Mon, 18 Jan 2021

The inaugural Autumn Nations Cup finishes with England facing fellow pool winners France in a Twickenham final on Sunday in front of 2 000 spectators - the first time since the coronavirus pandemic that fans have been let into the ground.

We look at some of the key issues heading into the tournament's concluding playoff matches:

'Le Crunch' loses its bite?

A final between Six Nations champions England and France, the only team to beat them this year, should be a cause for huge excitement yet it's generating fears of a mismatch.

Following a threat of legal action by the French Top 14 clubs, unhappy at the lack of consultation over the revised calendar created in response to the pandemic, it was agreed their France stars could feature on three match sheets during the six Tests that now constitute les Bleus' end-of-year schedule.

France started the international window with a warm-up win over Wales, a week before the Covid-interrupted Six Nations resumed.

Of the matchday 23 that day, only flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert, an unused replacement, survives among a talented but youthful 31-man squad for the game at Twickenham.

Nevertheless, England coach Eddie Jones, who saw his side beaten 24-17 by France in Paris in February in their first match since their World Cup final loss to South Africa, said: "The French have always got a tough forward pack so we are going to have beat them up, up front.

"They were too good for us on that day (in February)."

Meanwhile, France coach Fabien Galthie said of an experienced England that they were "possibly the best team in the world right now because South Africa aren't playing".

The last time, however, there were so many fears for France's chances at Twickenham was a 1999 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand where, with Christophe Dominici - who died aged 48 last week - scoring one of their tries, they overturned a 14-point deficit to beat the All Blacks 43-31.

Ireland-Scotland intrigue

Saturday sees old rivals Ireland and Scotland contesting the third place play-off in Dublin, with the Irish looking for a morale-boosting win after several lacklustre displays since Andy Farrell succeeded Joe Schmidt as head coach following the World Cup.

Farrell has recalled Johnny Sexton after the flyhalf missed an 18-7 defeat by England and last week's scrappy 23-10 win over Georgia with a hamstring strain.

"Johnny coming back is a big boost for the lads," said Farrell.

An improving Scotland will be bidding for a first win on Irish soil in 10 years after losing 19-1 in Dublin during the Six Nations.

Wales worries

Wales head into their match with Italy having lost seven of their nine Tests under coach Wayne Pivac and even a thumping win is unlikely to ease the pressure on the New Zealander.

George North, normally a wing, is in midfield after his last Wales start in the centres came during a 42-0 thrashing of Italy in February.

Wales' problems at the scrum are reflected in Pivac's decision to select a brand new front row following a 24-13 defeat by England.

"From the outset we wanted this campaign to be about giving players opportunity and we have done that," said Pivac.

Australia-born wing 'Monty' Ioane, the nephew of former Wallaby Digby Ioane, makes his Test debut for Italy, with Wales-born Stephen Varney their scrumhalf.

Fiji feature at last

Fiji make a long-awaited tournament debut after coronavirus - the reason for the tournament's existence after major southern hemisphere nations cancelled their European tours amid the pandemic - wiped out all of their pool matches.

They will be up against a Georgia team whose gutsy showing against Ireland demonstrated the value of second-tier nations being exposed to a run of games against top-class opposition.

Source: News24

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