So it's back. The oldest international rugby tournament in the world, and the self-proclaimed best tournament in the world. This is hard to tally when one considers its southern hemisphere counterpart provided all four of the semi-finalists at the last World Cup but then again it's unlikely that the RBS Six Nations will be the glorified lap of honour which last year's Rugby Championship delivered.
As well as more variety, the Six Nations is generally more competitive. Certainly it would be hard to imagine any team, even all-conquering, reigning Grand Slam champions England, running away with the tournament as New Zealand did with two rounds to spare when ultimately accumulating a maximum 30 points out of 30.
Then again, the introduction of the same bonus points system, under trial for two years, makes it more feasible that the title could be decided before the final round. A little curiously, it’s been introduced within two seasons of what truly was Super Saturday, when Wales, England and Ireland each sought to claim the title on points difference in what is widely regarded as the greatest day in the old tournament’s history. Under the bonus points system, we are never likely to see such a climax again.
Conceivably, with three home games against France, Italy and Scotland as well as a trip to Cardiff, England could rack up a sufficient number of wins and bonus points to have the title sealed by the time they come to the Aviva Stadium for the tournament’s finale on March 17th were Ireland to have slipped up once by then.
England have been shorn of the Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, Chris Robshaw and, for their opening match at home to France, James Haskell but have the strength in depth to cope, with the phenomenal Maro Itoje liable to switch to “6” given their secondrow resources.
Indeed, by comparison, the loss of Wesley Fofana with a long-term Achilles injury looks to be an even bigger blow to France, as well as the tournament itself, given Fofana’s form last November under the more enlightened guidance of Guy Novés.
The Clermont 10-12-13 trio of Camille Lopez, Fofana and Rémi Lamerat , were the creative core of France’s rejuvenated form in November when had they beaten Australia and/or New Zealand, as they might easily have done, their odds would certainly be less than 12/1 now.
Admittedly, we’ve seen French November false dawns before, witness ensuing finishes of 4th, 6th, 4th, 4th and 5th in the last five seasons. But this cannot last for ever, can it? France, as ever, could be anything.
Scotland are fifth in the betting at 25/1, which says everything about the tournament’s competitiveness. They host Ireland on opening day next Saturday buoyed by the best Glasgow/Edinburgh European form to date, with a pack built around the machine that is Jonny Gray, and more of a cutting edge than they’ve had in yonks with the creativity of Finn Russell and the finishing of Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett and Tommy Seymour.
Joe Schmidt would most probably take a one-point win from that now. With that, Ireland would have the momentum to take with them to Rome and their rendezvous with Conor O'Shea, before a two-week break prior to hosting France. Ireland's penultimate game is the Friday night fixture away to Wales, which at least affords an eight-day turnaround into that finale against England.
Consistently proven themselves
Wales, as ever, will assuredly still be going strong by then, for they have consistently proven themselves to be durable in tournaments. A six-day turnaround from their opener in Rome to hosting England isn’t helpful, but they have a litany of experienced internationals in their prime under the captaincy of Alun Wyn Jones, who extols the virtues of collective leadership. “I don’t want followers. Followers are for Twitter.”
Like Ireland, they have a low injury profile and cannot be discounted either, and yet one of this quintet are doomed to finish at least as low as fifth. And then there’s Italy, already feeling the infectious positive energy of O’Shea, witnessed in their autumnal win over South Africa.
The vagaries of the fixture lists are the consequences of the TV-dictated scheduling, which this season accommodates UK co-rights holders ITV as well as BBC. Clearly, the Six Nations doesn’t fit into their Saturday night scheduling, and so in addition to one Friday night game and three Sunday games, the 11 Saturday games are a movable feast but condensed into afternoon schedules, with no Saturday night matches, even in Paris.
Indeed, the final Saturday is being run off with indecent haste, as the concluding Ireland-England encounter begins at 5pm, the latest Saturday kick-off of the tournament, with the first game between Scotland and Italy set for a 12.30pm starting time.
Imagine the additional havoc that could be wreaked by the English clubs’ self-serving demands to condense the Six Nations into five weekends, and the physical damage to players not to mention the inconvenience to rugby lovers over Europe?
As well as all this Six Nations taking place to the backdrop of a daunting Lions tour to New Zealand, the World Cup draw is in May and the next eight weeks provides the last raft of rugby before the rankings, and with it seedings, are determined for that group draw.
Argentina, ranked ninth, will look on with interest and hope that either Scotland or France slip below then. Ireland are currently ranked fourth, in the top band of seeds. They’ll need to go some to maintain that, but if they can emerge from Murrayfield unscathed, they’ve every chance of taking their title challenge all the way to what could be a truly tumultuous climax.
For, as has been the case for the last six seasons, finish above England and you win the tournament.