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Six Nations 2016 preview: State of the nations

As this year’s Six Nations tournament is launched, Chris Hewett looks forward to a mouth-watering round of matches on the opening weekend

Chris Hewett
Rugby Union Correspondent
Thursday 28 January 2016 00:21 GMT
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England captain Dylan Hartley and Wales' skipper Sam Warburton with the trophy
England captain Dylan Hartley and Wales' skipper Sam Warburton with the trophy (Getty Images)

Thanks to the age-old rivalries at its heart, the Six Nations has the highest profile, the biggest audience and the healthiest bank balance of any annual tournament in world rugby. If a theatrical impresario had scheduled the fixtures for this year’s championship, which received its formal launch yesterday, he could not have come up with a more enticing opening round: three matches steeped in their own history that will leave the losers facing some difficult questions.

Scotland v England Farrell at centre of Jones’ thoughts

Eddie Jones is wisecracking his way through his early weeks as England’s first overseas head coach, a period he calls his “honeymoon phase”.

The Australian was at his fast-talking best once again as the tournament’s top brass convened in one of London’s swankier postcodes: there was a brilliant one-liner about the new red-rose style – “We don’t want to be reckless, but we don’t want to be like the old Stoke City either, just sticking the ball in the air on the basis that if you minimise the time the ball is in play, you minimise the chance of the other team scoring” – and some clever words designed to heap the pressure on Scotland ahead of Calcutta Cup day.

None of which seemed to register with his rival coach and fellow Antipodean – the granite-faced Trappist from All Black country, Vern Cotter. If the two men were once neighbours in the geographical sense, they inhabit different universes when it comes to public performance. Jones has been known to say more in a single sentence than Cotter manages in an entire season.

There was information to be gleaned from the Scotland camp even so. Both first-choice centres, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett, are struggling for fitness – Dunbar has no chance of facing England at Murrayfield; his partner is in “maybe, maybe not” territory – and with Peter Horne considered to be off-limits, Cotter’s midfield options are thin on the ground.

Of course, England have not been able to settle on a centre pairing of their own for more than a decade, and while Jones is keen to see Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi in tandem, neither the young playmaker from Exeter nor the human bowling ball from Leicester are currently available to him. Hence the coach’s decision to talk up Owen Farrell’s potential as a problem-solving No 12.

“Owen is a tough player – one of our toughest nuts,” he said, enthusiastically. “There’s no reason he can’t play 12 very successfully: he can carry, he can kick, he can pass, he loves hitting people in defence. And he’s working so well with George Ford (the outside-half). The initiative they’ve shown in driving how we want to attack from various phases has been really pleasing – as good as anything I’ve seen from players around the world.”

Yet for all the midfield talk, neither Jones nor Cotter expect the game to be won anywhere other than up front. The England hierarchy are working overtime on restoring the set-piece, close-quarter authority that went missing during last autumn’s World Cup – “That’s our major project, without a doubt,” admitted Jones – while the Scots believe they are in a good position to capitalise on their improvement in this area, which happens to have coincided with the appearance of the South African import Willem Nel on the tight-head side of the scrum.

“It’s about the collective mindset, not about one man,” Cotter said with characteristic caution. “But the set-piece is certainly an important part of the game. England have identified that by picking a hooker as their new captain.”

Jones is so keen to drag the red-rose pack up by its bootlaces, he has persuaded an old protégé from Australia, the much-decorated Wallaby George Smith, to help out with the breakdown work in training, and drafted in a brick-hard England hooker of yesteryear, Graham Dawe, to hammer the front row into shape. The new head coach may be a confident sort, but he is not above calling in the cavalry ahead of a visit to a city where England have experienced too many Last Stands of the Custer variety.

Ireland v Wales Sexton puts a smile on Schmidt’s face

Over the last eight years, the title has gone to one or other of the two Celtic heavyweights on no fewer than six occasions. And while this tournament opener in Dublin no longer has a Lions coaching dimension attached to it – Joe Schmidt, the Ireland boss, revealed yesterday that he was contractually precluded from leading the British Isles collective to New Zealand in 2017, leaving Warren Gatland of Wales as a molten favourite – there will be no shortage of interest.

If Schmidt is wary of these opponents, he has his reasons. Red-shirted triumphs on emerald turf are not exactly unheard of, and the Irish have serious injury issues: Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry have been hors de combat for some time; the Leinster prop Marty Moore has joined his fellow forwards on the casualty list after tearing a hamstring last week.

“We have a very complicated start ahead of us and there’s a lot of pressure,” the coach acknowledged when asked to assess Ireland’s chances of landing a third successive title. “You can’t afford to lose more than one game if you’re hoping to win the tournament, so if we go down to Wales before a trip to France on a short, six-day turnaround, we’ll be in a tough position. And Wales are the biggest team of all – the stats tell us they’re 106kg a man – and given the physical nature of the way they play…”

As the search intensified for good news from the champions’ perspective, the name Johnny Sexton cropped up. At which point, Schmidt broke into something resembling a smile. “He’s passed all his head injury assessments,” he reported, referring to the high-class No 10’s latest concussion problem, “and he’s bouncing in training. He’s tougher than people imagine.

“There was a lot of unsavoury talk about him being targeted before our World Cup game with France last October, but that’s adding fuel to the fire as far as he’s concerned. People don’t realise how stubborn he is, how brave he is in standing his ground.”

Wales have a similar quality and proved as much by rising above a calamitous body-count to beat England at last year’s global gathering. Gatland is confident that the Red Dragon barricades will be as unstormable as ever. “The fact that we conceded three tries during the World Cup gives us some confidence in this area,” he said with one of his knowing smiles – and believes there will be a broadening of his side’s attacking game if the stars are in the right alignment and the referees play their part.

“When we played Ireland before the World Cup, the ball was in play for 44 minutes,” he said. “When we played Italy in our last warm-up, it was 24 minutes. If the man in the middle is aware and does his job, then we’ll get the speed of ball we need to play.”

Gatland, who once coached Ireland, rather enjoys damning his old team’s attacking game with faint praise. “You have to take your hat off to them – they have a good kicking strategy and they’re brilliant in the air,” he said, turning the stiletto, at yesterday’s event. But that was the extent of the assault. “What I’ve learned is that you don’t write them off,” he added. “You don’t criticise defending champions.”

France v Italy Something different is Novès’ promise

Italy know what it is to beat their fellow continental mainlanders, but they went down 29-zip in Rome last season and are in a worse place now. “We have lost 13 players to injury and have very little experience in the squad,” said their departing coach, Jacques Brunel, getting his excuses in first. “Our objective is to be competitive, but we have very little time. In fact, we should be practising as we speak.”

Yet the thing the Italians cannot know – namely, how the hell the French intend to play under their new boss, Guy Novès – may help them, not least because Les Bleus have no clear idea themselves. Novès is one of the great men of European rugby, the principal driving force behind the wondrous Toulouse sides of the 90s and the Noughties, but he has quite a task on his hands to restore the national team to something like its former glory after a traumatic World Cup exit at the hands of the All Blacks.

“I will not go into detail, but we will play rugby differently,” he promised. “Some of the things I have found since becoming coach, I will keep. But I also know we must adapt to the way the game has evolved. If you say that the French team of 30 years ago was exhilarating and that today’s team is not up to that level, you miss the point. Rugby is, first of all, a collective fight within the laws of the game. Once we win that fight, we can play. We want to be spectacular, yes, but we must also be efficient.”

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