The Autumn Nations Cup saved its best until last as England overcame France 22-19 in a dramatic sudden-death period of extra-time on Sunday, watched by a crowd of 2,000 spectators at Twickenham Stadium.
Having won the Six Nations back in October, Eddie Jones' side added another piece of silverware to their collection after captain Owen Farrell showed nerves of steel to kick the decisive penalty after more than an hour-and-a-half of rugby.
France did not take the trophy but they took so much more from the campaign, while for all the other teams there were plusses and minuses.
Here, we run a rule over how the teams fared with views from players and coaches in the respective camps.
England maintain winning habit… just
Having won the Six Nations by the tightest of margins, England opened their Autumn Nations Cup campaign with a routine 40-0 defeat of Georgia at Twickenham.
Supporters watching on from home got their first chance to watch Jack Willis in an England shirt, and the Wasps flanker repaid Eddie Jones’ faith with the opening try. “It is something I have dreamed of since I was a young lad. To get this opportunity is something I will always be grateful for,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live after the match.
The hosts ran in six tries in total in south-west London, as Jamie George became the first England hooker to score a hat-trick. “We are back here at Twickenham, missing the crowd massively, but we constantly try to push it with our set-piece so it was great to get over the line,” George said. “You can't give it the big one after maul tries! I was happy keeping it low key.”
Next up for England was Ireland, and it was Jonny May’s turn to make the headlines. The winger scored both of his side’s tries within four first-half minutes of the 18-7 victory, the second of which will live long in the memories of those who witnessed it.
May turned on the afterburners, running from deep inside his own 22 before chipping over Hugo Keenan and winning the race to the bouncing ball. “Everything happened really quickly, I can’t really remember it,” the Gloucester man admitted. “There are just so many feelings and emotions when you score a try for your country — it’s such a great feeling.”
England finished off their Group A campaign with a second win over Wales in 2020. The visitors recovered from an early Johnny Williams try in Llanelli as Henry Slade and Mako Vunipola both breached the Welsh goal line, and Owen Farrell kicked 14 points.
“We were expecting a proper challenge down here and it was," Player of the Match Sam Underhill told BBC Radio 5 Live. “We can be pretty happy with our performance. Wales are still a quality team. They have got good ball-carriers and serious pace on the outside.”
Owen Farrell had missed three kicks in Llanelli, and he endured another errant afternoon with the boot as an inexperienced France side built a 19-12 lead in the final with time running out. But, in the last minute at Twickenham, Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed the whitewash and Farrell converted to send the match to sudden-death extra-time.
Farrell hit the post with another kick in the opening period of extra time, but it was ultimately his penalty that secured a 22-19 victory, and the Autumn Nations Cup crown for England. “It was quite dramatic but very glad to come out with the win,” Player of the Match Billy Vunipola said. “I think there’s a lot to work on, but the great lesson to come out of today is that we can keep grinding and get the win.”
France maintain form while testing depth
France coach Fabien Galthié hoped to use the Autumn Nations Cup to build on the team’s impressive Six Nations campaign as Les Bleus continued their journey towards “becoming a major rugby nation again”.
Galthié had to juggle his squad due to pre-agreed selection criteria, but the cancellation of the team’s opening Group B match against Fiji, due to a coronavirus outbreak in their opponents’ camp, enabled him to pick an experienced team against Scotland.
France subsequently avenged the 28-17 defeat they suffered at Murrayfield just eight months earlier, as Virimi Vakatawa’s try helped secure a 22-15 victory. It was France’s first win in Edinburgh since 2014.
It was all-change in the France camp for the visit of Italy, as Baptiste Serin captained a youthful team. “Obviously it's an honour and a proud moment. It's a role I enjoy. But I'm not getting too worked up about it," he said in the build-up to the match.
France paid tribute to the late Christophe Dominici at the Stade de France, as the home players took to the field with ‘Domi’ written on their sleeve. On the pitch, Les Bleus set up a final-day showdown with England as five separate players touched down in a 36-5 win.
Fly-half Matthieu Jalibert immediately turned his attention to facing England playmaker Owen Farrell at Twickenham. “He's a player who inspires me a lot. He's one of the best fly-halves in the world,” he said.
“I've already been lucky to come up against him in this year's Six Nations. It's always a great opportunity and a pleasure to face world class players.”
For the majority of the final at Twickenham, Jalibert had the better of that contest. He converted Brice Dulin’s first-half try, and added two penalties as France headed into the break with a 13-6 lead. Louis Carbonel replaced Jalibert in the final quarter and converted a brace of penalties to ensure Les Bleus held a 19-12 advantage with time running out.
But, England eventually breached the Shaun Edwards-coached French defence in the final minute, to send the match to extra-time. The scores remained level at half-time of extra time, as Owen Farrell struck an upright, but it was the England captain who had the final say to edge the hosts to the title.
The Lowe-down on Ireland
For an Ireland team in transition, there are still just as many questions as answers after Andy Farrell’s first year in charge of the team.
#TeamOfUs— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) November 13, 2020
"It's a very proud moment, that's for sure. It means the world." 👊 💚
An emotional @JamesLowe_03 reflects on his Ireland debut as Andy Farrell's side opened the #GuinnessSeries with a win ⤵️#ShoulderToShoulder #AutumnNationsCup #IREvWAL pic.twitter.com/HxoAJpHjIg
But the Autumn Nations Cup has given Farrell the chance to take a look at some new players, the former defence coach handing out 11 debuts in his nine tests in charge in 2020. James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park both caught the eye on occasions and will no doubt play a part in his future plans, as will Caelen Doris, a real force of nature throughout.
One thing that has stayed constant between the Joe Schmidt and Farrell eras though is the side’s ability to make the Aviva Stadium a fortress. Autumn Nations Cup wins over Wales (32-9) and Georgia (23-10) made it 20 wins from 21 matches there over a four-year period.
However, neither victory was particularly convincing, especially the game against Georgia, where handling errors and the concession of too many turnovers prevented them opening the Lelos up on a dry, crisp Dublin day otherwise conducive to running rugby. Ireland only registered just three second-half points and Farrell’s damning verdict afterwards was “not good enough”.
In Ireland’s only away match, they tried to fight fire with fire up front, but came off second best to England at Twickenham. But at least Jacob Stockdale scored his second try in as many tests to suggest he might be coming out of the doldrums and making some kind of return to the form that made him the standout player in the Six Nations Championship 2018.
Scotland always promised to mount the most serious threat to Ireland’s proud home record in the third-place play-off. And scrum-half Conor Murray acknowledged the challenge facing Ireland. “To go out, right the wrongs from last weekend and put it up to the Scots.”
For the first 30 minutes, it was the Scots who took it to Ireland to lead 9-6. But Ireland showed a clinical side that had been lacking previously when Duncan Taylor was sent to the sin-bin. Keith Earls, now a clear second in Ireland’s all-time try-scoring list, scored either side of a Cian Healy try, as Ireland rattled off 19 unanswered points before eventually closing out a 31-16 win.
“Work in progress,” was Farrell’s final assessment of his team at the end of a bruising four weeks of rugby.
Improving Scotland still a work in progress
Scotland began the Autumn Nations Cup in a confident mood, on a four-match winning run and with the meanest defence in the Six Nations 2020. Victory against Wales in Llanelli on the final day of the Championship had come at a cost, though, with fly-halves Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both sidelined through injury.
Duncan Weir, and his money-raising hair, started in the number 10 jersey against Italy in Florence, his first test start in more than four-and-a-half years. Scotland coach Gregor Townsend urged the Worcester Warrior “to be connected to the forwards, to be an option out the back and step up as first receiver, to be alive to where space is in the defence”.
"Just a tongue in cheek light-hearted bit of fun is going a long way"@duncan_weir is growing his hair to raise money for @AcornsHospice 👏— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 12, 2020
More information 👉 https://t.co/qseBUKIXzs pic.twitter.com/7wogZX4bP5
Weir didn’t have much chance to showcase his attacking skills as the hosts built an 11-7 half-time lead. Duhan van der Merwe had scored Scotland’s opening try, and he would play a big role in the second, scored by Zander Fagerson, and even joined the driving maul for George Turner’s fourth.
“He’s a great runner isn’t he?” Sam Johnson said about Van der Merwe following Scotland’s 28-17 victory. “He’s a big, fast, physical man, so it’ll be key for myself or anyone around him to just give him the ball and allow him to pin his ears back, which he did really well [against Italy].”
Eight days later, at Murrayfield, Scotland’s longest winning run since 2011 came to an end as the sole try of the match, scored by Virimi Vakatawa, secured a first win in Edinburgh since 2014 for France. The hosts did pick up a losing bonus-point, and Weir insisted his side were not too far away.
“I don’t think it was a reality check,” he said. “It was a one-score defeat, and the game could have swung either way. I think we did a lot of good things. Our game management was really good at times and it is now just about picking up the little details to take into the finals weekend.”
The coronavirus outbreak in the Fiji squad ensured that Scotland’s players were made to wait to put those lessons into practice. And, against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday the team started in promising fashion, debutant fly-half Jaco van der Walt converting three first-half penalties to leave his side within two points as the teams turned around.
But, despite Duhan van der Merwe’s second-half try, which Van der Walt converted, Scotland struggled to contain their hosts after the break as Ireland secured a 31-16 victory. "I thought the first 35 minutes was some of the best rugby we've played all year," Townsend said.
“Yes, you want to see that long-term development and see the team improving, but you come here to win games, and we went from a position where we felt we could kick on and win that game to one where the game went away from us.”
Back-row stock brightens Wayne’s world with Wales
While one of the positives of Wales’ otherwise largely disappointing campaign was the emergence of young back-row talent like Shane Lewis-Hughes and James Botham, it was left to two of the team’s old stagers at the back of the pack, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, to spare them a poor finish.
Wales started the year as they finished it, with victory over Italy, but Saturday’s 38-18 win in the fifth-place final was nothing like the 42-0 victory against the Azzurri in the Six Nations back in February that gave Wayne Pivac a winning start to his reign in charge of the team.
"It's nice to play with Faletau. He did all the hard work and just made me look good..." 😂— S4C Chwaraeon 🏴 (@S4Cchwaraeon) December 5, 2020
Ymateb Justin Tipuric i'r fuddugoliaeth heno! 🏴
38 🏴 v 🇮🇹 18
💻 https://t.co/NZ3mbXJs0H#AutumnNationsCup @WelshRugbyUnion pic.twitter.com/AFebQbgo1k
Having come back from 14-0 to lead 19-16 early in the second half, Italy threatened a first win over Wales in 13 years. But the industry of Tipuric and Faletua, and no little skill, gave Pivac some breathing space as he reflects on a challenging first year.
A 32-9 defeat to Ireland in the opening round Wales were on a run of six straight defeats and knew they had to break the cycle when Georgia visited Llanelli in their next match. Former captain Sam Warburton called it a ‘must-win’ fixture, one that they would have to grind out if necessary.
Pivac resisted the temptation to stick with his tried and trusted campaigners, handing first test starts to Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit and debuts to scrum-half Kieran Hardy and James Botham, the grandson of cricket legend Sir Ian Botham.
“Words can’t describe the feeling, it’s a dream come true; I’ve been wanting this moment since the day I first got a rugby ball in my hand,” said Botham, aheda of becoming cap number 1161.
It wasn’t pretty and was never going to be in terrible conditions, but Wales got the job done against Georgia, securing that elusive first win since February with a try in each half from Rees-Zammit and veteran scrum-half Rhys Webb. Sheedy also impressed and kicked eight points in an 18-0 win that helped to safeguard Wales’ position in the top 10 of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings.
An early charge-down try from Johnny Williams, another debutant against the Lelos, gave Wales the perfect start against England but the visitors came back to run out deserved 24-13 winners in round three.
With 14 consecutive wins against Italy behind them, Wales faced the unusual position of going into the fifth-place play-off as favourites. And that tag looked fully justified as Kieran Hardy and Sam Parry opened their international accounts as Wales raced into a 14-0 lead.
However, Wales' frailties resurfaced and Italy sensed a famous victory could be theirs for the taking when they scored through Marco Zanon and Johan Meyer. But Wales regained their composure, and when Gareth Davies became the second scrum-half in red to score in the 57th minute they never looked back. Tries from George North and Tipuric sealed a 38-18 victory.
Italy’s winless run stretches on
Italy were still looking for their first win under coach Franco Smith as their Autumn Nations Cup campaign got underway with the visit of Scotland to Florence.
The Azzurri recovered well from conceding the first try of the match and led 11-7 at half-time thanks to a sublime Matteo Minozzi score. The hosts were unable to hold onto that lead in the second half, however, as Scotland scored three tries to wrap up a 28-17 win.
“Winning is a habit but so is losing,” Braam Steyn told RugbyPass five days later. “We have to break that habit now. We are playing good rugby and creating good opportunities but we don’t grab them, we are almost shy at times. A big focus point is making teams pay when we create those opportunities, being more ruthless.”
Steyn and his team-mates had plenty of time to work on the training pitch as their match against Fiji was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak in their opponents’ camp. However, when they returned to action against France, on an emotionally-charged night in Paris, they suffered a seventh successive defeat under Smith.
Good news ahead of the final encounter with Wales, in Llanelli, arrived in the shape of a newborn baby. Azzurri flanker Maxime Mbandà, who volunteered on the frontline of Italy’s fight against the pandemic and launched an appeal for blood plasma after his parents were hospitalised, welcomed his first child, Mata Leone.
Stephen Varney made his Azzurri debut as a replacement against Scotland and was handed his first start against Wales, the country of his birth. "It will be emotional but that's natural because I grew up in Wales," Welsh speaker Varney said.
"I made the decision myself and have no regrets. I chose to play for Italy so that's where my loyalties lie now. I have got to think of the game like any other. I just want to do my best and make my family proud.”
Varney and Italy fell 14-0 behind early on in Llanelli but recovered well, and when Johan Meyer crossed for his side’s second try early in the second half, the Azzurri led 18-17. Italy were unable to stay in front for long, however, and conceded three tries in the final 22 minutes to lose 38-18, the team’s ninth successive defeat.
Fiji and Nadolo make up for lost time
Finally given the green light to take part in the Autumn Nations Cup, Fiji reminded the rugby world what it had been missing in the seventh-place final against Georgia.
In an entertaining display that defied the terrible conditions at Murrayfield on Saturday, the Pacific Islanders won 38-24 in their only outing of the competition.
Nemani Nadolo scored a hat-trick in a fairytale comeback from international retirement that rewarded his patience and that of his team-mates while they were stuck in isolation in a hotel just outside Saint-Étienne in France for weeks on end.
All three of Fiji’s pool matches had been cancelled and awarded as 28-0 wins to their opponents after an outbreak of coronavirus in the camp that accounted for 22 players and seven management staff.
It was Nadolo, though, who offered the first glimmer of hope, via a tweet, that all was well again in the Fiji camp and they would get the last hurrah they were so desperate for.
“We're excited to play our brand of rugby and hopefully put a smile on the faces of people. Our new coaching staff want to give us the licence to express ourselves and that really excites us,” he said on the verge of his 30th cap," Nadolo said.
For Nadolo, it had been an especially long wait. The goal-kicking winger had not played for Fiji since June 2018 until he stepped out onto the field against Georgia.
Thank you for the Kind messages and the negative ones can’t forget them lol. The boys dug deep and despite the weather we were able to display Fiji rugby. I hope we made our people proud today. What an experience we’ve had this tour. Much love Vinaka ❤️ #ForEverFiji 🇫🇯— nemzy (@nemani_nadolo) December 5, 2020
The 32-year-old had kept himself busy in the meantime, though, publishing a series of isolation work-out videos as well as practicing his kicking in the hotel grounds.
But it was his prolific finishing ability, not his kicking, that was on display on a cold and wet Edinburgh afternoon. Nadolo squeezed over in the corner with barely 60 seconds on the clock to give his side a dream start and then added two more tries to equal Vereniki Goneva’s all-time try-scoring record for Fiji.
Georgia make their point
Georgia went into the Autumn Nations Cup craving an opportunity for more games against top-level opposition. And inside the space of the month, they have played four teams ranked in the top 12 of the World Rugby Men’s Rankings and will be all the better for the experience.
A lacklustre start was understandable given the lack of pre-tournament preparation. Georgia’s first test against England outside of a Rugby World Cup, and their first at Twickenham, ended in a 40-0 defeat.
The Lelos were kept scoreless in their second outing against Wales in Llanelli, but there were signs of improvement in the 18-0 defeat in the wind and the rain at Parc y Scarlets. And, in Beka Gorgadze, they had the best player on the pitch.
While resolute in the tackle, there had been few signs of an upturn in their attacking game until the 16th minute of the Ireland match when centre Giorgi Kveseladze – who was later voted the player of round three – finished off a superb try to finally break their point-scoring drought.
Even so, Ireland led 20-7 at the break and an upset never looked on the cards. But Georgia can take great heart from the way they stayed in the game, ‘drawing’ the second half 3-3 despite losing Gorgadze to a nasty-looking knee injury on the hour mark.
“Even though we played better in attack and defence, we still missed a few opportunities to score more points,” captain Merab Sharikadze reflected, after another tough-tackling shift in midfield.
So to Murrayfield and a fourth meeting with Fiji. Fiji had won easily (45-10) when the sides met at RWC 2019, but without a game for well over a year and weather more suited to eastern Europe than the Pacific, the seventh-place play-off at Murrayfield promised to be a more level playing field.
Such thoughts looked misplaced as Fiji scored three tries inside the first quarter to lead 19-3, but the Lelos dug deep, again. For the first time since March, they managed three tries themselves in a battling 38-24 defeat.