By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - COVID-19 put paid to the usual schedule of north v south November rugby internationals but, rather than bemoaning the absence of the "big three", fans might instead enjoy the relatively structured nature of what has replaced them.
The Autumn Nations Cup kicks off this Friday when Ireland play Wales, with Italy v Scotland and England v Georgia on Saturday and Italy v Fiji on Sunday.
The eight competing teams are split into four groups and will play the team in the corresponding finishing position on the weekend of Dec 5-6 - with lips already being licked at the prospect of an England v France "decider".
Of course, with no fans present at any of the matches and with some coaches forced to juggle their resources to limit the minutes played by each player there will be a strange feel to the contests.
But the TV money generated by them - with Amazon Prime dipping its toe into the sport for the first time - is an absolute lifesaver for the cash-strapped unions.
They are clinging on via government and World Rugby grants as most of their normal revenue streams dry up. England normally make around 10 million pounds ($13.25 million) from every Twickenham international and that money supplies the bulk of the budget from which all their governance of the sport flows.
Fans might initially be less tempted to watch a "Six Nations Lite" but perhaps a break from the usual conveyor belt might be a good thing and World Rugby has long been pushing for more of a tournament structure as opposed to a series of one-off games in November and might think this is a model they can develop.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
England had originally been due to play New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Australia. That would have made it nine games against the Wallabies in five years and with Eddie Jones's team having won the last seven in a row, the appeal is beginning to wane.
England took the Six Nations title after their largely efficient win in Italy but Jones will be looking for a much sharper set of performances against Georgia, Ireland and Wales.
France appear to be the team with more momentum - though that was helped by having a warm-up against Wales before they overcame Ireland.
Their young team are being developed with an eye firmly on the hosting of the 2023 World Cup but, with the rarity of a settled halfback partnership in the high-class shape of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they should enjoy a run of wins over Fiji, Scotland and Italy.
The Scots finished their Six Nations on a relative high but have been hamstrung by injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings that will keep both flyhalves on the sidelines until next year.
An uninspired Ireland will be looking for improvement as new coach Andy Farrell tries to bed down his ideas, not least in their ability to score tries.
Wales will be desperate to end the run of five successive defeats that cost defence coach Byron Hayward his job this week, while Italy will probably target their game against Fiji on Nov. 21 having failed to beat any of their Six Nations opponents for five years.
With that dire record in mind, Georgia know this is the best chance they will ever get to stake their case for possible promotion to the Six Nations.
They will have to find something pretty special to beat England, Ireland or Wales but could yet find themselves going head to head with Italy to decide last place, but potentially much more.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)