Jacob Whitehead looks ahead to the first weekend of autumn Tests in the northern hemisphere for 2020

Ireland back new faces against Italy

International rugby is back in the northern hemisphere! The next two weeks will see the Six Nations finally finished – a competition which began on the 1 February and will see its champion crowned on Halloween. There could have been babies conceived, born and picked as an apprentice by Eddie Jones in that timeframe.

And then it’s out with the old and in with the new as the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup kicks off, with Fiji and Georgia coming into the mix for four straight weeks of Tests.

This first weekend of rugby is a bit of a strange one, with one Six Nations fixture mingling with friendlies, but there’s still plenty to be looking forward to as Test rugby kicks off once again…

Ireland back new faces against Italy 

Ireland v Italy, 3.30pm, Saturday 24 October, Aviva Stadium, Live on ITV

Spring is usually the time to freshen up, but Andy Farrell resisted the temptation to make any wholesale changes from the Joe Schmidt era back in February. His first game in charge, a 19-12 win over Scotland, saw only the debuts of No 8 Caelan Doris, who was unfortunate to go off early with a head injury, and hooker Ronan Kelleher, who was a late introduction off the bench.

In contrast, Saturday afternoon’s Six Nations game against Italy in Dublin has seen a raft of players given a chance, with Leinster players in particular rewarded for rich provincial form.

Hugo Keenan, fresh from beating Beauden Barrett’s bronco during lockdown, starts on the left wing. A graduate of Ireland’s sevens programme, his pace is almost as impressive as his rugby nous – he reminds me of Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty.

Powerful openside Will Connors will make his debut alongside Doris and CJ Stander in a back row that is an impressive carrying unit.

Without wanting to get drawn into a debate on rugby’s residency rules, by far the most controversial selection decisions have taken place at half-back. Ulster’s John Cooney didn’t make Farrell’s squad for the autumn after a drop in provincial form. His replacement is Jamison Gibson-Park, who has represented the Maori All Blacks and is selected on the bench for this match ahead of Leinster team-mate Luke McGrath.

There are a couple of other interesting selections in the Irish team. Jacob Stockdale will fill in at full-back after Jordan Larmour’s injury, while Tadhg Beirne is given a chance to nail down the second-row berth alongside James Ryan. It would take a braver gambler than me to bet against Beirne staking his claims for the Lions in the coming games.

Finn Russell in untested waters 

Scotland v Georgia, 7.30pm, Friday 23 October, BT Murrayfield, Live on ITV4

Look back to February and the world seemed all so very different. Social distancing was something you did to avoid small talk at parties, Wasps were languishing in the bottom half of the Premiership table and Finn Russell wasn’t being considered for international selection.

Moving forward: Scotland coach Gregor Townsend with fly-half Finn Russell (Getty Images)

It’s a story we all know well – a fallout on the eve of the Six Nations between Russell and Gregor Townsend saw the fly-half sent home.

Yet Scotland still had an impressive start to the Six Nations. They lost to Ireland in a game they really could have won (how long ago does it seem since Stuart Hogg dropping the ball was a thing?!), and were only narrowly beaten by England in a pestilence of rain one week later.

A 17-0 beatdown of Italy followed, before Russell’s replacement, Adam Hastings, played brilliantly well in an impressive 28-17 win over leaders France. Second place in the championship is a real possibility.

Relationships often need space, and lockdown provided that breathing room for Townsend and Russell to get their partnership back on track, with the Racing stand-off returning to the squad for the autumn fixtures. But what will Scotland look like now?

We know from his time at Racing that Russell stars when he is the boss – a team he can quarterback, built in his image. Will he ever be able to have this level of control for Scotland again? And what about Hastings, who will surely not be content to roll over and lose the shirt, a man who Townsend will justifiably feel some loyalty towards after his Six Nations exploits?

Hastings has the start on Friday night against Georgia, with Russell on the bench. Can the Glasgow man hold off Russell’s challenge for the all-important Wales clash at the end of the month? Or could the pair be named in the same back-line at ten and 12, as discussed in the current issue of Rugby World magazine?

Curious Georgia

Scotland v Georgia, 7.30pm, Friday 23 October, BT Murrayfield, Live on ITV4

After every lopsided Italy loss comes the guttural call from certain corners to include Georgia in the Six Nations. They’re not quite there yet – but the next few weeks are their best chance to make it. Like a twirling ballerina, the spotlight is upon them – let’s hope for some style as well as scrummaging.

Remember, this is what Georgia have been asking for. With this warm-up against Scotland before four Autumn Nations Cup fixtures, they’ll be playing five top-tier nations in a row – a far cry from the odd International or a World Cup every four years.

Starter at ten: Tedo Abzhandadze on the attack for Georgia (Getty Images)

Coach Levan Maisashvili has said his team will treat the Murrayfield clash as a warm-up – the Lelos playing an experimental team, with only six players retained in the starting XV from their final World Cup match against Australia last year. They’ve also got some interesting new coaching appointments, with ex-Gloucester DoR David Humphreys joining as a high-performance consultant for the tournament.

Keep an eye out for fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze. He’s only 21, but is a player capable of some quite gorgeous touches – the Georgian Jalibert.

Which of France and Wales can kick their year back into gear? 

France v Wales, 8.10pm, Saturday 24 October, Stade de France, Live on ITV4 & S4C

Momentum is massive in sport. France had plenty of it in this Six Nations until a Mohamed Haouas punch, a loss to Scotland and an enforced seven-month break from rugby almost destroyed their best chance of a Six Nations title in a decade.

Back in: Vincent Rattez returns to the France line-up to face Wales (Getty Images)

Still, coach Fabien Galthié can call on an almost identical XV from the spring, with wing Vincent Rattez the only personnel change from France’s Six Nations game against Wales, coming in for centre Arthur Vincent, who moves to the bench – remarkable consistency after such a long break.

They will also come into the game against Wayne Pivac’s side with confidence, their 27-23 triumph over Wales in February arguably their most impressive performance since the 2011 World Cup.

Speaking of momentum, Wales are desperate for a little of their own. The Six Nations saw them slump to three successive defeats in games against Ireland, France and England, meaning next weekend’s game against Scotland is suddenly crucial if they want to avoid a fifth-place finish.

Some had thought Pivac may use the France game as an opportunity to experiment, but the former Scarlets boss has gone with experience – Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny all start.

Davies, who is back after a long-term knee injury, is forming a new centre pairing with Nick Tompkins, which is sure to excite Welsh fans.

The big news though? Louis Rees-Zammit is set to be given his first taste of Test rugby having been named on the bench. It’s a good thing this game isn’t under the roof in Cardiff – things might just get a little too hot with the Gloucester man’s searing speed.

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