Ireland to face Wales, Fiji and England in autumn tournament
Japan to take part in group with Scotland, France and Italy
Ireland are set to play England at Twickenham at the end of November after home games against Wales and Fiji in a one-off autumn tournament. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Ireland have been drawn in a group containing Wales, England and Fiji in a new, one-off eight-team tournament to be held over four consecutive weeks from November 14th. It is also understood that Ireland’s matches will take place in that order, with the Wales and Fiji games to be held in the Aviva Stadium either side of a trek to Twickenham to face England.
Scotland, France, Italy and Japan will be in the other pool, and the winners of the respective pools will meet on December 5th, while the second, third and fourth placed sides also play off against each other. Whoever Ireland face on that final weekend, the game will be played in the Aviva Stadium.
It remains to be seen whether the Irish Government will by then permit one-metre social distancing at sports events, in which case the Aviva could accommodate an attendance of around 18,000, but the RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney has expressed the hope that up to 40,000 fans to be able to attend the Twickenham matches, pending UK Government approval.
England will also face Fiji in Twickenham while a venue for Wales’ ‘home’ games has still to be determined as the Principality Stadium will still be in use as a field hospital in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. In the other pool, it is understood that Scotland will host Japan and France at Murrayfield, and will play Italy in Rome.
Japan were due to host England in a tour this summer and were desperate to be involved, while World Rugby are equally keen to maximise the success of last year’s World Cup by having the Brave Blossoms in this one-off competition.
No title, sponsor or trophy has yet been formalised for this one-off tournament, which is primarily a means of generating badly needed revenue through television and in providing visibility for sponsors.
It will ensure a hectic schedule, not least for Johnny Sexton and his Ireland team-mates, as their two re-arranged Six Nations games at home against Italy and away to France have been pencilled in for October 24th and 31st.
Conceivably, too, the first of those games could come a week after the Champions Cup final, which could thus be a precursor to a sequence of six Test matches in a seven-week window.
With the finales to the 2019-20 Pro14 and Champions Cup being shoehorned into what would normally be the first two months of a new season, the demands on their international frontliners will demand a particularly delicate juggling act by the provinces.
Leo Cullen, for example, will thus have to be mindful of Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan et al being faced with a run of six Tests in seven weeks as Leinster plot their way to two finals for a third season in a row.
Within barely three months of rugby’s restarting hopefully without hitches, those frontliners might possibly have to hit the ground running against Munster and Ulster in their opening interpros, before then facing up to five knockout matches and six Tests, and all this in a concentrated 16-week window.
While Andy Farrell, and the other international head coaches, might have some leeway for rotating their squad during the four-week November/December tournament, there will be plenty on the line when facing Italy and France in the rearranged 2020 Six Nations games.
Ireland sit fourth in the table but know that bonus-point wins over both Italy and France would secure a second title in three years and a fourth in seven years. A nine-point haul might also suffice, although as England’s final rearranged game is against Italy, also to be rescheduled for October 31st, in Rome, Eddie Jones’s team are favourites to win the title.
Either way, two wins would ensure Ireland of second place, which would be worth close on another €2 million for the IRFU compared to finishing fourth.