PREVIEW: New era adds to Six Nations intrigue
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: The first Six Nations following a World Cup is often a time of renewal but the 2020 Championship has a particularly fresh feel ahead of this weekend’s opening round.
Only England coach Eddie Jones and Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend remain from last season’s edition, with Grand Slam champions Wales, Ireland, France and Italy all under new management.
England appear the team to beat after reaching last year’s World Cup Final in Japan.
But the already tough task of reviving morale following a crushing 12-32 defeat by South Africa has been compounded by the salary-cap scandal engulfing English and European champions Saracens.
There are seven Saracens in Jones’s squad, including captain and playmaker Owen Farrell.
Jones, doing his best to deflect attention from the situation at Saracens, recently proclaimed in typically bullish fashion that “my aim is to make England the greatest rugby team the world has ever seen,” even though his current deal ends next year.
Since the inaugural 1987 edition, the World Cup has become the yardstick by which Test teams are judged no matter how much success they enjoy in the intervening four years.
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‘Rugby to remember’
But Jones has loftier ambitions: “I think you can win Grand Slams without playing great rugby, as you can win a World Cup without playing great rugby,” he said.
“I am talking about playing sustainable rugby that people remember.”
England open their Six Nations away to France, who but for the reckless loss of control that saw Sebastien Vahaamahina sent off against Wales, might well have reached a World Cup semifinal.
‘Les Bleus’ have won the last two Under-20 world titles and former France scrumhalf Fabien Galthie is now in charge of a youthful squad featuring Alexandre Roumat, Damian Penaud and Romain Ntamack, all of whose fathers played Test rugby.
It is 10 years since France were last crowned champions of Europe but there are signs the 2023 World Cup hosts may be on the verge of coming good.
“We’re trying to put together a team for the long-term,” said Galthie.
To see this Six Nations as England and France’s to lose ignores Wales, now coached by Wayne Pivac after his fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland called time on a 12-year reign that included three Grand Slams and two World Cup semifinals.
Pivac has spent the past five years coaching the Scarlets and Wales lock Jake Ball, who played under him for the Llanelli-based club, said: “I think Wayne is very clear on the way he wants to play…We want to play an exciting brand of rugby.”
Ireland travelled to Japan with high hopes only to suffer fresh World Cup woe as a shock pool defeat by the hosts preceded a quarterfinal thrashing by New Zealand.
By then Andy Farrell, assistant to former boss Joe Schmidt, had already been installed as the New Zealander’s successor.
But can someone so closely associated with the old regime preside over a new era especially as this is the first time Farrell, the father of the England captain, has been in a head coach role?
Winning away has long been Scotland’s biggest issue in the Six Nations but Townsend had a new problem when he felt obliged to drop flyhalf Finn Russell for this weekend’s opener in Dublin after the playmaker missed training following a late-night drinking session.
“The door is open for any player,” Townsend said.
Russell’s absence paves the way for Adam Hastings, the son of Scotland great Gavin, to start at flyhalf, with fullback Stuart Hogg the new captain in a side without Greig Laidlaw following the scrumhalf’s Test retirement.
Simply winning would be a bonus for Italy, whose first match under South African coach Franco Smith is a daunting trip to Cardiff.
Having become the ‘sixth’ nation in 2000, Italy – who have a new captain in Luca Bigi as Sergio Parisse eyes the end of his career – are now without a Championship victory in 22 matches in five years.
It would be a huge shock were that dire record to end in Cardiff, with Smith admitting: “I don’t think it is ever easy to play them [Wales] at the Millennium Stadium.”