All to play for as Six Nations starts
Bangalnama | Saturday, February 4, 2017, 10:10 am
The eyes of the rugby world will turn to Europe when the 2017 Six Nations gets underway on Saturday.
Edinburgh will be the initial centre of attention, with Scotland opening the tournament against Ireland at Murrayfield before, a few hours later, Grand Slam champions England begin the defence of their Six Nations title at home to France.
This time last year gloom enveloped European rugby after the continent had failed to provide a single semi-finalist at the 2015 World Cup in England.
But 12 months on and the mood is one of cautious optimism. England are on a 14-match winning streak while November saw Ireland beat world champions New Zealand for the first time in their history.
And that was not the only landmark result in November, with Italy, so often Six Nations makeweights, recording a maiden victory over South Africa.
An improving France ran both New Zealand and Australia close, there were signs of Scotland’s increasingly attack-minded game and if Wales did not hit the heights they wanted, neither England nor Ireland will relish a Six Nations clash in Cardiff.
“Look at the form of the contestants, it’s very positive, bubbling isn’t it?,” said excited England coach Eddie Jones.
“Ireland turned world rugby upside down…Scotland have been promising to beat a big side for a long time, Italy under Conor O’Shea beat South Africa, a fantastic achievement,” the Australian added.
“Wales –- Rob Howley has got a chance of being head coach so he’s going to take them forward. France should have beaten Australia; take the intercept out and they’d have beaten New Zealand.”
But don’t tell Jones that England are “defending” the Grand Slam.
“You don’t defend a Grand Slam, you have to win it again,” the former Australia and Japan coach insisted.
Howley, one of only two men coaching the country of his birth this Six Nations along with France’s Guy Noves, is in interim charge of Wales again after Warren Gatland was seconded to the British and Irish Lions coach for the combined side’s tour of his native New Zealand later this year.
Ask any player with a chance of Lions selection and the stock response is that all they are concentrating on is the next game, but there’s no denying the tour will loom large over the Six Nations.
This Six Nations will be the first to feature bonus points and the tournament will be the final chance to change teams’ world ranking ahead of the pool draw for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
But the biggest change could be with referees who will now have greater powers to clamp down on head-high tackles, long illegal in rugby union, after a mid-season edit from World Rugby in response to the growing number of concussion injuries.
“It is the right approach, I support it 100 percent,” said Jones. “But there is going to be a period where red and yellow is going to be a very popular colour and you’ve just got to be able to cope with that.”