Next year’s Six Nations should be a cracker . . .
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
BRING IT ON: England coach Eddie Jones has a tough task on his hands at Twickenham