In a parallel universe, England have just hosted New Zealand in front of more than 80,000 supporters in the showpiece match of their autumn campaign. The Rugby Football Union has profited by upwards of £10m and supporters are still talking about that missed tackle, that wonder try and that controversial TMO decision.
Back to reality and with the initial autumn fixtures long since called off, so begins the northern hemisphere’s attempt to mend and make do this weekend. Without doing a disservice to Georgia, who have undergone considerable upheaval recently, Saturday’s fixture at an empty Twickenham does not quicken the pulse in the same way.
That Wales – who on Sunday dispensed of the defence coach Byron Hayward, just six matches into the job – and Ireland are in the midst of transition hardly helps sell this inaugural one-off competition, nor does the absence of both Japan and South Africa. Organisers would not be blamed for hoping for an England-France final – the newly crowned Six Nations champions against the best side in the competition – but even that would come with caveats. Across their six autumn matches France can only pick a player for three as part of an agreement with their clubs. Even if they reach the final, star turns such as Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Vimi Vakatawa will not be available assuming they feature against Fiji this weekend as expected.
The hope is that the tournament format adds a layer of intrigue – perhaps even gives a glimpse into future autumns as discussions over the global calendar continue – as Amazon makes its first foray into the sport. That said, Owen Farrell’s endorsement was somewhat ho-hum. “In a tournament schedule, you want to be up there at the end,” the England captain said. “It does not really change much for us or add on or take off anything we would have done before. At the end it will be competing for a trophy and hopefully we will be up there.”
In England’s case, it may be fanciful to imagine Bill Sweeney having a word in Eddie Jones’s ear, telling of the need to put on a show against Georgia, but the head coach will be aware of the wider expectation. If England are forgiven for kicking so often against Italy with a Six Nations title on the line they will be granted no such leniency against Georgia. The desire to “put smiles on people’s faces” is beginning to be repeated ad nauseam but another performance like the one in Rome will be greeted by grimaces. “The most exciting thing is that we still have loads more left in us,” promised Farrell.
Jones has warned against expecting a side brimful of inexperience, reminding us his last experiment was nearly 40 years ago, but deploying nine forwards is hardly tried and tested. He was insistent he would not hand out confetti caps against Japan two years ago only to make 11 changes, but the lacklustre nature of England’s first-half performance that day ended one or two Test careers and could explain Jones’s caution at “experimenting” against Georgia.
There will be some changes – Anthony Watson is out injured – and it would be no surprise to see Jack Willis win a debut. He was not among the 23-man squad against Italy but given he was pictured with them in last weekend’s trophy presentation he was likely not far away from it. Another week in the camp will only strengthen his cause and, who knows, maybe we will see Ben Earl on the wing for 20 minutes or so.
Ultimately, England must strike a balance between a responsibility to entertain and a professional approach for an international Test match. Listen to the noises coming out of the camp and the latter should not be a problem. The former is less clearcut.
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