Jacob Whitehead looks ahead to a busy weekend of international rugby

Jack Willis to make England debut – and other Test talking points

The last time the home nations had a new competition to play in was with the advent of the Six Nations back in 2000. Twenty years later and they’re facing off in the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup, alongside France, Italy, Fiji and Georgia.

While it has taken far too long for the big boys to let the latter two join them in the play area, it’s better late than never. Georgia have an exciting first fixture against England while it’s a real shame Fiji’s meeting with France has been cancelled.

Lockdown may have hit the UK, but boredom won’t be a problem this weekend. Friday evening rugby? We’ve got it. Saturday morning rugby? That too. Saturday afternoon rugby? Present and correct.

So, with three Autumn Nations Cup fixtures and a bonus breakfast of New Zealand v Argentina, what should we keep our eyes out for this weekend?

Misfiring attack meets struggling defence

Ireland v Wales, 7pm, Friday 13 November, Aviva Stadium, Live on Channel 4 & RTE

Shaun Edwards coached the Wales defence for 11 years. Byron Hayward coached the Wales defence for 11 months.

Losing run: Wayne Pivac’s Wales team have lost five straight games (Getty Images)

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac relieved Hayward of his duties last weekend, his long-time assistant departing after the team’s five consecutive losses. Despite this, it was still a surprise call – Hayward’s Wales have conceded fewer points than Edwards’s France this year.

Nevertheless, Pivac has clearly made the area his main priority, having already dropped George North and Nick Tompkins after lacklustre performances against France three weeks ago. All eyes will be on his defensive unit now.

But Pivac may count his blessings that his group are up against an Ireland attack that has been under fire, with their ageing half-backs under the microscope. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton’s play was criticised against France on Halloween despite a creditable attacking performance, with Sexton attracting more ire for his very public dismay at being taken off.

Head coach Andy Farrell has rung the changes. Murray has been replaced by Leinster’s Jamison Gibson Park at nine, with another recently qualified player in James Lowe making his Ireland debut.

Massive changes to both the Irish attack and the Welsh defence; whichever adapts quickest will win.

In-form Juan Imhoff returns for the Pumas 

New Zealand v Argentina, 6.10am, Saturday 14 November, Bankwest Stadium, Live on Sky Sports

Argentina haven’t played a game for 13 months, last seen exiting the World Cup in the group stages last October. It’ll be some welcome back for the match-rusty Pumas in the Tri-Nations – they’re facing an All Blacks side, who, if they weren’t warm enough after four Tests in five weeks, will have a fire in their bellies after last weekend’s 24-22 loss to the Wallabies.

Try time: Juan Imhoff scores for Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup (Getty Images)

Most of Argentina’s players represent the Jaguares in Super Rugby, but the franchise was excluded from the various competitions that replaced the tournament due to coronavirus, meaning most of their squad haven’t played a competitive fixture since March. With that in mind, predicting their starting XV was no small feat.

It’s a story of something old and something new for the Pumas, with Juan Imhoff, possibly the in-form winger in Europe, recalled to the side at the age of 32. The thinking man’s winger, a player so cerebral you wonder if he’d be better suited to chess, Imhoff was last seen dancing down the flank for Argentina back in the 2015 Rugby World Cup – where Irish fans will well remember his quality at international level…

Inside him at centre will be a debutant, Santiago Chocobares, only 21 years old. Touted as a player as delicious as his name, the Rosario-born youngster has only made five appearances for the Jaguares but is being trusted by coach Mario Ledesma to face up opposite Jack Goodhue as the lynchpin of the Argentina midfield.

His carries pack a punch – watch him rip a Georgian XV to shreds below in a performance more reminiscent of Kyle Sinckler than Kyle Eastmond.


Power and panache on the Scottish wings 

Italy v Scotland, 12.45pm, Saturday 14 November, Stadio Artemio Franchi, Live on Amazon Prime (UK) and Premier Sports (Republic of Ireland)

As much as I wanted to talk about Duncan Weir and his hairdo, I’ve spoken about Scotland fly-halves a lot recently, so, alas, will need to find a new topic.

Onto new things, and one man’s misery is another man’s fortune. Sean Maitland’s exclusion from Gregor Townsend’s initial training squad, due to his misdemeanours on Barbarians duty, have opened up a space on the Scottish wing and Duhan van der Merwe has walked straight through the door.

Van der Merwe plays rugby like an Olympic sprinter with horns, tilted forwards at 45 degrees each time he accelerates. The prospect of tackling him seems about as appealing as a six-month spell in Wormwood Scrubs. The reigning Pro14 Player of the Season, van der Merwe marked his debut against Georgia with a try and has clearly done enough in training to keep his high-class clubmate Blair Kinghorn out of the team.

His power complements the pirouetting feet of Darcy Graham, whose excellent scoring record of seven tries in ten starts isn’t even the most impressive part of his game – the diminutive wing has proved himself a formidable defender of late.

Double up: Darcy Graham scored two tries against Georgia last month (Getty Images)

It’s that time of the rugby calendar when every week sees us predicting potential Lions selections – when was the last time you could get decent odds on every member of a Scottish back three making the squad?

Jack Willis to make England debut

England v Georgia, 3pm, Saturday 14 November, Twickenham, Live on Amazon Prime (UK) and Premier Sports (Republic of Ireland)

Jack Willis to make England debut

On the ball: Jack Willis in action for Wasps (Getty Images)

Eddie Jones teased the prospect of selecting a forward in the back-line (not as radical as it seems given the existence of Levani Botia) but has ultimately given us an England starting XV exciting enough that we can easily forget those mind games.

In an era when we talk of players being promoted to Test rugby too soon, I can’t remember a player who has made their first appearance for England having dominated domestic rugby in a manner akin to Jack Willis.

The Gallagher Premiership Player of the Season, a man with body position so good that a second career as a ballerina beckons, Willis’s debut has been as hotly anticipated as the coronavirus vaccine.

This first appearance is two years overdue, with the Wasps flanker prevented from touring South Africa back in 2018 after a serious knee injury in that season’s Premiership semi-final. In the intervening period he’s been down in the mire with Wasps and dragged them back out again, playing like a 30-year-old veteran rather than a 23-year-old academy graduate.

Choosing a back row from England’s current selection is like selecting blindfold from a box of Heroes – pick any three, it can’t go wrong. Jones has elected to throw ruck-hitting machine Maro Itoje into the mix at blindside to combat Georgia’s expected physicality, which will hopefully free up Willis to choose his battles. I don’t think he’ll lose many.

First cap: Ollie Lawrence made his England debut against Italy in October (Getty Images)

He’s managed to overshadow the first start of 21-year-old Ollie Lawrence, perhaps the most exciting English prospect at centre since a young Manu Tuilagi burst onto the scene just under a decade ago.

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