This is my wrap of all the recent European rugby union action.
France 36, Italy 5 An experimental France team scored a comfortable win against an Italian side that tired visibly and ran out of ideas in a lop-sided second half. Italy started brightly with a well taken try by Carlo Canna off the back of a clever try assist from half Paolo Garbisi.
However, as the game went on, Italy engaged copious volumes of aimless kicking, as they seemed to lack inventiveness and spark. Excellent back rowers Jake Polledri and Sebastian Negri missed the game and Italy sorely missed their ball carrying and work around the breakdown.
France coach Fabien Galthie handed out no less than five Test debuts in his run-on side plus another six debuts off the bench to mark an incredible 11 newly capped players for France.
Among the rookies, winger Gabin Villiere scored a magnificent scything solo try and the freshly minted French second row acquitted themselves well. Brice Dulin was excellent on his Test return as was Teddy Thomas and bulldozing centre and Jonathan Danty. With this, France made the Autumn Nations Cup grand final.
England 24, Wales 13 Wales produced their best performance since the resumption of Test matches in October, however a spirited and determined performance wasn’t enough the overcome an experienced and combative England team. The Wales scrum struggled against the England pack, though on a couple of occasions they managed dismantle England’s rolling maul.
Wales also acquitted themselves well around the breakdown. England’s punishing and aggressive defence was on show again but referee Romain Poite kept a closer eye on the offside line, penalising England a couple of times for straying offside.
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Lloyd Williams had a competent game at scrumhalf for Wales, but as Wales’ fourth scrumhalf in as many matches, coach Wayne Pivac may be unsure whom his first-choice scrumhalf is. New centre Johnny Williams was excellent and scored a well taken solo try. For England, Mako Vunipola was at his rampaging best and there were excellent performances from number eight Billy Vunipola and all-action flanker Sam Underhill.
Ireland 23, Georgia 10 Ireland produced a particularly underwhelming performance against a valiant and committed Georgia. Ireland played with all the cohesion of a team that first met each other in the pub the day before. Yet Ireland have been in camp together since mid-October and this was their fifth game in as many weeks.
Georgia, on the other hand, tackled like their lives depended on it and were aggressive and determined around the breakdown. Ireland had 80 per cent of possession in a dour second half yet could not manage a solitary try. Georgia won ten turnovers and bested Ireland in the scrum. Much of the fault must lie at the feet of coach Andy Farrell.
Picking journeyman Finlay Bealham at loosehead prop was a blunder. Bill Burns is a good club half, but just doesn’t have the skills or game management to succeed at this level. The Ireland back row was poor, with an out-of-sorts Tadhg Beirne subbed on the hour mark and number eight CJ Stander deluded into thinking he could barge his way through the Georgian defence single handed. To quote an Irish pundit, it’s been the “autumn of discontent”.
Game of the week Wales versus England.
Play of the week Giorgi Kveseladze’s wonderful try against Ireland.
Seventh place final: Fiji 38, Georgia 24 This may have been the wooden spoon playoff, it may have been pouring rain for most of the first half, and it may have been Fiji’s first Test in over a year, but Georgia and Fiji managed to score nine tries between them in the most entertaining game of the Autumn Nations Cup so far.
It’s disappointing that Fiji managed just the one game in the competition, such are the running rugby riches in their back line and a rugby philosophy grounded in passion and skill.
Josua Tuisova was unstoppable on the right wing and former Randwick and Manly flyer Nemani Nadolo grabbed a hat trick. Ben Volavola produced some fine touches from half and Fiji have some promising young forwards including second row Temo Mayanavanua and Bay of Plenty prop Haereiti Hetet. Georgia laboured away manfully, managing to come back from 36-10 with 17 minutes to go, to finish the game with a more respectable scoreline. Their back row shone, with good work from Otar Giorgadze and Beka Saghinadze, who scored twice.
Fifth place final: Wales 38, Italy 18 Wales managed a convincing win in a highly entertaining game against Italy. Italy were the better team each side of halftime, on the back of excellent tries by centre Marco Zanon and rampaging flanker Johan Meyer. Zanon is fast becoming the mainstay of the Italian three-quarter line, forging a creative partnership with converted half Carlo Canna. Rookie fullback Jacopo Trulla was excellent in place of the absent Matteo Minozzi.
Wales came home with a wet sail, scoring three tries in the last quarter as replacement scrumhalf Gareth Davies added pace and invention to the Wales attack. After an underwhelming Six Nations, number eight Taulupe Faletau gave a man-of-the-match display. It was great to see him back to his barnstorming best. As if to continue the theme, George North excelled at outside centre as did the peerless Justin Tipuric.
Wales conceded a dozen penalties, mainly at the breakdown, and the lineout misfired sporadically. This will be of concern to coach Wayne Pivac, but there us much to like in Wales’ expansive style and attacking intent as Pivac’s coaching template takes shape.
Third place final: Ireland 31, Scotland 16 This was an odd game. Scotland dominated the first half hour only for Ireland to go up a gear between the 30th and 50th minutes of the game when Ireland turned around the scoreline from 6-9 down to 25-9 ahead. Much of what Ireland did well emanated from the back row, where young dog Caelan Doris got Ireland on the front foot and old dog Peter O’Mahony barked, snarled and fought through every collision and for every scrap of possession. Two-try winger Keith Earls passed Tommy Bowe’s record to become Ireland’s second highest try scorer and Robbie Henshaw was among the pick of the Ireland backs.
Though Scotland dominated in attack, they managed only a solitary try, which was an opportunist effort by giant winger Duhan van der Merwe. Scotland, normally excellent at the breakdown, conceded four turnovers and 15 penalties as Ireland out enthused them. Their back row lacked impact and specialist fetcher Heath Watson was sorely missed. Scotland will surely feel that this was one that got away.
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Grand final: England 22, France 19 The wet, desolate Twickenham gloom of earlier games gave way to clear skies and sunshine, plus the exciting bonus of 2000 spectators. Stadiums are meant to be occupied on game day and this surely lifted the mood with just a little atmosphere and real crowd volume.
France fielded an experimental side for the second week running due to Top 14 club commitments, and they started strongly with a well taken try by full back Brice Dulin to lead 13-6 at the halftime. England came back strongly, dominating territory and possession, but found scoring difficult, indeed waiting until the last 30 seconds of normal time to score their only try of the game, then wrapping up the task with an Owen Farrell penalty in extra time.
For the neutral there was much to like about the depleted France team that battled manfully and with a little luck they should have won the game, as referee Andrew Brace missed a Billy Vunipola knock on with seconds left on the clock.
England finishing strongly, but it was their fitness, cohesion and capacity to dominate collisions that ultimately won them the game. Owen Farrell was shaky from the tee, missing four penalty attempts, and Billy Vunipola collected another man-of-the-match award. France will be back at Twickenham in March 2021 and will feel they have a score to settle.
Game of the week Wales versus Italy.
Play of the week Keith Earls’ brilliant second try against Scotland, his 32nd in an Ireland jersey.
What have we learnt? The finals thankfully brought some entertaining rugby with Fiji playing manfully after such a difficult autumn and Wales showing their attacking intent with five tries against a good Italian side. Wales still have issues to sort out. Who is their best scrumhalf is one question. Who will replace Alun Wyn Jones is another, as is how they fix a scrum and lineout that struggles against better teams.
On the plus side, a return to form by Taulupe Faletau is a huge boost and centre Johnny Williams should make the Wales 12 shirt his own for the foreseeable future. It was good to see Ireland find some fight and passion with a performance that will give some encouragement to long-suffering Ireland rugby fans.
It was great to see Ireland prop Eric O’Sullivan excel on debut. O’Sullivan’s pathway to Test rugby was via the Irish amateur club leagues rather than the professional academy system, an encouragement hopefully to those young players who miss out on academy contract at age grade level.
England had the skills and the players for this competition. They were peerless in defence, powerful around the breakdown and dynamic in the collisions. But when forced to chase a game, they found scoring difficult and for France this was the one that got away.
Amazon Prime splashed £20 million (A$35m) for the broadcast rights and must surely wonder if it was money well spent. Many games were turgid, defence dominated, marred by aimless kicking and a with a dire shortage of creative flair. These issues are a part of rugby’s wider malaise but were telegraphed over four competition weekends that challenged the attention and patience of rugby’s hardiest supporters.