Six Nations 2016: Eddie Jones dreams of England triumph but Wales look hottest

England face horrible opening fixture in Scotland so smart money is on Gatland’s men with Ireland missing key players  

Chris Hewett
Rugby Union correspondent
Saturday 06 February 2016 01:32
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Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks around the stadium on a pre match visity to Murrayfield Stadium on February 5, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks around the stadium on a pre match visity to Murrayfield Stadium on February 5, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

England’s initial taste of the new now at Murrayfield is not guaranteed to be sweet, or even palatable. The weather is expected to be “dreek” – Scottish slang for something miserably grey and wet, which pretty much sums up the visitors’ World Cup campaign before Christmas – and as the home side’s performance in that competition was significantly better than the red-rose version, they are perfectly justified in fancying their chances of a first Calcutta Cup victory in eight long years.

Not that things are looking especially bright for either team, given the way the Six Nations Championship is set up for Wales. Of all the teams in the competition, the Red Dragons are the most comfortable in their own collective skin. They also have a track record of winning titles in the wake of a World Cup tournament – indeed, they were Grand Slammers in both 2008 and 2012.

And if you think this year’s schedule militates against their chances of completing another clean sweep, think again. Sunday's opener in Dublin hardly puts them on Easy Street, but Ireland find themselves shorn of some very important players – Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien – and may well struggle to show the best of themselves. And anyway, the most recent Welsh Slams started with wins on the road: the first of them at Twickenham, when they reeled in England by scoring at a point a minute in the last quarter of an hour; the second in… you guessed it, the Fair City across the water.

None of this will be of the slightest interest to the new England coach, Eddie Jones. His dearest wish – his only wish, in fact – is to see his players leave Edinburgh in one piece, having played well enough to release the pressure valve in time for next weekend’s meeting with Italy in Rome. Victory over the Scots would give Jones the freedom to blood a couple of uncapped rookies and stare down those who are desperate to convict him of selectorial conservatism in the first degree. Defeat? That would turn the game with the Azzurri, to whom England have never lost, into a death-row affair.

It is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that the Italians will go into the match with a win under their belts. They set the tournament in motion today by taking on France in Paris and, while Sergio Parisse and company are on a low after a World Cup misfire of their own, they will take the field knowing every bit as much about their opponents as the Tricolores know about themselves.

Les Bleus are currently a mystery that passeth all understanding, not least because, on the evidence of the World Cup campaign, they no longer understand how to pass. Guy Novès, national coach at long last after seemingly spending most of the 20th century as well as all of this one running a local fiefdom in Toulouse, will have his own ideas on restoring his country’s traditional virtues with ball in hand, but it could take him a while.

Novès may have a better idea than the rest of us about the new Fijian-born wing Virimi Vakatawa – a player so unfamiliar with the 15-man game after a long spell as a seven-a-side specialist that he does not even have a club. He may think he knows precisely what the inside-centre Jonathan Danty and the lock Paul Jedrasiak will bring to the mix on their debuts and how the hooker Guilhem Guirado will cope with the burden of leadership suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon him. But rugby is not an exact science, and French rugby is more imprecise than most other kinds. They could be anything, everything or nothing today. You pays your money…

The promotion of Guirado, a fiercely competitive but less than talkative Catalan, to the position of on-field commander-in-chief follows something of a trend. Ireland have appointed another hooker, Rory Best of Ulster, as captain at the start of the post-Paul O’Connell era, while England have famously, perhaps notoriously, gone for dear old Dylan Hartley, whose renown as an ultra-reliable set-piece operator blessed with the full range of footballing skills must be balanced against a reputation of another kind.

You do not need to be a soothsayer to see Hartley as a central character over the seven-week stretch of this five-round competition. If he can find a way of playing on the edge of the precipice without disappearing from view – if he can summon the furies while maintaining his focus and keeping his temper – the New Zealand-born front-rower from Northampton has the ability to justify the faith and trust shown in him by Jones. If he fails to get through the tournament without giving the disciplinary class a reason to get on his case, hard questions will be asked of the coach’s judgement.

The man who will find himself staring into Hartley’s eyes, the highly experienced Edinburgh forward Ross Ford, recognises the method in what some critics regard as Jones’ madness. “I’ve gone up against Dylan a few times: I’ve always found him to be hard and aggressive and a good set-piece operator,” Ford said yesterday. “I’d expect the same again this time. Yes, he’s the captain now, but I don’t see that changing the way he plays. He’s been picked because of the qualities he brings.”

Back in the good old bad old days, Ford would have been under firm instructions to play the wind-up card, on the basis that a distracted Hartley would be one rash act away from making a premature exit from the contest. But that is rarely the way of it in the modern age. As Nathan Hines, the frank and forthright Australian lock who won a mountain of caps for Scotland before being appointed as an assistant coach, put it yesterday: “Winding up Hartley? It’s a waste of energy. Better to put the effort into our own game.”

You could see his point, not least because the Scottish forwards are fully loaded in the legitimate sense. The imported South African prop Willem Nel has stabilised the scrum; Jonny Gray is a supremely athletic, high-tempo Lions Test lock in the making; David Denton’s energy at No 8 adds something extra to the World Cup quarter-finalists’ attacking game. And then there are the two scavenging groundhogs on the flanks, John Barclay and John Hardie.

Two natural open-sides in the same back row might appear to be one too many, but Wales cleaned out England on the deck as well as everywhere else when they paired Sam Warburton, their ball-pilfering captain, with the similarly light-fingered Justin Tipuric a little under three years ago (the same men will be in tandem against Ireland tomorrow). More to the point, the Australians have been pulling this stunt for years. Michael Hooper and David Pocock were the perfect partners at the last World Cup, just as George Smith and Phil Waugh gave bigger, more traditionally equipped back-row units a hurry-up at the 2003 tournament. And who was responsible for bringing those two together? That would be a bloke by the name of Eddie Jones.

On his own admission, the Wallaby coach-turned-red-rose-supremo is grappling with three significant problems: the make-up of the midfield axis, the restoration of the England scrum as a weapons-grade force; and the balance of the loose-forward combination. Of these issues, the most intractable may be the last. England do not have a natural No 7 in their squad for this game. Scotland? They have two in the starting line-up and a third, Blair Cowan, on the bench.

Jones will know that Barclay went close to beating England on his own at Twickenham before the 2011 World Cup. He will also know plenty about Hardie, who was tempted away from his native New Zealand last year and fast-tracked into the Test team without being asked to play for any Scottish side of lesser status. If Hardie’s extraordinary handling ruffled a few feathers among the country’s old-school die-hards, no one is moaning now.

Scotland may not have a better opportunity to reclaim the long-lost Calcutta Cup this side of the 2019 global gathering in Japan, and if that thought inspires them to do a job in front of the massed ranks of bagpipers, the Six Nations will probably remain in Celtic hands, if not necessarily their own. While the Scots have only one more fixture on their own soil, both Wales and Ireland have three home games. One or other of them will surely make the advantage count.

The smart money is on Wales propelling the most successful coach in these islands, Warren Gatland, towards the British & Irish Lions coaching job for next year’s trek around All Black country. They have the majority of their best players fit and available, including the outstanding Warburton; they can deliver the ultra-physical, collision-based style known as “Warrenball” in their sleep; and they have enough wit and instinct to play a wider, more expansive game if the situation so demands.

Not so very long ago, the top brass at Twickenham expressed the view that England and France should always meet in the last game of the tournament on the grounds that they were the elite nations and would, more often than not, decide the destination of the title between them. If it seemed a smug thing to say at the time, it looks spectacularly crass in retrospect. England-France just happens to be the final act of this year’s Championship, but it may not amount to a row of beans.

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