Rugby shake-up goes on with new Autumn Nations Cup

LONDON (AFP) – The inaugural Autumn Nations Cup starts with Ireland facing Wales in Dublin tomorrow as rugby union continues to deal with the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

An eight-team event will feature Europe’s leading six nations as well as Fiji and Georgia, who came in after Japan withdrew because of travel restrictions.

Teams will be split into two groups of four, with England, Wales, Ireland and Georgia forming one pool and Scotland, France, Italy and Fiji the other.

They will each play three group matches before the tournament ends on the weekend of December 5-6 with a final between the pool winners, while the other nations face a team in the same position in the other group to determine the minor placings.

The Autumn Nations Cup is a product of COVID-19.

It replaces the end of year schedule that usually sees southern hemisphere giants New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, none of whom are venturing across the Equator this time on health grounds, tour Europe.

Although Autumn Nations Cup matches are set to be played behind closed doors because of the virus, they will generate much-needed broadcast income.

England’s Rugby Football Union, one of the game’s wealthiest governing bodies, recently announced an annual loss of GBP10.8 million, with officials braced for more financial bad news in the next 12 months as a result of the pandemic.

Recently-crowned Six Nations champions England and a revived France will be favourites to reach the final.

French chances, however, may be hampered by a compromise deal struck in response to an expanded fixture list between the country’s leading clubs and the French Rugby Federation which means Les Bleus’ players can only feature in one Nations Cup match if they played against Wales and Ireland last month.