The RBS 6 Nations starts on the weekend and perhaps it will end in the exciting way it did in 2015.
On the last day Ireland, England and Wales were throwing the ball around like lollies at a kids’ party as they chased tries galore to get a better points differential than the other two teams, who were otherwise equal on the ladder.
The 6N teams had a poor group result in the 2015 Rugby World Cup [RWC] but they will put that behind them for this traditional tournament that can have more twists and turns than “Days of our Lives”.
One item of interest is whether or not any team will use this post-RWC competition to remodel their style of play to a higher tempo Southern Hemisphere style, when conditions permit. If so, their blueprint should be Los Pumas: coach Daniel Hourcade has transformed their methodology in a remarkably short time.
Three Kiwis and an Aussie walk into a bar—is this some kind of joke? Maybe, but it could be the coaches of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England wanting a drink.
Eddie Jones, new England coach – will be a lot more fun
Famously, England didn’t progress to the finals of their own RWC and none but the English cared. Their team was not loved.
But after the tenures of Martin Johnson, a deep thinker, and Stuart Lancaster, a decent bloke, England now has a head coach who has achieved at a high level and is not an apprentice learning on the job, as the other two were.
For a decade or more some fine players came and went but not as many England stars emerged as their rugby population suggested it should. And for years they didn’t seize the key moments in the 6N tournament as the side captained by Johnson did.
I don’t know that Eddie Jones can get them out of their second-place rut, but it will be a lot of fun watching him try and listening to his killer remarks. Maybe the England players need to hear a few of Eddie’s barbs to to get them going again.
Yes, Jones can get cranky, and he chose a kindred spirit in Dylan Hartley, who has the shortest fuse in world rugby, to captain his side. Hartley will bring some abrasiveness to a team that needs it, provided he stays on the park.
The new coach would have liked to resolve the dilemma of the England centres but a setback to Manu Tualagi and a broken leg to Henry Slade, a Will Greenwood of a player, may mean that the midfield could be waiting for Godot once more. Meantime in-form Owen Farrell will start at inside centre as a second ball-player.
Hopes of England playing a high tempo game were “scotched” when Danny Cipriani and rising star Elliot Daly were not required for Murrayfield. Anyway, Jones has said his primary goal was to get the forwards on the front foot.
Eddie hasn’t made radical changes to the first England match day team; perhaps he is waiting for the Italy game, or the summer tour, to blood new starting players. There could be one odd selection issue though—reportedly he will move Chris Robshaw to the blindside flank, which is fine, but there is talk that James Haskell will play on the open side, which resolves nothing.
Although England have three games away this year their two home matches are against their closest recent rivals, Ireland and Wales, which will help.
Despite having won Six Nations only once since 2003 when they had one of greatest sides they’ve ever had, the bookies think England will win it this year.
Players to watch: 1. Mike Brown, 2. Owen Farrell, 3. Dylan Hartley
Prediction – 2nd
New France coach Guy Novès – master of the Gallic shrug
France have won more Six Nations titles and Grand Slams than any other country and were tournament heavyweights in the Naughties; but in recent times they have became a shadow of themselves: they finished last in 2013.
In 6N last year they beat only regular cellar-dwellers, Italy and Scotland, and in the RWC they were embarrassed by Ireland in the pool stages and thrashed by New Zealand in the quarter-final.
New helmsman Guy Novès, the master of the Gallic shrug from Toulouse, will struggle to turn SS France around, but he has helped to torpedo the national team as much as anybody has.
The French domestic clubs have the power in French rugby and have crippled their national team; but they don’t seem to care.
Novès recruited many elite overseas players for Toulouse, as did cartoon tycoon Mourad Boudjellal (a cartoon character himself), for Toulon, and others for their clubs. Some years there were few healthy flyhalves in the Top 14 eligible for France, and scrumhalves weren’t in great supply either.
At least Novès is a real coach unlike clueless Philippe Saint-André, his predecessor, though his finishing results at Toulouse were only middling.
France has been either famous, or infamous, for their unpredictability over the years and Novès is making noises that he wants to get away from the dark side of this dilemma by playing with their old flair, but he has had little time with his team to implement that.
As ever, such an expansive purpose must be underwritten by their pack, but they will miss the leadership of Thierry Dusaitour who has retired. New skipper, Guilhem Guirado, is unproven in that capacity but as hooker was in good form in the RWC, as was bruising no. 8 Louis Picamoles.
Boofhead centre Mathieu Bastareaud was overlooked by Novès in his 6N squad but youngster Jonathan Danty, a similar player, looks set for a long future.
I expect a slow game from France until Novès knows his team better and knows who his best players are.
He is rolling the dice choosing ten uncapped players in his training squad for the opener, and if there is risk in that there is also a whiff of excitement about the new guys. But why should a new coach not do that now, coming off a disappointing RWC, and playing Italy?
The halves pairing will be a key selection issue and because of injury to Morgan Parra, tiny debutant scrumhalf Sébastien Bézy is expected to make his bones against the Azzurri, teamed with flyhalf Jules Plisson or hybrid Jean-Marc Doussain.
France benefit from having their two opening games at home, against Italy and a wounded Ireland. If they get a perfect start, their crunch game will be in round three in Cardiff; thence to Murrayfield, and home again against England.
Players to watch: 1. Louis Picamoles, 2. Wesley Fofana, 3. Guilhem Guirado
Click on Page 2 below for more on the RBS 6 Nations preview
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