The Hurlingham Club in Putney was the willing host as the great and good of European rugby descended with one topic on the mind; the Six Nations
The Six Nations phoney war has started in earnest. With the skies, grey and foreboding on a dank morning in South West London, six men, conspicuous by their national attire and tasked with leading their countries into battle trooped in to face the assembled masses at the plush Hurlingham Club.
Sergio Parisse stood regally. Sam Warburton and Greig Laidlaw shared a joke, seeming relaxed; after all, they’d been here before, while the newbies Guilhem Guirado, Rory Best and Dylan Hartley were experiencing it for the first time. Soon they were zig-zagging across the marble hall of the plush Hurlingham Club into various press junkets flanked by a coterie of press officers and PR handlers. As for the coaches, like a scene from Reservoir Dogs, they were all bedecked in darks suits as the Six Nations inquisition started.
England were a big talking point. Eddie Jones was all smiles and seemed to take this curious European rugby menagerie in his stride, rolling out the one-liners. He disclosed that he’d removed an Arnold Schwarzenegger quote from England’s Pennyhill Park training base as it was due a refurb. He showed his quick command of English culture by comparing England’s long ball game to Stoke City. Most reassuring he said, was seeing the attitude of his players, commenting, that he’d has his “best night’s sleep” after Tuesday’s training session.
His safe team selection for Murrayfield was explained away as not wanting his fledgling players overawed by a hostile Scottish environment. A ringing endorsement of Paul Hill, Jack Clifford and Ollie Devoto’s credentials you’d assuage. Dylan Hartley was not at his loquacious best, and bristled over some questions, no doubt piqued by the public questioning of his ‘leading by example’ at the opening press conference.
Lions and Wales captain Sam Warburton was his usual level-headed self, telling an amusing anecdote about getting his first Six Nations call-up and letting rip with a gutteral raw at a Leicestershire petrol station. To his left, Warren Gatland was in a concilliatory mood, with plenty of kind words for Eddie Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster and the foundations he’d laid. He said Wales were in “good shape” and only missing Rhys Webb, Scott Williams and Leigh Halfpenny from their full complement. His only wish was that Wales would rid themselves of their slow starters tag against a “world class” Ireland team.
When asked if he’d be partaking in some verbal jousting, he played it down before quipping that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was welcome to the Lions role, which set off a few nervous glances from Lions personnel, “have you seen the schedule?” he laughed.
When wind got to Schmidt, he said his Ireland contract precluded a New Zealand tour anyway. Schmidt, to be fair, had more pressing matters with storm clouds forming over the Emerald Isle in recent months. Firstly, Johnny Sexton concussion concerns were abated, and then two rays of sunshine lightened the mood, as Conor Murray and the supposedly wantaway Keith Earls committed to the cause to ease worry lines and give the nation a much-needed adrenalin shot.
He even went as far as saying on record that Irish players playing abroad would still be considered for selection – which sounded like a white-flag to the inevitable player-drain as club wages in France and England sky-rocket. Schmidt, ever the realist, clearly sees it as pragmatic solution for the future.
Scotland were talked up by all countries for their World Cup exploits and Greig Laidlaw spoke of his lingering pain over the World Cup exit, not getting caught up in the emotion of the Calcutta Cup but making sure that, “Murrayfield was not a nice place to visit during the competition”.
When questioned about targeting the combustible Hartley, he played a straighter bat than Geoff Boycott. Nothing to see here was his message. Vern Cotter was his usual dour self, only drily saying that he thought England would have been comfortable with being favourites, rather than Eddie Jones trying to shift that tag onto the Calcutta Cup hosts.
Tucked away in another corner, with a smattering of French journalists was French captain Guilhem Guirado and coach, Guy Noves. Noves spoke at great length of his pride at being able to lead his country after the longest of graduations at Toulouse. The onus was on expunging the memory of the World Cup, building one game at a time with a “committed and passionate” squad and taking stock at the end of the tournament. “I’m not worried about the 2019 World Cup, I may not even be French coach, then”, he shrugged.
As for rank outsiders, Italy, Jacques Brunel and Parisse dampened expectations, if there were any, talking of being competitive, deserving to be in the competition, yet lacking the “technical ability and strength-in depth” of other countries. Brunel said they had so many new combinations in their squad, with 13 members of the World Cup squad injured, that he should have been out on the training paddock rather than slipping into long monologues in front of the press. Pressure indeed. Parisse, speaking in perfect English, firmly put speculation over Brunel’s successor – widely thought to be outgoing Harlequins boss, Conor O’Shea – back in its box, saying that the timing was “not right” and the Italian Federation “didn’t tell players anything, anyway”.
By early afternoon the large atrium started to empty, and with official obligations carried out, players and coaches were left to pick over the sandwiches. The cliches, quips and platitudes were being filed and the time for talking was nearly over.