5 things we learned from the weekend’s Autumn Nations Cup action

England and France will contest the final of the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham on Sunday after the rivals posted big wins in the final round of group matches. Here the PA news agency examines five things we learned from Saturday’s action.

Limping over the line

The Autumn Nations Cup has been more a test of endurance than a rugby feast for the eyes. Tournament organisers deserve credit for staging an alternative to the traditional end-of-year tours by the southern hemisphere giants that were scuppered by coronavirus, but a gruellingly contrived format will limp to a lame conclusion when an eagerly awaited rematch between England and France is robbed of credibility by politics across the Channel. A blood and thunder final could have rescued the event, but instead Les Bleus will be taking the reserves to Twickenham.

England left chasing shadows

France coach Fabien Galthie has limited options in selection
France coach Fabien Galthie has limited options in selection

In February, France engineered the only defeat of England’s year to launch a welcome post-World Cup revival that would have received its most compelling examination in London on Sunday. However, a deal struck between France and the Top 14 under pressure from clubs indignant at the imposition of an extended international window means Fabien Galthie can only select each player three times across a campaign spanning six matches. Choosing to pick superstars such as Antoine Dupont and Virimi Vakatawa earlier in the competition has left him with a shadow XV for the climax to the year.

In the doldrums

🤝 thank you @WelshRugbyUnion for another tough contest.

All the best for the final week of the competition. 👊#WALvENG#AutumnNationsCuppic.twitter.com/PRObyWRV7e

— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 28, 2020

And how the sport could do with the likes of Dupont and Vakatawa to strut their stuff at Twickenham. Even for purists, rugby is becoming an increasingly joyless spectacle scarred by an over-emphasis on set-piece and defence and endless exchanges of kicking. Optimists are hoping it is part of a post-World Cup downwards cycle that will soon give way to greater excitement, but for the time being the game has lost its way. Notes of frustration can be heard from players of all nations as they struggle to find and create space on a field that seems more congested than ever. How the competition has missed the genius of Fiji, who have sat out the entire group stage because of an aggressive outbreak of coronavirus, and swashbuckling Japan – who were unable to take part for travel reasons.

Hurry back fans

The Autumn Nations Cup is being played behind closed doors
The Autumn Nations Cup is being played behind closed doors

Historically, part of international rugby’s appeal has been the tension created by matches hanging in the balance entering the final quarter. The equivalent to what are called the championship rounds in boxing often separate rivals, who for the previous 60 minutes have fought so hard to gain any edge. But without fans providing colour and passion, the taut atmospheres that can mask sub-standard play are missing and the drama suffers as a result. The return of spectators cannot come soon enough.

England march on

Eddie Jones' England have won seven Tests in a row
Eddie Jones' England have won seven Tests in a row

Even Eddie Jones hinted at a degree of exasperation as England showed glimmers of attacking hope in a hard-fought victory at Parc y Scarlets before relying on penalties by Owen Farrell to sweep them beyond reach. It might not have been pretty but it was effective as the danger of an all-too familiar ambush on Welsh soil was averted in business-like fashion. They might not be winning new fans, but they are a serious team who would relish the chance to settle a score against world champions South Africa.