Our panel run the rule over new Autumn Nations Cup


ugby’s new Autumn Nations Cup kicks-off in Dublin on Friday night and Standard Sport has assembled a panel of experts to preview the competition. 

Our quartet is made up of former players from four of the leading contenders: ex-France flanker Serge Betsen, England international David Flatman, Ireland and Lions back Shane Horgan and former Scotland scrum-half Rory Lawson. 

What do you make of this new tournament?

SB: It’s just great to have a tournament in what are unprecedented times. Sport is so important for society and people rely on their teams. Whatever happens in the tournament, that is great news.

SH: I’m dying for it to get started! I missed high-level sport so much this year during that long period without rugby. We are all being restricted in so many ways personally and in our day-to-day movement and sport has such a positive impact on our lives. I enjoyed having the Six Nations back, and that feels like a curtain-raiser for this. Rugby is in need of innovation, and this feels a good format.

DF: I’m a big fan because the format is nice and simple. Every game counts straight away, there are some teams we don’t see as much of and the final weekend should be fun. The Six Nations whetted the appetite and I can’t wait for more.

RL: The broken nature of the Six Nations would have felt a bit hollow if we had just that one round back, so it’s great to have more. There’s silverware up for grabs and every team is at an intriguing stage of their development.

How do you assess your own nation right now?

DF: People said France were the best team in the Six Nations, but England were the ones who got to lift a trophy, put it in a cabinet and drink bubbly. They are in a stronger position than anyone else. There is always a lot of focus on England because they have a very high profile, very vocal and charismatic head coach. They are in a great position and I’m glad to see youngsters like Jack Willis and Ollie Lawrence given a chance this week.

( Eddie Jones watches his England players in training / POOL/AFP via Getty Images )

SB: I’m optimistic. It’s a great time to be a France fan. There are so many promising players. Antoine Dupont was deservedly player of the Six Nations. This is the most talented group in a long time, and there is more to come from them yet because the system is strong. In a couple of years, they will be competing to be the best in the world.

RL: Scotland have made a lot of progress this year, fuelled by the disappointment of the World Cup. Gregor Townsend has shifted the strategy. He will learn about his squad depth but I am confident Duncan Weir will step up at No10, where there are injury problems, because the system is so solid.

Scotland should undoubtedly be looking to win the competition. Their opener in Florence is their only away game, and their best performance of the Six Nations came against France at Murrayfield. They have won their last four games, and should be looking to win their next four, too.

SH: I’m glad Ireland have made changes for tonight’s opener against Wales, who are also questioning themselves a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing whether the introduction of James Lowe will see a philosophical change in how they play, with more offloading, and whether Jamison Gibson-Park can bring greater tempo at No9.

Which team or player are you looking forward to watching from another nation?

RL: I spent some time with Vern Cotter recently and got to speak first hand with him about the challenges Fiji face. He is a fantastic man to have at the helm for a big challenge in the four-year cycle to the next World Cup. He has so much talent at his disposal, but knows Fiji must get fit so they compete for 80 minutes, and he wants to find a spine of kickers in the team, so they can get in strong positions to unleash the likes of Nemani Nadolo. Everyone gets so excited when you talk about Fiji — they have that razzle-dazzle we all just crave. It’ll be great to watch them.

SH: Antoine Dupont is everything I look for in a rugby player and is the beating heart of this new French side. He might be the best player in the world at the moment. He ticks every box — high tempo, sophisticated thinking, is very physical, does the basics well, but also reacts quickest when the game gets unpredictable.

( Getty Images )

DF: I am very interested to see how Wales respond to the pressure they are clearly under. There is great potential under Wayne Pivac, whose Scarlets team I really admired. I’d love to see them give Louis Rees-Zammit good game-time.

SB: I’m in a WhatsApp group with a load of ex-Wasps players and we talk a lot about the current generation, so I am really excited about Jack Willis, who is an amazing player — an incredible ball-carrier, jackaler and tackler. We are proud of how Wasps are doing now, the individual players and I hope he, Jacob Umaga and Dan Robson get a chance with England.Okay. 

Who will contest the final, and who wins the whole thing?

SB: England and France, who will win it. Simple.

SH: Yeah, England and France are favourites, but who is left standing will be important, too. I fancy England would have a little bit too much for France.

DF: I’m trying not to say England-France, because that’s so unoriginal. I’m intrigued by France — is their resurgence the real deal? I think it is, because the spine of that team is so strong. But discipline cost them again in the Six Nations. Mohamed Haouas chinned Jamie Ritchie and the title was gone. Not getting lads sent off for chinning people helps win titles! If they can avoid the indiscipline, they will start going places.

RL: The biggest game of the pools is in the second week at Murrayfield. Scotland v France will decide Group B and set up a final with England. Group A has home advantage on finals weekend, which is key.

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