Round one of the 2020 Six Nations has already happened – the media's grilling of the head coaches and captains. Rugby World reports from London's docklands
First skirmishes at 2020 Six Nations launch
First hurdle cleared, five to go. For the captains and coaches of the Six Nations teams, the media launch that precedes the tournament is as mentally taxing as any of the matches. Question after question is fired at them and carefully batted away, with one slip of the tongue potentially harming a country’s chances for weeks to come.
This year’s launch had a new venue, tournament sponsors Guinness having swapped the slightly cramped confines of the Hurlingham Club in Fulham for the wide spaces and wow factor of Wapping. Tobacco Dock was built in 1812 as a hub for cargo arriving from the New World and its listed timbers and curved brick vaults make a grand if chilly setting. Part of its colourful history, commemorated by a statue near the entrance, is a heroic rescue act in 1857 after an imported tiger escaped and attacked a boy.
Today’s wild animals are the hordes of journalists scenting stories for their newspapers, websites and television channels. In his recent book about New Zealand’s World Cup campaign, Kiwi Jamie Wall wrote that the English and Irish press “don’t have as much sentimental attachment as we do and therefore hunt as a pack. We like to think we’re fairly critical of the All Blacks but compared with the Poms the vast majority of Kiwi writers are basically just a thinly veiled PR machine”.
The days of casually mingling with your interviewees are long gone. The coaches and captains, men and women following identical schedules, are whisked from room to room by minders for precisely managed “rotation sessions”, 25 minutes in duration. There’s a room for ‘Dailies & Sundays’, of course, but also for Radio & Podcasts, Online & Social, Broadcasters, Host Broadcasters, Guinness Social & Open Photoshoot and Six Nations Partners.
Other rooms house crews and equipment while Will Carling spends much of the morning with AWS, a company promoting the new enhanced stats service that will feature heat maps and kick predictors and metrics on rucking efficiency. A large lounge, where journalists can get fed and watered, is busy throughout and offers a chance to warm up.
While most of the questions concern each country’s prospects for the championship, the England press conferences inevitably take a different turn in the wake of Saracens’ recent relegation from the Premiership for repeatedly breaching the salary cap.
Owen Farrell, addressing a room of some 80 journalists, starts by effectively saying he’s not here to talk about Saracens, which prompts lots of questions about Saracens. It’s not long before Eddie Jones, who’s not used to being a sideshow, intervenes irritably to steer the questions back to the championship.
If there is a line to come from the subject, it’s that England will have a clear-the-air meeting in their Algarve training camp. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get it all out on the table,” says Jones. “If players are angry about it then say it, get it out on the table.”
The conference rooms in which the sessions are held are located on a long tiled corridor, at the end of which is a replica of a merchant ship that used to transport tobacco and spices from the East and West Indies. It was designed to be a floating pirate museum for kids when Tobacco Dock became a shopping precinct but the project failed, and now the Dock is a successful events venue for IT businesses, Christmas parties and so forth.
“We chose this space because it’s very Guinness,” a member of the PR team tells me, and the company has taken the opportunity of plugging their Guinness Clear – 100% water! – as part of a campaign to promote moderate drinking. Commemorative bottles will be given to the Player of the Match through the men’s and women’s championships.
Other lines to emerge from proceedings include Alun Wyn Jones expecting a “bumpy road” for Wales as they transition after the long reign of Warren Gatland, Stuart Hogg revealing that he asked to be appointed Scotland captain, and Fabien Galthié, standing out in his shades and white shoes, explaining his mission to rebuild the France team’s relationship with fans.
The women’s championship presently produces far more mismatches and a major talking point is whether a rethink is needed over the format. France and England – who between them have won all but two of the 18 Six Nations tournaments to date – meet on the opening weekend and the victors will be expected to march on towards another title.
It’s comparatively early days in its evolution but how heartening to see the women sharing equal billing with the men at the launch, helping to grow the championship step by step.
The men’s tournament kicks off with Wales-Italy and Ireland-Scotland on Saturday 1 February, with France-England the following afternoon. It will be broadcast in more than 170 countries and more than a million people will attend the 15 matches. New digital viewer records are predicted, including surpassing the 2019 figure of 47m video views.
With so many new faces and head coaches, picking a men’s winner in January is a mug’s game. But it’s interesting to note that the last four championships that followed a World Cup were won with a Grand Slam: France in 2004, Wales in 2008 and 2012, England in 2016. Will someone win big in 2020? Within eight weeks or so we will find out.
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