England will start their Autumn Nations Cup campaign against Georgia next Saturday without the wing Anthony Watson, whose ankle injury is only expected to keep him out for a week, but Elliot Daly, Joe Marler and George Ford are back in training.
Asked whether Georgia, the Six Nations aspirants who are taking part because Japan pulled out, provided an opportunity to give players outside his top 23 a run at Twickenham, Eddie Jones said: “Everyone has to earn their spot. We are picking players for Test rugby, not giving out caps willy-nilly. One of the most fascinating parts of the job is to see how newcomers adapt to training with us. Some are growing and some are shrinking.”
The England head coach revealed he was considering using the game to experiment tactically, pointing out that when he was in charge of Japan he once picked nine forwards against Georgia. “Tradition said eight forwards and sevens backs, but there is no reason why we cannot look at that,” he said.
“Barcelona won the Champions League with a false nine and there is no reason why you could not have a false 10 or wing in rugby. We have to keep looking for an edge to become the team we want to be and maybe the Georgia game gives us the opportunity to play a different way.”
The Autumn Nations Cup starts on Friday when Ireland host Wales in Dublin and offers a glimpse of the future. As unions look at ways of recovering from the impact of the pandemic, free-to-air television will become a casualty with the profile of the game less of a priority than the need to make up for a loss of income.
Next year’s Six Nations may be the last international event in Europe for a while to be aired for free. Amazon Prime Video, which last season drove its subscriptions in the UK to a record level after broadcasting a couple of rounds of football’s Premier League, is using the autumn to see if international rugby union stimulates sales.
The Autumn Nations Cup does not have the appeal of the Six Nations, even though all the countries are involved. Amazon will show 13 of the 16 matches exclusively. Ireland’s two home matches – the other is against Georgia at the end of the month – will be on Channel 4 due to a pre-existing contract and the two broadcasters will share the Twickenham encounter between England and Ireland.
One pool contains the teams who have won the past 11 Six Nations – England, Ireland and Wales – and the other pits a resurgent France against Scotland, who they face at Murrayfield, Italy and Fiji, whose preparations have been disrupted by an outbreak of Covid-19. Fear of the virus, which forced two clubs, Leicester and the Dragons, to suspend operations this week, will haunt the organisers, who cannot afford rebates to broadcasters.
Six Nations organisers would like Amazon to become part of a bidding war for the TV rights to the championship from 2022, along with Sky and BT, and Premiership Rugby is looking for a dedicated channel as part of its next broadcasting deal from next season. There could be a price to pay because neither tournament places heavy emphasis on entertainment, unlike the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby, trusting in the power of tradition to offset a thick law book.
The pandemic will test tradition but one question is whether the collective approach of the Six Nations and the Premiership, where income is shared around equally and augmented by merit money, will survive at a time of desperation.
The opening match between Ireland and Wales involves the two countries who have been England’s main rivals for the past 10 years, but France are on the up. France and England defeated Wales and Ireland in this year’s Six Nations. The last time that happened was in 2002 and with Ireland and Wales under new management, Friday night carries more significance than a normal autumn opener. The loser would need to beat England to retain a chance of finishing at the top of the table.