by the Top 14 player availability deal, but France coach Fabien Galthie can be very proud of the performance of his young charges in their 36-5 win over Italy.
Gabin Villiere hit the line at the speed of light to score a scorcher and Teddy Thomas’s try (and wink) was, well, phwoarrr. But possibly the most important individual performance was that of Jonathan Danty, whose raw power scored the crucial first-half try.
With last week’s outside-centre Jean-Pascal Barraque on the treatment table, Danty will form a new midfield pairing with Yoram Moefana, who is only 20 – last week against Italy he became the first player born in the 2000s to be capped by France.
Lining up opposite Moefana will be Owen Farrell and Henry Slade – what a combination to make your first Test start against, in a final no less! The Bordeaux centre may have won an U20 World Cup but this is the biggest match of his career so far.
He may lack a little experience, but one area where Moefana does not suffer is leg strength – he possesses two absolute tree trunks and the explosive step to match. I have a special place in my heart for backs who don’t step around players, but instead step into them – and hope to make a little room in there for Moefana this weekend.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.