Jones helping to put focus on players and not game-plans
England are favourites but the bonus-point experiment should make things interesting
The splendour of the exclusive Hurlingham Club on the banks of the Thames, where such is the demand for membership that the waiting list has been closed, served as the backdrop for the launch of the Six Nations Championship. A foggy morning served to disguise the black eye being sported by the England head coach Eddie Jones as he reluctantly posed for photographs, and if there were conflicting reports about how he acquired the injury, it was not down to the refinement of Dylan Hartley's tackling technique taking longer than anticipated.
The launch is a time for optimism, for looking forward. It has been Scotland's favourite time of the year having only once started a Six Nations campaign with a win, and that was in 2006. They left for the flight home drenched in compliments with Ireland's Joe Schmidt, whose team kicks off this year's tournament at Murrayfield on Saturday, especially effusive. "Feudal," was how their head coach Vern Cotter, in his last season as head coach before joining Montpellier, described a tournament that succeeds whatever the quality of the rugby because of deeply-entrenched national rivalries.
The bonus-point system is being trialled this season in an attempt to entice teams out of their strait-jackets. Had it been applied in the three previous tournaments, there would have been a total of 29 accumulated: 17 for a side losing by seven points or fewer, one for securing four tries in defeat and 11 for scoring four tries or more in victory. Closer examination shows that 10 of the 12 for tries scored were in matches played in March (the two in February were both against Italy) and 13 of the 17 losing bonus points were in February contests.
"I am not sure about bonus points," said Schmidt. "There was none on offer when we went to Chicago and played the All Blacks, but there were nine tries in a game played in fine weather. You play in a manner to suit the conditions. It may affect endgame decisions, but not, I think, the first-half mentality of teams." It was with February in mind that Wales asked for the roof of their Principality Stadium to be permanently shut for the Six Nations, saying the move would complement the introduction of bonus points, but as they would benefit five times every two years and each of their opponents once, the request was turned down.
A closed roof suits Wales in their tactical transformation under interim head coach Rob Howley: heads-up rugby now means looking around for opportunities and space rather than watching the ball descend from high in the sky. It rarely pays now to set out not to lose: with more tries being scored in Test rugby, the emphasis is on winning by retaining possession and creating. "The laws today reward attacking rugby," said the former South Africa coach Nick Mallett at the launch. "Gone is the time when you could win a World Cup without playing the ball."
The stage at the launch was given over to the six captains rather than the head coaches. That may be symbolic because the increased flow of matches, which will become more pronounced with the crackdown on high tackling expected to encourage more offloading, will lead to more tactical responsibility being invested in players, and with it flexibility. The rigidity of game-plans will loosen and, with Wales searching for the instinct they used to be renowned for, France trying to play like France again rather than a lumpen aggregate of England and South Africa at their least ambitious, Scotland comfortable again in possession after years when they could not get rid of the ball quickly enough and Ireland displaying a controlled frenzy against the might of the southern hemisphere last year, passion is no longer seen as a hangover from the amateur era.
Jones has said from the moment he became England's head coach that he wants his players to make his position redundant by taking decisions themselves, not looking to the stand for guidance. A characteristic of the side in last year's unbeaten run was an ability to get out of a hole: if they failed to find an 80-minute performance, they did enough in the times they were on top to win. Their Grand Slam last year was as much a reflection of the state of the other teams as their improvement under Jones, but this year they have to make do without the Vunipola brothers, forwards who get them over the gainline and on to the front foot for Ben Youngs to recycle quickly.
"It will be up to other guys to take up the ball-running slack and we have players who can do that," said Jones, cutting the Wasps' No 8 Nathan Hughes and the prop Joe Marler, but the loss of two keystone players will be felt; it is a question of degree. And so while tickets for the final match of the tournament in Dublin between Ireland and England are selling for more than 30 times their face value in anticipation of a Grand Slam showdown, it does not promise to be a year of the expected. Ireland will be looking no further than Murrayfield, despite Scotland's track record for slow starts, while England will be wary of France's renewed penchant for turning defence into attack with improvised passing even though Les Bleus have not won at Twickenham in the Championship since 2005.
Few are talking up Wales as title contenders, even though they are away to the three blues; Italy, Scotland and France, where they have a strong recent record, unbeaten in Rome and Edinburgh since 2007 and successful on their last two visits to Paris. They face Ireland and England at home and if they survive their opening weekend trip to the Italian capital and Conor O'Shea's first Six Nations match as a coach, they will welcome the champions six days later in Cardiff with a degree of confidence.
Their new captain Alun Wyn Jones will tap into the emotion of his players and the recruitment of Alex King as attack coach could provide the catalyst for passes going to hand rather than into touch. They overdid the mind games when they welcomed England two years ago and failed to adjust to their opponents' tactical tweak at half-time, and while they may not be far enough into their regeneration to justify being made favourites, as likely to lose in Scotland and France as to beat England and Ireland, they may hold the keys to the crowning room.
November washed away the despair of the previous year's World Cup when the four semi-finalists came from the south. Ireland defeated New Zealand, England inflicted a fourth defeat on Australia in five months while Argentina and South Africa were whitewashed. European teams were playing off 10 rather than 9 again, widening the point of attack and seeking space. Union may not have reverted to a players' game, but there can be no more hiding behind game-plans and letting coaches take the blame.
Jones has helped the Six Nations recapture its essence by putting players first, but there are five teams wanting to blacken his other eye in a tournament that promises to be cat and mouse. The fog is lifting.
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