England clinch victory through a tense sudden death battle against France

With the group stages finished, Matthew Childs summarises the spectacular finals of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, which saw a sudden death showdown to decide the winner.

Final – London – England vs France

Score: 22 – 19

The final of the Autumn Nations Cup was expected to be a dominant match by England, but France were not going down without a fight and proved they wanted to win just as much as England did.

French rugby regulations meant that their first string players were unable to get international leave from their clubs, forcing them to field what seemed to be a third if not fourth string team of inexperienced players. This considered, the squad showed that they were just as capable as the first team in giving England a challenge for the title.

France had a very defensive structure to the game which was executed almost perfectly. Their defensive coach Sean Edwards (ex Wales defensive coach) has done an excellent job at making France a defensive force with huge collisions and the ability to disable any attack that comes barrelling towards them.

Handling errors from France put England in a position to show the strength of their scrum. England’s pack dominated the scrum at the start of the match and allowed them to win vital penalties due to a lack of discipline in the French front row. These were both kicked by Owen Farrell but only one of them was successful.

France soon showed that their ‘inexperienced’ side was not to be underestimated. A superb running line put fly-half Matthieu Jalibert breaking through England’s defence. Jalibert then made a great offload allowing Brice Dulin to score in his first game for France since 2013. At this point France looked dangerous and were ensuring that England were unable to progress up the pitch to create any chances.

The inexperiance of the French squad caused them to concede another penalty, this time kicked by Elliot Daly. France lost a lot of the ball they had due to discipline errors, poor handling or expert jackeling from Maro Itoje and Tom Curry. These two players have worked hard all tournament to cause upset to all the teams that they faced. They were able again to steal valuable ball and allow England to dominate the breakdown.

England’s game plan has been clear since the start of the tournament. They like to kick the ball and make other teams come to them or wait until they make mistakes, and nothing changed in the final. This is how the game of rugby has changed significantly. Teams are more willing to have a game of kicking tennis as teams are playing to win.

England showed the strength of their set piece to place themselves five metres outside the French try line. This is where the quality of the French defence was shown as France were able to hold off collision after collision for 12 phases before eventually England made a mistake. That run of play summed up the strength of the French squad. Any team can defend well, but it takes sheer passion and determination to stop a formidable team from scoring over a long period of time like France did then.

England ended the first half trailing France by a converted try (seven points), an unusual position for them. Only three times in the last 24 matches, including the World Cup Final, have they been losing at half time – they lost all three.

The hosts started the second half with no more passion than they had shown in the first. Some of England’s most reliable players, including last week’s man of the match Sam Underhill, played poorly, leading to them being substituted early on in the second half. This seemed to work in England’s favour as a continuation of poor discipline from France and good pressure from England led to the visitors conceding another penalty, which was kicked by Farrell.

Again the second half saw a lot of kicking tennis between the teams before France eventually made a mistake to allow England another penalty. This time, however, Farrell missed his kick. With only four minutes left, France replied quickly with a penalty kick from Louis Carbonel to ensure that England had to score a converted try to get back into the game.

It seemed like England were out of the match, but a well worked driving maul allowed Luke Cowen-Dickie to drive over the line and score a try. Farrell converted to progress the game into extra time.

France had conceded over double the amount of penalties during the match compared to England. If Farrell had been more accurate with his kicking and had capitalised on the amount of penalties that France conceded, then England could have comfortably won the match without having to go into extra time.

With the game in sudden death, the first team to score any points would be crowned champions. With both teams already playing 80 minutes, exhaustion was high, so the game reverted to a game of kicking tennis to see which team made a mistake first. French discipline errors continued into extra time and allowed England the opportunity to win the game from a penalty kick from Farrell. He had been hit and miss until then with his kicks and that form continued when he hit the post and missed the chance to win the match.

The game was not yet over.

The first half of extra time went back and forth with no side able to score any points. Farrell eventually got another kicking opportunity in the dying minutes of extra time and this time he made sure of it, making England the first team to win the Autumn Nations Cup.

3rd place final – Dublin – Ireland vs Scotland

Score: 31 – 16

With Johnny Sexton back in the line up, Ireland made sure that the flaws they showed last week against Georgia had been ironed out to ensure they secured third place in the tournament.

Scotland had conceded the most penalties per match in the tournament and nothing changed during this match. In the opening stages, Scotland managed to play their own game. Ireland like to have a high pressure defence, but Scotland seemed to have it under control. Ireland conceded a a few lacklustre penalties at the start of the match, which were capitalised on by debutante Jaco van der Walt, who scored three penalty kicks in the first half.

The Irish set piece, notably the scrum, was weak last week against Georgia and this continued. In this first half Ireland played poorly, which allowed Scotland to score several penalties. On the flip side, Scotland were not much better, also conceding too many penalties to put them on the back foot. This eventually led to inside centre Duncan Taylor getting yellow carded and Sexton closed the gap between the two sides with a penalty kick.

This seemed to be the turning point for Ireland to battle a spirited Scottish side. A beautiful chipped kick from Sexton floated the ball into the Scottish try zone and was eventually grounded by Keith Earles after the Scottish players were unable to clean up the loose ball. Ireland at this point showed that a very strong scrum and pressure in defence had allowed them to take control of the game. This then eventually led to Ireland’s second try by Cian Healy in the opening minutes of the second half.

With the momentum of the game in the hands of the Irish, they were again rewarded by Earles getting his second try, which made him the second highest try scorer for Ireland after Brian O’Driscoll.

Although Scotland did not have much of the ball in the second half, with what they did have, they showed shape, threat and determination to attack the Irish defence and gain territory. Ultimately Ireland’s defence was very strong, but Duhan van der Merwe, the star winger for Scotland, was still able to weave his way through the Irish line and get a well deserved try, but it was too little too late for Scotland.

The visitors conceded too many penalties not only during this game, but through the whole tournament. This is an area which needs fixing before next year’s Six Nations to give them a fighting chance at challenging for the title. Ireland, however, made up for an unworthy performance last week to ensure that they finished in third place. Ireland always looked dangerous in attack, but what they were lacking is star players. Yes, they have star players in their squad, but after these players retire, there are no young stars coming into the game to fill their spots.

5th place final – LLanelli – Wales vs Italy

Score: 38 – 18

Wales are playing with a squad made up of new players with experienced ones. It is clear to see that Wayne Pivac wants to bleed in players in the hopes of building a very strong team in the future. This lineup worked well against Italy, but Wales seemed to be unfocused and this led to a lot of disciplinary errors. This lost them valuable territory and allowed Italy to put up a fight and score unnecessary points.

One key improvement in this match for Wales was their ability to hold onto possession and create some great passages of play from fast ball from the breakdowns. Wales scored first in the match, a good running line from Justin Tipuric breaking him through the Italian defence and an easy 2-on-1 pass put scrum half Kieran Hardy through for his first international try.

Wales continued their strong running and managed to work their way into the Italian 22. After a few phases of pick and goes, hooker Sam Parry was finally able to tumble his way over the try line to score Wales’ second try of the match and also his first international try.

Wales in the first part of the match were able to keep Italy out of the game due to their pressure in defence and having more possession, meaning that Italy were unable to make any progress into the match. Poor Welsh discipline soon came back to haunt them as they conceded two more penalties. One of them was kicked by the young Italian fly half Paolo Garbisi and the other led to a lineout deep in the Welsh half. The lineout was collected well by Italy and a strong drive into a more central position on the pitch allowed Marco Zanon to collect a grubber kick and run his way over the try line to score Italy’s first try of the match.

Welsh winger Josh Adams got a yellow card in the closing stages of the first half, which put Italy in a great position to score some more points. Italy started the second half as they left off and with Wales still down to 14 men, Johan Meyer was able to score a try for Italy putting them in the lead for the first time in the match.

Wales soon came back into the game and made sure that they finished the tournament on a positive. Gareth Davis and George North both scored tries to make sure that they won the match. At this point Wales showed they had ironed out their errors and became confident as a squad again. Callum Sheedy was flawless with his kicking all match and was also a huge asset in the Welsh attack. He delivered a perfectly timed pass to put Tipuric through for the final try of the match. The back row partnership between Tipuric and Faletau was outstanding throughout. Although Tipuruc got a try, Faletau made a lot of huge runs and defended extremely well, which for his efforts, rewarded him with Man of the Match.

7th Place final – Edinburgh – Georgia vs Fiji

Score: 24 – 38

With Fiji finally able to play their first match in the tournament with enough players free from Covid, they knew that they had to make it worthwhile. Within the first three minutes Fiji showed their talent with a try from Nemani Nadolo. Nadolo came back from retirement for the Autumn Nations Cup and it is clear to see why.

Fiji are renowned for being a strong team and this put the Georgian strength to the test. Georgia were not expecting such a strong start from Fiji and this put them under heavy pressure, which led to a lot of handling errors. This gave Fiji strong positioning inside the Georgian half and a powerful scrum led to the second try by Johnny Dyer in the sixth minute. At this point it seemed as if Fiji were going to completely dominate the whole game.

The one thing that stood out in the Fiji squad was their jackeling at every breakdown. This won them a lot of turnovers or penalties, but ultimately prevented Georgia from making any forward momentum. Georgia simply did not know how to break down the Fijian defensive and in turn this meant that Fiji were able to steal the ball and put Josua Tuisova through to score Fiji’s third try. The flying Fijians were off to a flying start.

Georgia soon made their way back into the game and managed to score a try before halftime. Although they went into halftime behind, they regathered and came out fighting after the break. Georgia made significant improvements to prevent Fiji from getting an even bigger lead and learnt how to break through the strong Fijian defence and work their way into the Fijian 22. Georgia have got a very strong scrum and this is what they used to secure good ball and move forwards up the pitch.

Fiji again continued their exceptional breakdown skills in the second half. This is where the game came to life. Fiji used their size and power to give Nadolo a hat-trick of tries and earn him Man of the Match. Georgia however, did not go down without a fight. Two tries scored by flanker Beka Saghinadze showed the heart of the Georgian players to come back from 38-10 to 38-24.

Although Georgia lost, they have made significant improvements since their first match of the tournament. At the start of the tournament they did not know how to attack the opposition, but now they have great running lines to break through the defence and they act well under pressure to ensure that they score points to challenge some of the best tier one nations. Before this tournament, Georgia barely played any matches against tier one nations. This tournament showed that playing better teams allowed them to constantly improve as a squad which makes for good competition.

Fiji played an amazing game and it is a shame that we have been unable to see them play any other games during this tournament. Based on this performance, they may have caused a lot of problems for some of the other teams in the tournament and potentially finished a lot higher in the table.

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