England are set for a blockbuster autumn series against Wales, Ireland and Fiji as part of a proposed ‘Eight Nations’ tournament. With the southern hemisphere nations of New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Australia unlikely to be allowed to travel north because of coronavirus restrictions, Six Nations chiefs have acted to fill the gap in the international schedule by creating a new one-off competition. Fiji and Japan are set to be invited to join the traditional Six Nations countries in two pools of four. The second group will be made up of France, Scotland, Italy and Japan.
Each team will play their pool opponents once. After the group stages have been completed, the tournament will shift to a play-off format between each team facing their equivalent in the opposite pool. Six Nations organisers are waiting for a decisive World Rugby Council vote on the extended international window on Thursday with an announcement expected in mid-August.
Much has yet to be decided particularly around venues and whether crowds are allowed, which remains in the hands of national governments. Sunday's cricket match between Surrey and Middlesex was the first sporting event to allow crowds in England since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed while the World Snooker Championships and Glorious Goodwood set to stage further test events with crowds. That should pave the way for crowds to be permitted at Twickenham, albeit at a fraction of its 80,000 capacity, which will bring significant financial relief to the RFU which was forecasting losses of £122 million if no matches went ahead. Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, is hopeful of crowds of up to 40,000 being allowed.
Telegraph Sport understands that while England will host Ireland and Fiji at Twickenham that will not necessarily apply to their match against Wales, which is provisionally listed as an away fixture. Although the Welsh Rugby Union has ruled out staging matches at the Principality Stadium, it is still actively exploring options inside Wales including the Liberty Stadium or the Cardiff City Stadium. The WRU could still take the game across the border, depending on what crowd sizes are allowed, but are keen not to automatically hand England home advantage.
The tournament will begin on November 14 over four consecutive weekends leading up to the grand finale on December 5. The outstanding final round of Six Nations matches – Wales v Scotland, France v Ireland and Italy v England – has been scheduled for October 31 with the other postponed fixture, Ireland v Italy, taking place the week before. Official confirmation of those fixtures is expected by next week. England lead the table on points difference from France, although Ireland could leapfrog them both by winning their game in hand.
It sets up a gruelling schedule for England’s leading players with the Premiership Final pencilled in for October 24. Eddie Jones’s team also face a match against the Barbarians on October 25 before the real business gets under way. Telegraph Sport revealed last week that Premiership and French clubs have dropped their opposition to the extended international window providing it does not become permanent. The 2020-21 Premiership season begins on November 20 meaning that clubs will be missing their leading stars for the first three weeks of the new campaign.