Six Nations 2016: What has changed for the teams since Rugby World Cup?
After mixed fortunes at World Cup, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy must adjust to new personnel, new management and new methods
What has changed for Ireland?
Paul O'Connell has gone
Ireland's captain during the last two victorious Six Nations campaigns has finally retired from international rugby, leaving a huge hole to fill in every sense. Not only was he a talismanic leader and massively experienced, with well over 100 Test caps to his name, O'Connell was also playing some of the best rugby of his career last season. A brilliant lineout jumper and a huge physical presence, the giant Limerick lock will undoubtedly be missed.
Rory Best has taken over
Ireland's most capped hooker, with 89 appearances, Best is a grounded family man, one of the older generation of players, most at home on the family farm in County Armagh. But the Ulster skipper, 33, is well respected, capable of a lively team talk, and a character on the training pitch by all accounts. A former British and Irish Lion, Best says he will try to put his own stamp on the team.
Les Kiss has left
Appointed by Declan Kidney back in 2008, Ireland's unassuming Australian defence coach had won a Grand Slam within a year. Indeed Ireland's tally of three championships in the last seven years clearly owed a lot to the former North Sydney Bears wing. Now Ulster's director of rugby, Kiss would not have enjoyed his final match, which saw the Pumas run in four tries. Andy Farrell takes over after the Six Nations.
Injuries to key players
Ireland have not only lost the services of O'Connell, they have suffered a rash of injuries to key players including props Cian Healy (knee) and Mike Ross (hamstring), and flanker Chris Henry (shoulder). Those three could return after the first couple of games, but Tommy Bowe (former Lion), Iain Henderson (arguably Ireland's player of the World Cup), Peter O'Mahony (very influential over the last two years), Luke Fitzgerald (impressive showings at the world cup) and Dan Tuohy remain long term absentees.
New faces in squad
Schmidt named four uncapped players in his initial 35-man squad - Munster's CJ Stander, who has qualified for residency after representing South Africa at age group level, centre Stuart McCloskey, lock Ultan Dillane and flanker Josh van der Flier. It will be interesting to see what game time they get. Does CJ Stander come straight in at 6 in place of O'Mahony? Or maybe Sean O'Brien switches flanks and van der Flier plays 7?
What has changed for England?
The head coach: From Lancaster to Jones
The fall-out from England’s dismal 2015 World Cup campaign, out of contention after just 16 days, the first hosts ever to fail to make the quarter-finals, had the inevitable consequence. The RFU lurched from one extreme to the other, from a man who re-created the Red Rose brand to their first ever overseas head coach, Jones’ stock soaring after Japan’s stunning World Cup.
The captain: From Robshaw to Hartley
In many ways, Robshaw was the mirror image of Lancaster, correct, steadfast, proper and reliable. But Jones wanted someone with edge, someone to bring back the snarl into English forward play. Hartley fits that bill, although with his disciplinary record it will be a fine line to tread. Jones is prepared to take the risk. Robshaw, meanwhile, is seen as a blindside, not an openside.
The management team
With Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard as right-hand men, Ian Peel on scrum, Jonny Wilkinson and George Smith as drop-in consultants and more additions to come after the Six Nations with an attack coach top of the shopping list. Jones, of course, is well-versed in all aspects of coaching and will be hands-on, renowned for the detail that he puts into sessions.
The England mood music
Australian Eddie Jones is a master of the seemingly ad-hoc quip, although given that he admits that he uses the media to seek any marginal advantage he can find, the ad-libbing may have more thought to it than might appear. Press conferences will be lively.
Jones named 11 changes in his first squad with three uncapped, prop, Paul Hill, back-rower, Jack Clifford and centre, Ollie Devoto, likely to feature soon and Maro Itoje on the horizon. Jones intends to mix and match his resources until injuries clear (with centres, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi notable initial absentees) and he gets a proper sense of his players.
What has changed for Scotland?
The pain of their quarter-final defeat to Australia courtesy of the South African referee Craig Joubert has given way to a more positive determination to show that their high-scoring progress through their pool, in which they scored 14 tries in four games before adding three more against the Wallabies, wasn’t a flash in the pan. The bookies may have Scotland at 2/1, but Vern Cotter’s men believe.
The whole nation is behind them
After years of sluggish tickets sales in which visiting fans have been able to snap up tickets, the home games against England and France sold out a month quicker than the previous record. There is a palpable air of expectation in Edinburgh from a Scottish rugby public enthused by a young side which played with verve and flair in the World Cup and which scored plenty of tries.
John Barclay back in the fold
After the success of playing two No 7s against Australia, Scotland have selected four opensides in the Scotland squad and look to be determined to dominate the breakdown. Bringing Barclay back after two years in the cold (save for pre-World Cup cameos) may prove to be an inspired decision as the Scarlets loose forward may start at six and is a superb technician at the breakdown.
An all-new coaching staff
As well as Jason O’Halloran joining Scotland from Manawatu as backs coach, former Springboks breakdown coach Richie Gray has also moved to Murrayfield, the former Gala skipper joining as defensive breakdown coach on a consultancy basis. Both will add significantly to Scotland’s brains trust, and if Gray can do the same for Scotland’s forwards that he did for the Boks then England may struggle to win quick ball.
Finn Russell is not playing well
Scotland need the stand-off to be playing well but he has struggled for form with Glasgow. Scotland rely on Russell, the side’s talisman and the mercurial talent they will rely on to unpick the wolfpack defence, but his form has been decidedly mixed since the World Cup, especially against Northampton when his poor kicking lost the Warriors the game and saw them knocked out of Europe.
What has changed for Wales?
Jonathan Davies has returned from injury
Wales had a mountain of injuries before and during the Rugby World Cup, but for me the one player they missed most was the underrated centre Davies. You just suspect they would have been able to cross the whitewash a little more regularly with him around. He is back now and has also announced that he will return to the Scarlets from Clermont Auvergne next season. Good news all round.
Warburton has not played much
Warburton injured his ankle against the Ospreys at the end of November, and has played just one match for Cardiff Blues since, and that against the woeful Calvisano. But Wales should not fret. No one works harder at their fitness than the captain Warburton and he has often produced stirring international performances without much domestic action beforehand.
Gareth Davies has not necessarily been first choice at Scarlets
Rhys Webb missed the entire RWC and was expected to do the same with the Six Nations, but he could now reappear for the Ospreys on February 19. In the meantime Gareth Davies had a very lively RWC but has since struggled to replicate that form for the Scarlets, where Aled Davies, who is in Wales’ Six Nations squad along with the rejuvenated Lloyd Williams of the Blues, has often been preferred.
Priestland has performed a U-turn
This has been a rather strange saga. When Priestland announced that he was moving to Bath it seemed that he would only be doing so if he were ending his international career. Why else would Bath sign him when they have George Ford too? So Priestland duly announced he was taking an 18-month break from Test rugby. He has since changed his mind, probably under pressure from the Wales management, who rate him very highly and worry about their cover for Dan Biggar at fly-half.
Wales are talking about playing a more expansive game
There are still those in Wales having sleepless nights about the side’s inability to score a try against Australia in the RWC when the opposition were down to 13 men. There were 13 minutes when Australia were at least one man down as Wales hammered at their line.
“I can take you through every tackle, pass, lineout and scrum of that 13 minutes against Australia,” says attack coach Rob Howley. “We have to learn as players and coaches from what happened then and we will. We want to pass and create space in the outside channels.”
What has changed for France?
A new coach
The bar was set pretty low by a Philippe Saint-Andre reign that comprised four successive bottom-half finishes in the Six Nations and a 62-13 World Cup quarter-final humiliation; nevertheless, the appointment of Guy Noves was seen as somewhat underwhelming. Technically, his CV is formidable with ten French titles and a record four Heineken Cups with Toulouse. Trouble is that the last of those triumphs was four years ago and Toulouse have stagnated since.
A new captain
Like Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt, Noves has turned to a hooker to be his on-field leader in the form of Toulon’s Guilhem Guirado. That rarest of beasts, a regular French starter at Toulon, Guirado has the potential to form the most potent front-row in the tournament alongside destructive props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani. As with Dylan Hartley, it is hoped that Guirado will inject a bit of devil into a French team still hurting from the World Cup.
A new style
As is the standard protocol, Guy Noves made all the right noises about restoring the traditional French style that is fast becoming a thing of the distant past. “I want my players to think that having a go is not a risk but rather that not giving it a go is a risk.” To back his words, Noves dropped Mathieu Bastareaud, the stumbling block of many a French attack in the past four years.
New and familiar faces
In his maiden squad, Noves includes five uncapped players, Sebastien Bezy and Yacoba Camara from his former club Toulouse, Clermont lock Paul Jedrasiak, Bordeaux Begles prop Jefferson Poirot and most notably Stade Francais centre Jonathan Danty, the new darling of French rugby. Back in favour after being left out of the World Cup squad are Francois Trinh-Duc, who will battle Jules Plisson for the fly half berth, and the Maximes, Medard and Machenaud.
If few tears will be shed for the absence of Saint-Andre and Bastareaud, it is a shame that Thierry Dusautoir’s international career had to end in the ignominy of that 62-13 defeat to New Zealand. The flanker opted against a Brian O’Driscoll style farewell tour, telling L’Equipe. “If I had tried to continue, forcing to do, I would have shown more vanity than anything else.” That same selflessness defined Dusautoir on the field. He will be missed.
What has changed for Italy?
While nearly every team heads into the Championship missing key men, Italy’s lack of depth means that they will suffer more than most for the absence of nine injured players. Among those out are Tommaso Allan, the fly half, Michele Rizzo, the Leicester front row, Quintin Geldenhuys, the old hand, and Luca Morisi, the dashing centre. Given that Italy often struggle at full strength, it is no surprise that some bookmakers have them as short as 1-8 to land the wooden spoon.
South African influence
Head coach Jacques Brunel has named ten uncapped players in his Six Nations squad including South African born forwards Andries van Schalkwyk and Abraham Steyn. Van Schalkwyk, 30, has enjoyed a decent season for Zebre at No 8 having taken the roundabout route to international rugby with the Falcons, Boland Cavaliers, Blue Bulls, Southern Kings, Leopards, Lions and Free State Cheetahs. Steyn, another back row, meanwhile, played a couple of games for the Sharks before coming up the ranks in the Italy club game.
Fly-half number 15
Since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003, 14 players have worn the Italy No 10 shirt, with varying degrees of mediocrity. Andrea Marcato, Kris Burton and Craig Gower (he of the phenomenal Wikipedia entry) have all had undistinguished stints in what has become the single greatest problem position in the Six Nations (above even the England inside centre conundrum). Into his considerable breach steps Carlo Canna who has shown some encouraging signs for Zebre. Whether he can translate that into international excellence is another matter.
Jacques Brunel was seen by many as a dead man walking this time last year. The only question seemed to be whether he would make it through to the World Cup. So it was a considerable surprise to see what appeared to be Brunel’s animated corpse at the Six Nations Championship launch. With Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt waiting in the wings, Brunel has the shortest of straws to motivate a team whose confidence is already on a low ebb after the World Cup.
The spectre of Georgia
While Georgia only matched Italy’s tally of two victories at the World Cup, they were one of the tournament’s success stories. Their case of at least being Italy’s equals was emphatically made. Should Italy fail to add to their tally of 12 wins in 80 games and collect a 11th wooden spoon then the case of promotion-relegation will grow ever stronger, whatever the protests from the Six Nations organisers.