Next year’s Six Na­tions should be a cracker . . .

The Herald - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STU­ART BATH­GATE

Ev­ery­one has ac­knowl­edged that North­ern Hemi­sphere teams were off the pace at the World Cup, and ev­ery­one is do­ing what they can to be­gin to re­dress the bal­ance

CAN we start the Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship this week­end please? We’ve had some PRO 12 games since the World Cup, and two rounds of Euro­pean fix­tures for most teams, so it seems only fair that we now re­turn to Test-match rugby.

All right, in re­al­ity we’ll all have to wait un­til early Fe­bru­ary, but I can’t be the only one ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with­drawal symp­toms from the in­ter­na­tional game. And in any case, a de­sire to see Scot­land take on their tra­di­tional ri­vals is not merely fu­elled by some wist­ful mem­o­ries of what was, by com­mon con­sent, the best World Cup yet. The other, more im­por­tant mo­tive is a be­lief that we could be about to wit­ness the most com­pet­i­tive cham­pi­onship for decades – one in which Vern Cot­ter’s team may well play a lead­ing role.

The World Cup ended on an op­ti­mistic note for Scot­land, who were the last re­main­ing Six Na­tions team in the tour­na­ment, al­beit only be­cause of the tim­ing of the quar­ter-fi­nals. Noth­ing in the in­terim has hap­pened to af­fect that op­ti­mism, in the sense that the squad is clearly well po­si­tioned to keep on im­prov­ing for years to come.

But the in­trigu­ing thing, the fac­tor that should make us look for­ward with real an­tic­i­pa­tion to the cham­pi­onship as a whole, not just to Scot­land’s per­for­mances within it, is the pos­i­tive change that other coun­tries have un­der­gone over the past few weeks. Ev­ery­one has ac­knowl­edged that North­ern Hemi­sphere teams were off the pace at the World Cup, and ev­ery­one is do­ing what they can to be­gin to re­dress the bal­ance.

Eng­land have hogged the head­lines, of course, with the ap­point­ment of the most quotable man in the sport, Ed­die Jones. But France have a new coach too, in Guy Noves, and the other na­tions are also re­build­ing.

In short, no-one is stand­ing still. We may not get to see any of the teams in ac­tion on the field for a couple of months, but there is sure to be a lot of fran­tic ac­tiv­ity be­hind the scenes.

Jones is an en­ter­tain­ing fig­ure and his abil­ity is be­yond dis­pute. But what is really in­trigu­ing about his ar­rival at Twickenham is the mas­sive cul­ture clash it could bring.

The Aus­tralian is imp­ish, ir­rev­er­ent and icon­o­clas­tic: char­ac­ter traits that could hardly con­trast more sharply with the po-faced and pedes­trian mind­set that has held sway at the Rugby Foot­ball Union for too long. There is no guar­an­tee that he will be able to put an end to English rugby’s un­der­achieve­ment, but there is a risk that his em­ploy­ers will fail to give him the full back­ing he will need to have the best chance of suc­ceed­ing.

At best, Jones will en­able Eng­land to make the most of their re­sources. At worst, he will – like Brian Clough when he took over at Leeds United – be un­able to over­come some im­pla­ca­ble re­sis­tance. The first may be more likely than the sec­ond, but the size and na­ture of the task that awaits Jones is far dif­fer­ent than the one he un­der­took so suc­cess­fully with Ja­pan.

If Jones’ job is to in­ject an al­most alien vi­vac­ity into Eng­land’s play, Guy Noves needs to en­sure France re­dis­cover an ebul­lient style of play that was once sec­ond na­ture to them. At 61, the for­mer Toulouse coach might not seem like many peo­ple’s idea of a new broom – “I’m not Zorro and I don’t have a magic wand” he said at his un­veil­ing – but he does not have to be.

Re­liev­ing the gloom that pre­vailed un­der Philippe St An­dre will be Noves’ prin­ci­pal job. Once he does that, he and his as­sis­tants – for­wards coach Yan­nick Bru, backs coach Jean-Fred­eric Dubois and de­fence coach Ger­ald Bastide – will en­sure the team trains and plays with the req­ui­site self­dis­ci­pline. The play­ers them­selves will then do the rest.

Italy had a dis­mal World Cup and a scarcely bet­ter Six Na­tions. Their coach, Jac­ques Brunel, has al­ready rung the changes, se­lect­ing a sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered squad camp for this week’s train­ing camp in Tre­viso. The new­com­ers in­cluded three men of non-Ital­ian ori­gin: lock Dean Budd, a New Zealand-born 29-year-old; An­dries van Schalk­wyk, a 30-year-old, Bloem­fontein-born back-row for­ward; and Braam Steyn, a No 8 who is an­other South African.

The Ital­ians, whose first match is in Paris, will find the Six Na­tions tough. They al­ways do. But at least they are con­fronting their prob­lems head on.

Wales and Ire­land, like Scot­land, have en­joyed more con­ti­nu­ity than the oth­ers, and rightly so. The Welsh, hav­ing achieved so much de­spite hor­ren­dous in­jury prob­lems, will go into next year in buoy­ant mood. Ire­land will have to com­pen­sate for the re­ti­ral of Paul O’Connell, and bounce back from the quar­ter-fi­nal loss to Ar­gentina, but they too can af­ford to be op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture.

In their dif­fer­ent ways, all six na­tions can. That is why the 2016 cham­pi­onship prom­ises to be the most dy­namic and un­pre­dictable for ages. Wait­ing for the first round of fix­tures is likely to be­come a ma­jor frus­tra­tion over the com­ing weeks.

TOMORROW Kevin Fer­rie

Pic­ture: PA

BRING IT ON: Eng­land coach Ed­die Jones has a tough task on his hands at Twickenham

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