For all kinds of reasons it is time to see what England can do with the handbrake off. Eddie Jones keeps emphasising the need to maximise traditional red rose strengths of forward power and tough defence but his squad possess sufficient talent to aspire to something more ambitious. If Ollie Lawrence, Jack Willis, Ben Earl and Ollie Thorley are being earmarked for 2023 World Cup duty, why not invite them to run free against Georgia on Saturday? The 2020 Six Nations champions must also identify their best full-back but should have enough to reach the final of this new tournament as well.
For years Georgia have dreamed of joining the Six Nations. Now, suddenly, they have a chance to show what they could bring to the party. Successive games against England, Wales and Ireland will be tough: what a shame they cannot, for now, face those sides in front of a passionate home crowd in Tbilisi. Their scrum should be as competitive as ever and they have a decent pair of young half-backs in Vasil Lobzhanidze and Tedo Abzhandadze, while plenty is also expected of the 20-year-old centre Demur Tapladze. Defeat Italy in the probable finals game at Murrayfield and it will be mission accomplished.
This is also a timely opportunity for Ireland to remember Test rugby does not have to be a grim-faced, risk-averse exercise. While James Lowe is not the greatest player to emerge from New Zealand, the newly eligible wing’s infectious enthusiasm is exactly what Andy Farrell needs as his side seek to start afresh after their disappointing second-half display against France last Saturday week. If they perform as averagely at Twickenham as they did in February, it will also fail to reflect adequately the talents of Caelan Doris, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, all of whom should tour with the British & Irish Lions next year.
Five defeats on the trot and the abrupt departure of Byron Hayward as defence coach has left some questions. There was always likely to be a period of adjustment after the departure of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards but it feels a long time since Wales were involved in the 2019 World Cup semi-finals. Look a bit closer, too, and several key totems are either ageing – Taulupe Faletau turns 30 on Thursday – or less effective than they once were. Playing at Parc y Scarlets did not greatly inspire the team against Scotland; start slowly in Dublin on Friday and it could be a long month.
Shortage of preparation time, as ever, has not greatly helped Fiji’s latest coach, Vern Cotter. Imagine, though, if a mix of Cotter’s rugby nous and extravagant natural talent combines to create the kind of stirring performance when they led Australia 21-12 after 46 minutes of their World Cup pool game in Japan. With the great Semi Radradra available to create midfield havoc, Fiji arguably hold the key to whether Amazon Prime’s investment will be remembered with a wide smile or merely a shrug. The return of Leicester’s Nemani Nadalo boosts the odds on the former.
If anyone should be pawing at the turf desperate to play it is France, perhaps the side on the steepest upward graph in 2020. Sadly, selection will be a tricky task for Fabien Galthié, whose players are permitted to feature in only three games this autumn. Assuming Antoine Dupont, the recently crowned Six Nations player of the year, Romain Ntamack, Virimi Vakatawa and others are available to play some part, however, it is not hard to see them topping Group B. Whoever plays, Shaun Edwards will settle for nothing less than total commitment.
For those minded to look, the depth of Italian rugby is quietly improving. It is not translating into results as yet but some promising players are emerging. Expect to see a lot more of their 20-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi, while no opponent can afford to take Gloucester’s rampaging Jake Polledri lightly. If, however, their attack fails to spark in Florence and Ancona – the venues for their opening fixtures against Scotland and Fiji – they will not much fancy a showdown with Georgia.
Would have been worth a small wager to top Group B had it not been for injuries to their main fly-halves, Finn Russell and Adam Hastings. That said, Duncan Weir will be itching to prove a point and defensively Scotland are now harder nuts to crack. The number of South African accents in the dressing room is increasing and so is the
solidity of the pack, with flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie an increasingly impressive double act. Another team who may respond positively to having relatively little to lose.