Wales will have to beat England this autumn to avoid the danger of the old rivals being thrown into the same pool for the next World Cup.
A home fixture which threatens to cost the WRU £10m in lost revenue could prove still more damaging irrespective of whether it is played at one of three half-full Premier League stadia in London or behind closed doors in Llanelli at an empty Parc y Scarlets.
The draw for the 2023 tournament in France is being delayed until mid-December after the rearranged autumn Test schedule has been completed and world rankings updated. The global dimension makes it imperative for Wales to start winning.
They started the year at No. 4 which would have guaranteed a place among the top seeds and immunity from the three countries above them – South Africa, New Zealand and England. Since then consecutive Six Nations losses to Ireland, France and England has pushed Wales down to sixth behind Ireland and France.
The revised fixture list offers them an immediate chance to avenge all three defeats, starting in Paris in six weeks’ time, followed by Ireland in Dublin on Friday November 13 and England on November 28, goodness knows where.
Head coach Wayne Pivac knows that reclaiming top-four status will require much more than stopping the Six Nations rot against Scotland on October 31, a home match which cannot be played at home because of the Millennium Stadium’s conversion into a field hospital and the Welsh Assembly’s ban on mass gatherings.
That Wales find themselves with no fixed abode for reasons beyond their control makes any climb back into the top four all the more demanding. If the Government relax restrictions to allow a maximum of 30,000 at Twickenham and other London stadia, then Wales will play six away Tests in almost as many weeks.
How the often baffling mathematical formulae behind the world rankings will be adjusted to allow for that remains to be seen. Wales know how fateful one autumn setback too many can be in World Cup terms, as do England – knocked out of their own tournament at their own home by the neighbours five years ago.
Revised autumn Test schedule:
October 17: New Zealand v Australia (Auckland)
October 23: Scotland v Georgia (Murrayfield)
October 24: Ireland v Italy (Dublin), France v Wales (Paris), New Zealand v Australia (Wellington).
October 25: England XV v Barbarians (Twickenham).
October 31: Italy v England (Rome), Wales v Scotland, France v Ireland (Paris).
November 7 – December 12: The Rugby Championship in Australia.
November 13: Ireland v Wales (Dublin)
November 14: England v Georgia (Twickenham), Italy v Scotland
November 15: France v Fiji
November 21: England v Ireland (Twickenham), Wales v Georgia, Italy v Fiji.
November 22: Scotland v France (Murrayfield)
November 28: Wales v England, Scotland v Fiji (Murrayfield), France v Italy (Paris)
November 29: Ireland v Georgia (Dublin)
December 5: Last round of Eight Nations, fixtures to be confirmed.
World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte’s failure to broker a deal for South Africa to join the Eight Nations leaves the World Cup holders facing the grim prospect of being stranded at home.
SANZAAR may have announced the relocation of The Rugby Championship to Australia over a six-week period from November 7 despite the Springboks still being unable to confirm that they will be there.
New Zealand’s top players have been in action for three months, Australia’s for the last ten weeks. The Boks have not played any rugby for six months and started contact training only a fortnight ago.
Quarantine regulations requiring them to arrive in Australia by mid-October is another major obstacle. “We cannot confirm participation while a ban on international sport remains in place in South Africa,’’ SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said yesterday. “There are other high-performance and player-wellness issues to consider.’’
As if the pandemic hitting the sport for six isn’t enough, rugby can still find room for a new row on a very old theme. The Top 14 French clubs have taken their fight against the French Federation over player-release to the European Commission.
The clubs have agreed to provide their players for five Tests this autumn but not six as demanded by the Federation. They are adamant that no player will be released for the friendly against Wales in Paris on October 24, hence their appeal to Brussels.