The Six Nations is nearly upon us and after the glitzy launch in South-West London there were a wealth of discussion points...
The Six Nations launch is usually a convivial get together, bordering on the mundane, but eyebrows were raised at Eddie Jones’ almighty shiner caused, we were told, by falling in the shower in his hotel, but that wasn’t the only talking point to arise from the day. Here are seven debating points to chew over as kick-off draws ever closer
Where have all the leaders gone?
Leadership has become a theme ahead of the year’s Six Nations. Eddie Jones, so long an agenda setter, mentioned a dearth of ‘leadership intensity’ beneath Dylan Hartley, very much pointing the England’s merry men were a work in progress when it comes to making taking ‘consistently smart decisions’. Wales, missing the ageless Gethin Jenkins for only the second time in 16 Six Nations Championships, will look to Alun Wyn Jones, a man very much in the natural leader bracket, yet Jones made a call-to-arms by quipping ‘followers are for Twitter’.
Scotland picked up the theme with Greig Laidlaw expressing a contentment that his leadership group was been setting themselves high standards, while Rory Best and Joe Schmidt, seemed fairly content with the senior leadership group. Whether this is a growing trend of fully professional players, spoon-fed in the professional game, losing independence of thought is a moot point, but in the final throes of games over the next seven games, any shrinking violets need raise their hands.
Are Ireland relaxing into their favourites tag?
Depending on which bookmaker you frequent, you’ll see Ireland and England are comfortably the two sides backed to be fighting it out to be Champions in March. Usually, you ask a coach or captain if they’re favourites and they feign anything from indifference, denial, right through to downright incredulity. Ireland, far from bristling at top dog status, welcomed the tag. “We’re not worried about being favourites, we’ve always been more about the collective.” commented Rory Best.
One nagging concern is the fitness of the talismanic Johnny Sexton, who has played little rugby in recent months and is nursing a bruised calf. With only two fly-halves – Paddy Jackson would slot in, in Sexton’s absence – an injury to Sexton would leave Munster debutant Rory Scannell a bench option, unless Ian Madigan, himself, just about on the comeback trail out in France was parachuted in. Ireland’s blockers in the pack, will be shielding Ireland’s MVP as possible, with the opposition knowing full-well, his importance as a conductor of the outfield.
After Glasgow’s exertions, can Scotland maintain the feel-good factor in Europe?
Vern Cotter is a man of few words at the best of times, but did at least concede that the camp was lifted by a Glasgow side that had thundered into Europe’s last eight with considerable elan. There’s no doubt Scotland are in a better place now, than when Cotter took over at Murrayfield and on paper, so can they kick on?
Well, along with Jonny Gray they have a backline to match of any in the tournament and the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Tommy Seymour who would have right to be miffed if the plane for New Zealand left without them. With three home games, there’s a growing feeling Scotland have the talent to register three wins for the first time since 2006, with Glasgow’s exploits helping to galvanise belief the squad and rid them of any inferiority complex. Scotland’s game management in the final quarters of the tournament will be crucial.
Can Italy be inspired by the (London) Irish?
Conor O’Shea has taken up the challenge of a root and branch upheaval of Italian rugby with his customary zeal, showing off passable Italian, albeit with a Limerick lilt. Sergio Parisse, such a huge figure in the Azzurri changing room, has spoken in glowing terms of his new boss, but look beyond O’Shea and you’ll see he’s assembled a coaching team from his days as a player with London Irish, with whom trust is a key ingredient.
Along with Brendan Venter, the newly appointed defence coach, and attack coach Mike Catt, another former team-mate, O’Shea spearheads a cerebral trio capable of masterminding the odd Italian job on Six Nations counterparts. Rob Howley and his Welsh side will approach that first fixture with ill-disguised trepidation. The only question is, will the Italian side who beat South Africa, or capitulated against Tonga turn up? We won’t have to wait long to find out…
Can being the underdog be helpful to the Wales’ psyche?
In recent years, perhaps since 2011, Wales were used to striding into the Hurlingham club as favourites, or at least sharing the top billing, but for once, Wales enter the Six Nations under the radar, unfancied and with fans unsure quite what to expect from a much-changed Welsh squad.
They host the two most in-form sides in the Northern Hemisphere, and in the past, both Ireland and England have been lifted from the cacophony of noise in the cauldron of the Principality, while they face Italy, Scotland and France on their travels – all fixtures have the potential to turn the most optimistic of Welsh fans puce, but with the incentive of a Lions tour, dampened expectations, and the energy brought by seven new caps, Wales might, just might, start to play with smiles on their faces and cut loose.
Is the loss of England’s big hitters a loss or opportunity?
Eddie Jones is a glass half-full type, and despite missing half of his first-choice pack for the opening game, with nearly 200 caps of experience – Mako and Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and a doubtful James Haskell – he prefers, instead, to focus instead on opportunities for new faces. While there is no doubt the replacements are fine players, the go-forward and work-rate of the missing four, would hurt any side.
Jones wants to have three players for each position leading up to the World Cup and he may well get his wish if his front-line troops keep getting crocked but it does present a silver-lining longer term. Jones, a born winner, will have prepared for all scenarios, and you can bet that if the do succumb to their first loss, he will use it to his benefit.