England's Autumn Nations Cup glory

By Stuart Barnes - Former England Rugby Union Player and now Sky Sports Commentator, December 7, 2020

Stuart Barnes

To England the Autumn Nations Cup and the glory...well, hardly glory. There is no point putting our collective English heads in the sand. It wasn't pretty. Nor impressive. The only team bar England anywhere near the top of the world game at the moment is France and they fielded a cross between a second and third team in the final...and drew in the regulation eighty minutes. Eddie Jones and his boys won the tournament but not our hearts.

Some patriots don't care. Winning suffices. There are others who fear England will not beat the best (or the mediocre away from Twickenham) without improvement. It's time for a balanced view of what was achieved and what was not, a slant that acknowledges both positive and negative.

The most exciting moment of the tournament, from an English perspective, has to be the length of the field solo score from Jonny May. Given space he is world class. He also scored with a perfectly timed running catch earlier in that game against Ireland. All too fleeting but a reminder of England's potential firepower.

Other tournament positives include the consistency of flankers, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. They'll have to maintain standards because Ben Earls added excellence from the bench against France while Jack Willis crossed for his first test try against Georgia. Big Billy was pure dynamite in the final. England have immense back row options.

That is the broad and positive view. Let's look at the quality of the three performances on an individual basis. England were 41 point favourites against Georgia. They won by 40. In theory this performance was par for the course on a dreadful day, weather wise.

The memorable story line was Jamie George's hat trick. It epitomised the power and organisation of the England pack. Georgia, however, were not the force of old, despite Eddie painting a somewhat deceptive picture. England's pack laid the foundations but the attacking game didn't show up. The weather in the second half was a legitimate excuse but the concerns were creeping – like a wintry shadow – over HQ.

One week later, England beat Ireland 18-7. Ireland's try was late, almost a consolation. Again, England were too strong up front but, bar the magical May interventions, England didn't turn this superiority into points on the scoreboard. The excess of punting against Georgia continued against Andy Farrell's men.

In Llanelli, England took their time to take the lead against an out of form Wales but there was never any doubt about the result. Another bruising display and win was the positive take. The more concerned (I won't call it negative because there's a critical desire for England to improve by addressing weaknesses) witnessed another game where what little passing there was, simply wasn't very accurate. The law of the boot again prevailed.

And finally France in the final. The primary positive is that England won and lifted the trophy. The truth however is that the game was technically a draw after eighty minutes. Pre game, George Ford had described the modern day rugby ball as a `ticking time bomb' in the test arena. Sure enough he, Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs kicked the vast majority of possession away. France showed that flair and imagination was possible with young fly half, Matthieu Jalibert the catalyst a wary England lacked.

Still, Twickenham hasn't had too many sudden death extra times and this one brought with it a rare excitement. England got the breaks with refereeing interpretation and a Farrell penalty in the second half of extra time won his team the tournament. It had been another flawed performance from England but another trophy goes into the trophy cabinet. The rugby nation seems divided between the need to keep winning and the requirement to develop their game for greater future challenges and, well, just a little more excitement. Eddie, it is, after all, a game, not a matter of life and death.

France were the runners up but the growth of their squad will be more than consolation for Fabien Galthie. France were allowed to play their squad a maximum of three games this autumn. It was only against Scotland we saw them at full strength (and they were not that impressive). Forced to field youngsters, they walk away from the final with gathering strength in depth. Jalibert and Brice Dulin – not a large man but a towering presence at full back – had fine autumns.

On the first weekend France had been due to face Fiji but a covid outbreak in the Islanders squad ruled them out until the final Saturday of the competition. Their opponents, Georgia, had made steady, if unspectacular progress, but Fijian flair saw them romp to victory, despite not having played together since the World Cup. Nemani Nadolo's hat trick brought a smile to the eyes of neutrals and, doubtless, fans of Leicester Tigers where he now patrols the flanks.

Ireland beat Scotland in the 3rd and 4th play off game. The 31-16 result was a dent in what has been a steady rise in Scottish fortunes. Yet with victories in Wales and Italy the competition represented progress (although Scotland must seek quicker phase possession if they are to ignite a potentially dangerous back three).

Ireland are a little ahead of Italy, Wales and Scotland but a fair way behind England and France. Farrell lacks the ballast up front. He might have to take a few more risks behind the scrum if Ireland are to test the Big Two in the forthcoming Six Nations.

As for Wales, it was a horrible tournament. It ended in West Wales on a winning note against Italy but it was anything but convincing. Taulupe Faletau did rediscover some form and Justin Tipuric is an outstanding flanker but confidence is low. The same can be said for an Italian side who found themselves half backs in Welsh born Stephen Varny and Gabrisi. They represent a glint of light for the immediate Italian future.

Italy improve but cannot win. England keep winning but need to improve. The story of the Autumn Nations Cup.

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