Thursday 13 December 2018

Sinead Kissane: From bonus points to live TV coverage for women, what the Six Nations did next...

Unpredictability levels have been ramped up even more going into this year's championship

Battered and bruised - England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Battered and bruised - England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

When Eddie Jones showed up at the Six Nations launch in London this week, it was like looking at the two faces of rugby. The England boss arrived at the media day after, apparently, falling over in his bathroom that morning. A makeshift bandage covered the cut on his face but the damage had spread to his eye. When he sat down in front of me for an interview, one of his eyes was clear and animated while his other eye was bruised, bloodied and looked like it was going to get worse before it got better. Jones, though, didn't seem to care how he looked.

Welcome to the Six Nations.

Not everyone can freewheel like Jones. The caretakers of rugby's oldest championship were obviously concerned about its appearance which is why the 2017 edition has been updated with the trialling of the bonus-point system.

But with uncertainty over how players will deal with World Rugby's new sanctions around high tackles, it could lead to a toxic (good and bad) mix.

If teams are reduced to 14 v 13 because players haven't got to grips with what's allowed with the tackle, it could result in looser defences and the four-try bonus system having a field day.

Player safety is top priority. However, the bedding-in period with these new directives could lead to some frustrating episodes: "There is going to be a proliferation of yellow and red cards until players learn to drive safely," Jones pointed out this week. "And safely means within the speed limit."

If discipline is set to rule even more in this Six Nations, then Ireland are working off a strong base with Joe Schmidt's hard line on on-field discipline. From giving away 13 penalties in the Six Nations game with France last February (Jaco Peyper was the ref in Paris), Ireland conceded only 11 penalties overall in the three Tests against New Zealand and Australia in November (Ireland gave away four penalties in each of the two games against the All Blacks and three against the Wallabies).

There were only three occasions during 12 Tests last year that an Ireland player was carded: Johnny Sexton's yellow card against Scotland last March as well as CJ Stander's red and Robbie Henshaw's yellow cards in the first Test against South Africa last June (as it happened, Ireland won both the Scotland and South Africa games).

Mistakes and infringements will happen but Schmidt and Andy Farrell will forensically go through with the players what's hot and what's not in the tackle to avoid punishments and penalties which could prove costly.

Unpredictability is an easy word to latch onto at the start of a Six Nations but it's rarely been as inapplicable to Ireland as it is this year. This squad is developing a clear identity as their actions lived up to their intentions in November.

They've become reliable and consistent. The way they work, their line-speed in defence and what they did off the ball to get on the ball was so impressive in November. Schmidt is also developing a strength in depth to match their ambitions in tournament rugby.

Women's captain Niamh Briggs also believes the Ireland women's squad is at their strongest and most competitive ever.

Surprise

She was on the stage with the other captains at the Six Nations launch when Andrew Cotter, the MC, pointed out to the room-full of journalists and analysts that Briggs is "a police-woman" as well as a player which led to a few laughs of surprise.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has moved faster than the other unions when it gave professional contracts to their international 15s players at the start of the season which gives them a huge advantage going into this landmark year with the Women's Rugby World Cup in Dublin and Belfast this summer.

The feasibility of this for Irish 15s players needs to be looked at before Ireland gets left behind (although, please, never ever call the Ireland team anything other than Ireland. The RFU's decision to label the women's team as the Red Roses is embarrassing. Could they not just be called England?).

In a relatively young sport like women's rugby, the best way of growing it is by making it seen. This year, the Six Nations have ensured every single women's game will be shown live on TV or streamed live with RTé broadcasting all of Ireland's games live on TV for the first time ever.

This will also be the final year of RTé's term as Six Nations TV rights-holders before it goes to TV3 next season. RTé have been market leaders with their entertaining, engaging and informative programmes with Shane Horgan and Ronan O'Gara two of the best pundits around. Paul O'Connell is a great addition to the BBC panel for this championship. Along with Keith Wood, what is it about former Irish players being damn fine communicators?

The 2017 Six Nations will demand attention. It will be our first experience of 'Friday Night Lights' when Ireland play Wales in Cardiff. There will be the relentless Lions Watch updates with shots of Wazza in the crowd trying to look as disinterested as possible in case his face gives anything away.

There will be so much focus on the Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray in the opening game against Scotland after what happened in Glasgow that they should just name the stadium after him.

Intrigue

Vern Cotter said this week that Ireland are strong all over but Schmidt's old mate seems desperate to finally get one over him before he signs off as Scotland head coach. And there will be the intrigue around father-and-son when Ireland play England on the final weekend with Andy Farrell at home in the green and his son, Owen, in the away dressing-room.

While Ireland's game with England at the Aviva Stadium has long been framed as a "potential Grand Slam decider," the hype seems to have escaped one guy.

When I asked Dylan Hartley, England captain, about that game this week he protested that he didn't even know when they were playing Ireland.

Of course, it's quite possible Hartley didn't know the schedule of the team he's captain of.

Maybe he didn't know either that England players will reportedly share quite the bounty (£3.5 million reportedly) if they complete a second consecutive Grand Slam this year.

It's on Saturday, March 18 with a 5pm kick-off, by the way, Dylan. It's worth putting in everyone's diary.

Irish Independent