Monday 17 December 2018

Sick Nations has become more grind than grand

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Paul Rees

The Six Nations launch was a story of the sick nations. Between them they had 57 players either doubtful or unavailable for at least the opening round.

England led the way with 14 absentees , followed by Ireland on 11 and Wales, together with Scotland, on 10. The new France coach, Jacques Brunel, is without nine players, although such is his rush to airbrush out his predecessor, Guy Novès, that he would probably have overlooked most of them, and Italy four. It is probably not coincidental that the two countries with the lowest casualty rates were not involved in last year's Lions tour to New Zealand.

While the law trials are being blamed for congested treatment rooms - as the ball in play time increases so the number of tackles made goes up, an area of the game where 45 per cent of injuries occur - the evidence provided by data does not confirm that conclusion. There tend to be spike periods for injuries, notably after a World Cup or a Lions tour.

A virtual team of players who toured New Zealand last year is unavailable for the start of the Six Nations. The only positions unaffected are hooker and the second row, although England's Maro Itoje sat out training in the Algarve last week. Wales, who ended the 2015 World Cup with few fit outside-backs, go into their opening match with Scotland without six of their Lions, three of whom will miss the entire tournament, while the Scots are without eight front-rows.

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Who will be out of their depth? England are the team best equipped to deal with a long injury list, but even they will miss the influence of the No 8 Billy Vunipola, as they did a year ago, and Elliot Daly, the match-winner in the final minute in Cardiff in what was the only result outside Rome in the 2017 tournament that went to the away side.

England are attempting to become the first team to win three successive championships, something that would be even more notable given Eddie Jones's fixation on next year's World Cup. They were rarely at their sustained best last year but played in spurts, fortified by the winning habit they discovered in 2016.

Otherwise they relied on their "finishers", Ben Te'o scoring the winning try against France and Jack Nowell crossing twice against Italy, who befuddled their hosts in the opening half. The England coach has long maintained that he wants his players to make him redundant by sorting out problems on the field as they arise, but so far they have been reliant on replacements, such as Danny Care, who have worked out the pattern of a match on the sidelines, making a difference.

Jones insisted at the launch that Ireland, the only team to whom England have lost in his two years in charge, were the favourites but Joe Schmidt's side travel to Twickenham in the final round and their away form in the past couple of years has cost them the title, defeats in Paris, Twickenham, Edinburgh and Cardiff interrupted by a romp in Rome.

England and Ireland sit second and third in the world rankings, a reason why the only two teams to have won the Six Nations since Wales in 2013 are expected to battle it out for the title at Twickenham, where England have not lost in the tournament since Wales pipped them in 2012. Yet Scotland have risen to fifth after beating Australia twice last year and giving New Zealand their first scare at Murrayfield for many a decade.

Scotland start in Cardiff, needing to overcome a poor away record. The Six Nations has become more grind than grand, pumped-up players piling into each other, but Scotland put cracks in the mould last year, as they had to without overwhelming might up front.

Wales are not the physical force they were, partly through choice as they look to run more, with the breakdown no longer a hazard for the team in possession, but also because the toll of battle has told on many of their players, apart from their captain, Alun Wyn Jones. As long as this one survivor from Warren Gatland's first match as head coach, 10 years ago, remains upright, Wales will not roll over.

Scotland hold the torch for the romantics, all derring-do and dazzle, but their resources are already being tested with their front row casualties. They need to hold their own up front but are not a side who need the majority of possession or territory to prevail. Their second and third matches are at home, against France and England, fixtures they have won only once since 2008 (Les Bleus two years ago). Scotland have not scored a try against England at Murrayfield since 2004 but no longer are they a side who score in multiples of three. They were going for it even before Gregor Townsend took over last summer and the law tweaks have emboldened risk-takers.

As big names watch from the sidelines and inspect their scars, younger, uncelebrated players will step into the spotlight, exuberant rather than cynical. England and Ireland may be the frontrunners but the game needs Scotland to give them a run and France to be France again. Observer

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