Rugby is a sport filled with traditional matches, tours and tournaments – especially for the major nations. Whether that be the Six Nations, which originally started as the Home Nations Championship back in the 1880s, the Lions Tour beginning that same decade, or the Calcutta Cup or Bledisloe Cup, first contested in 1879 and 1931 respectively, the sport is steeped in tradition. Even the Rugby World Cup, which sometimes feels like a relatively young tournament in rugby terms, is well over 30 years old.
As a result, there is a real sense of freshness in the rugby calendar this weekend as the Autumn Nations Cup kicks off.
The tournament itself has a different, but simple, structure. Three weeks of playing your fellow pool rivals before a final weekend which sees the top team in each pool face off, while the second, third and fourth-ranked teams also play their equivalent in the opposite pool. Although the Six Nations sides comprise of three-quarters of the teams taking part, there are also two new outfits joining the party – Fiji and Georgia.
Many rugby fans will be familiar with both nations, with Fiji providing a whole host of stars for clubs in both the northern and southern hemispheres (and in several cases stars for other national teams). Meanwhile, Georgia are often the side touted as becoming the seventh nation should the Six Nations ever decide to expand, or indeed as a side who could potentially replace Italy altogether.
For both Fiji and Georgia, the Autumn Nations Cup represents a great opportunity to test themselves against top-level opposition across a number of games, rather than a handful of Tests during the four years between World Cups.
So, what can we expect from the new faces as they prepare to come up against Europe’s tier one teams? Both the Flying Fijians and the Lelos were in the same pool at last year’s Rugby World Cup, meaning we can compare their match averages with a degree of fairness, knowing that they each faced the same opponents, although the number of days between games and squad rotation would also have been a factor in performances.
Rugby World Cup 2019 Match Averages:
|World Cup Rank||Georgia||Rugby World Cup 2019 Match Averages||Fiji||World Cup Rank|
|13||75%||Goal Kicking %||50%||19|
|12||3.5||Average Gain (m)||4.5||1|
|19||81%||Lineout Success %||92%||8|
|17||86%||Scrum Success %||100%||1|
Unsurprisingly, Fiji’s main strength is with ball in hand. They were one of the top-ranking teams for several attacking categories in Japan, ending the tournament as one of the top four nations for average tries scored, clean breaks, defenders beaten and offloads. In fact, they also ranked third for metres gained despite sitting only tenth for carries. As a result, their average gain of 4.5 metres per carry was the best rate of any team in the competition, just ahead of heavyweights New Zealand and South Africa (both 4.3m per carry).
Georgia perhaps didn’t stand out quite as much as Fiji at the Rugby World Cup but much of their good work came in defence. Although their average of 133 tackles per game was just the eighth-highest average across all teams, they put in one of the all-time great defensive shifts against Australia. In that match, Georgia made 218 tackles – a record for any team in a match at the tournament. In fact, it was just the third time any team had made 200+ successful tackles in a World Cup game, along with France in 2007 (v. New Zealand) and the Lelos themselves in 2015 (v. Tonga).
Georgia also ranked as the 7th best team in terms of both turnovers won and turnovers conceded.
In this year’s Rugby Europe Championship, Georgia did prove to be the best attacking team, scoring the most points, most tries and racking up the most metres gained, clean breaks and defenders beaten, showing that they can be a force in attack. That said, whether they’re able to get quality time on the ball against top tier opposition could be their biggest issue.
Which players can we expect to be the standouts for Fiji and Georgia during the Autumn Nations Cup? Fiji boast a whole host of stars but perhaps the man who stands out above the rest is Semi Radradra. Currently plying his trade in the Premiership with Bristol Bears, he has lit up European rugby this season, with his performances earning him a nomination for the European Player of the Year.
However, it is generally at Rugby World Cups where the biggest players make an impact and Radradra is no different. Despite only playing in the pool stage of the tournament, he still finished top of the charts for defenders beaten, joint-third for try assists, made the fifth-most carries and was one of just four players to gain 400+ metres.
One of Georgia’s star performers at the Rugby World Cup last year was Beka Gorgadze – not to be confused with his former teammate, the talismanic Mamuka Gorgodze. Gorgadze is a number 8 with true all-round ability.
Interestingly Gorgadze has links to the aforementioned Semi Radradra, with both men being club teammates at Bordeaux at the start of last season before the Fijian moved across the Channel to Bristol. Gorgadze put in some eye-catching displays in both attack and defence at the Rugby World Cup last year. His tally of five successful turnovers all came in the same game against Australia – no other player won as many in a single match in the tournament in Japan. In fact, only one other player has won more in a Rugby World Cup match in its entire history (Fiji’s Koli Rakoroi won six in 1987).
The 24-year-old also showed his ability with ball in hand, gaining 149 metres from 24 carries over the course of the competition. Of the 105 forwards to make 20+ carries in the tournament, only France’s Charles Ollivon (7m per carry) recorded a better average gain than Gorgadze’s 6.2 metres per carry. He backed up this ability during this year’s Rugby Europe Championship too, gaining 217 metres and beating 16 defenders, the most of any forward.
Of course, there are plenty of other players in both teams who will play a key role for their respective nations. The likes of Leone Nakarawa, Nemani Nadolo, and Josua Tuisova need no introduction when discussing Fiji’s big hitters.
Meanwhile, Georgia boast a wealth of experience and have 10 players with over 50 caps in their squad, including Vasil Lobzhanidze who only recently turned 24 but has 52 caps to his name. The scrum-half remains the youngest ever player to feature in the Rugby World Cup, making his first tournament appearance aged just 18 in 2015 and he could form a formidable half-back partnership with 21-year-old Tedo Abzhandadze, who is a teammate of Lobzhanidze at Brive and is beginning to break into the TOP 14 club’s first team.
Rugby World Cup – Youngest Appearances In History:
|Vasil Lobzhanidze||18y 340d||Georgia||Tonga||2015|
|Thretton Palamo||19y 8d||USA||South Africa||2007|
|Unuoi Va'enuku||19y 51d||Tonga||France||1995|
|Federico Mendez Azpillaga||19y 63d||Argentina||Australia||1991|
|Vano Karkadze||19y 96d||Georgia||Uruguay||2019|
|Craig Brown||19y 111d||Zimbabwe||Romania||1987|
|George North||19y 151d||Wales||South Africa||2011|
|Esera Puleitu||19y 201d||Samoa||England||1995|
|Jordan Petaia||19y 205d||Australia||Uruguay||2019|
|Gary Snyder||19y 220d||Zimbabwe||Japan||1991|
The Autumn Nations Cup provides four weeks for players to prove themselves against the highest level of competition. Both Fiji and Georgia will go into their fixtures aiming to upset the odds and prove they aren’t there just to ‘make up the numbers’.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.