Friday 6 December 2019

Six Nations offers all parties a shot at redemption and re-invention

After a desperately disappointing World Cup for the Northern Hemisphere teams, the Six Nations offers a chance at redemption and re-invention

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the Six Nations came to its thrilling conclusion 11 months ago, nobody would have predicted that when the old tournament got up and running all over again in February 2016, it would do so with something to prove.

The 2015 instalment will go down as a classic, yet the gloss of that exciting final day was battered by the World Cup performance of the participants six months later. Pool disappointments and quarter-final exits meant that Europe watched on as the Rugby Championship teams played out the World Cup final four in their own back-yard.

So, there are bruised egos on the starting blocks this year. England and France have vastly experienced new men at the helm, Wales and Ireland are still guided by their trusted Kiwis, Scotland are the one team to come out of the autumn with any sort of momentum and Italy remain Italy.

After the World Cup, there was plenty of soul-searching and brow-beating about styles of play in this part of the world, but it stakes remain so high in international rugby's oldest tournament that experimentation is a risk too far.

Conditions won't help either, with the northern European spring normally unwilling to play ball in the search for more expansive play.

The rugby is unlikely to stray far from the traditional values, but the new men will bring an interesting dynamic to the table.

In particular, the arrival of Eddie Jones will undoubtedly spice things up. The Australian coached the only team from north of the equator (Japan) to victory over a Rugby Championship team at the World Cup, which gives him a swagger that he is putting to good use in the early days of his England tenure.

A confident media presence, he has stuck largely with a tried and tested team while calling on the controversial figure of Dylan Hartley as his captain.

Yet, he is a first-time coach in these parts facing off against two New Zealanders with five titles between them in Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland.


Although Saturday's Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland at Murrayfield will be Jones' first involvement in the tournament, he has been watching from afar.

"Historically, the Six Nations is a tournament about contest," the England coach said.

"The Rugby Championship is about continuity, this is about contest and the primary contest is set-piece and then you've got the breakdown.

"The only time I've ever seen the Six Nations as a continuity contest was the last day last year when everyone threw everything out and played for bonus points that weren't there. You saw the number of tries."

Although that day finished faster and looser than the tournament has ever been before, this year is highly unlikely to keep up that trend.

There is so much at stake on the opening weekend that the free-running rugby we saw in March will be a distant memory by half-time of Scotland v England, never mind the collision-fest that Ireland v Wales offers.

Those games will set the tone for the four teams involved, with the 'M' word likely to feature prominently in the build-up.

Momentum, as most Six Nations interviewees will tell you, is the most important thing to have on your side in the months of February and March and whoever wins next Sunday's opener will be well set for the weeks to come.

Gatland is the master of the post-World Cup Six Nations, having won the title in 2008 and 2012.

Wales have many things on their side this year. Their World Cup pack is retained in full, while the backline that was ripped apart by injury last September and October is almost back to full strength with Jonathan Davies restored to midfield alongside Jamie Roberts.

This week, Schmidt was keen to point out the size and experience of this Welsh side, describing them as the "biggest team in international rugby" at 106kg per man, while also pointing to their combined total of 1,100 caps.

With France away just six days later and England in Twickenham looming in round three, the New Zealander knows just how vital victory over Wales will be. Gatland, however, knows that home games against France, Italy and Scotland mean that a win in Dublin will open up a first championship for Wales since 2013 and a fourth of his tenure.

Similarly, England's trip north to face Scotland at Murrayfield next Saturday has a make-or-break look to it.

Already, Jones has been heaping pressure on Vern Cotter's side, labelling them favourites for the clash on the basis of their better World Cup campaign. Of all of the five other nations, the new England coach will know the Scots the best, having faced them at the World Cup.

Indeed, the Australian has put the ball in the court of the four teams who did reach the quarter-finals last October, saying he believes they have far more to lose this spring.

"Well, if you make (the last eight), you've done well, haven't you, and if you don't, you haven't," he said.

"So, you go in with your chest out a bit, ready to go. I would prefer my team to be driven with where they want to go rather than where they've been. I want them to be motivated by where they want to go.

"Remember that photo that was sent around during the World Cup? It was of an English gentleman trying to get out of the pool and he couldn't do it.

"Well Scotland made it out of the pool and nearly got to the semifinal, didn't they? The difference in performance at the World Cup was enormous. Both teams will have had two weeks to prepare, so the advantage that Scotland has is massive, but they have to carry that pressure of favouritism which is something they probably aren't used to."

It suits Jones to keep the pressure on the other nations, but England will be the focus of much attention.

The other new face is the venerable Guy Noves, who has assumed the reins at France after so long in Toulouse.

The appointment appears to be reward for a lifetime achievement with the club, but he has made some clever coaching appointments to his ticket as he looks to revive the tournament's sleeping giant after the humiliating World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.


There should be a response, but while France can start strongly with home games against Italy and Ireland, the toll of players being released for Top 14 games in down-weeks will tell in the later rounds.

France have not won a Six Nations title since 2010 and have finished fourth, fourth, sixth and fourth in the last four years, so a top-half finish would probably represent progress for Noves.

There is an argument that the teams who were together during the World Cup and have the same coaching tickets have the advantage of continuity, and Scotland will hope that the feel-good factor they generated can continue.

Yet, Scotland have some convincing to do when it comes to the Six Nations.

They were decent last season but still finished fourth and face away trips to Dublin and Cardiff which will test their squad.

Italy look worse than ever, and Sergio Parisse appeared low on confidence this week as he accepted that the Azzurri's ambitions will be focused on avoiding bottom spot yet again.

And what of the champions?

Schmidt used the word "rebuilding" to describe the phase his Ireland team are in ahead of the tournament and he is without a number of stalwarts of the two titles he's won during his tenure.

Paul O'Connell will be watching from the south of France, while Peter O'Mahony, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson are on the long-term injury list. Cian Healy and Mike Ross will miss the first two games at least and Luke Fitzgerald is now in a race to be fit.

A six-day turnaround between the meetings with Wales and France makes life incredibly difficult for a team who struggled to win the collisions in the quarter-final defeat to Argentina, while the form of the provinces must be a huge worry.

It is no wonder then that the head coach is targeting a top-half finish rather than speaking too freely about the "dream" of a historic third title in a row.

If he pulled it off with this team in these circumstances, it would be his greatest achievement.

Instead, it looks like being Wales' year. The schedule is with them, their squad is almost fully fit and their coach is the most experienced in this situation.

All will depend on that opening weekend, when the World Cup fallout will be wiped away by the renewal of the oldest rivalries.

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