Six Nations: Ireland have hard act to follow in pursuit of three in a row
With France and England away, third title in succession looks a tall order
Super Saturday was indeed beyond superlative, but it does look a rather long time ago now.
In glorious mid-March conditions the day rained points (221) and tries (27, which matched the tally over the previous four rounds) and was hailed as the greatest in the history of the tournament. The hope and even the theory went that this day of days demonstrated the Northern Hemisphere teams could match the Southern Hemisphere big guns for multi-skilled, adventurous, try-scoring rugby.
So much for that theory.
Almost a year on, it looks even more like a one-off. Even the unfairness of scattered kick-offs had contributed to the fun and games. Liberated by the circumstances of last season’s Six Nations finale, Wales, Ireland and England in turn sought to win the title on points’ difference by filling their boots against Italy, Scotland and France, who joined in the party.
Cue the World Cup, and the Southern Hemisphere sides duly completed a clean sweep over Europe’s finest in the quarter-finals. The final round of the grandly named Rugby Championship, which had been scrapped in readiness for the World Cup, was effectively played off instead over the ensuing two weekends on Europe’s Twickenham doorstep.
Viewed in the global scheme of things therefore, the 2016 Six Nations can be seen as something of a ‘B’ division. But the world’s oldest rugby competition is back, and Europe’s recovery has to start somewhere.
This year’s championship marks the start of a six-year deal between the BBC and ITV which will see eight of the 15 games on the Beeb and seven on ITV.
Ireland’s opener at home to Wales will be on BBC, with their remaining four games on ITV, while all 15 matches will be broadcast live on RTÉ in the penultimate year of its current deal before TV3’s deal for broadcast rights comes into play in 2018.
As a consequence of the new share-out, aside from three spectator unfriendly Sunday matches and a Friday night clash in round three between Wales and France in Cardiff, kick-off times are a movable and disjointed feast ranging from 2.25pm and 4.50pm Irish time over the first three Saturdays to 1.30pm and 4pm and then 2.30pm, 5pm and 8pm on the final two Saturdays.
The final day sees the same match-ups and in the same order, albeit, of course, in opposite home venues, but it would be amazing if the final day came anywhere close to the epic drama of the corresponding day a year ago.
Not that the 2016 Championship isn’t as fiendishly difficult to call again. If anything, given Scotland’s rejuvenation under Vern Cotter and both England and France entering the fray under new head coaches and potentially radically altered teams, it is harder than ever.
And then there is Ireland, who are attempting to make history.
Break new ground
Not only have Ireland never claimed three championships in a row, but no country has. Granted, the advent of deciding the championship on points’ difference only came into being in 1994, but strictly speaking three outright titles in succession would break new ground.
France managed three from 1960 to 1962, but the first of those was shared. Wales did so from 1964 to ’66 but also shared the first of them, as they did in 1970 either side of their titles in 1969 and 1971. France’s four titles from 1986 to 1989 featured shared titles in 1986 and ’88.
At face value, this looks a harder task than the previous two.
As back-to-back champions, Ireland are a prized scalp. It is their first campaign without either or both of their twin totems, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, since 1999. With Cian Healy and Mike Ross also hors de combat for at least the opening two rounds, their tight five looks a tad de-powered, especially in the secondrow when set against Alun Wyn Jones, Courtney Lawes and co.
Even allowing for the high toll of the decisive pool win over France, the World Cup, and particularly the exit against Argentina’s more varied attacking game, suggested Ireland were too narrow and prescriptive, as well as being exposed defensively out wide. But there are still few, if any, smarter coaches around that Joe Schmidt, and if anyone can broaden Ireland’s attacking brush it is the Kiwi.
That said, there is still likely to be a fair degree of familiarity too despite the advent of CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell and Josh van der Flier as backrow options, and Stuart McCloskey in midfield. Ireland also retain a core of very good, seasoned Test players in Rory Best, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney.
So much hinges on the pivotal opener at home to Wales, which will also be played out to the backdrop of who would be the Lion King (ie Warren Gatland or Schmidt). The Welsh have the most settled team and coaching ticket in the championship and they have followed the last two World Cups with Grand Slams under Gatland in 2008 and 2012.
They have issues at fullback, where Leigh Halfpenny is again injured, and at wing where neither George North nor Alex Cuthbert have been tearing up trees this season, although the recalled Tom James has been on fire for the Blues and the return of the influential Jonathan Davies is a huge boon. Rhys Webb is missing to begin with, and allowing for that wondrous match-winning try against England, the World Cup suggested a somewhat blunt attack.
“I think we are in a good place at the moment,” Gatland admits. “We have got some players who have come back from injury. We have still got one or two players who picked up injuries at the World Cup. But 31 of this squad were involved in the World Cup, so there’s a lot of continuity and we go into this tournament with a lot of confidence and self-belief.
“The first up game against Ireland, away from home, is obviously massive for us. If we can get a victory there, it sets us up nicely for the home game against Scotland. Our whole focus is on Ireland away. It’s going to be a pretty tough game and we have been slow starters in this tournament traditionally.”
Mischievously making Ireland the tournament favourites (they are actually joint second at 11/4, with England 7/4 favourites) Gatland added: “With any Irish team, you write them off at your peril. The turnaround in Munster’s performance after a very disappointing display against Stade Francais in Paris shows the desire the Irish are able to produce. We go into this tournament respecting them immensely and particularly given what they’ve achieved under Joe Schmidt the last two seasons. Taking on the defending champions away from home is going to be a huge challenge for us.”
Win in Dublin though, and Wales have home games to come against Scotland and France, a trip to Twickenham (where they have won already this season) and, finally, Italy. Even though kicking off first on that final Saturday, given how the Italians wilt by the end of the campaign, Wales could fill their boots once more if there was a last-day chase for points.
The problem in forecasting how Ireland and Wales will do, is that this fixture is traditionally the most unpredictable of all. Favouritism and playing at home are negligible factors at best.
In the last 35 meetings since 1983, the home side has only won on 11 occasions. Wales have won on three of their last five visits to Dublin.
Traditionally this is also the tougher biennial itinerary for Ireland, coming as it does with visits to Paris and London. Were Ireland to lose to Wales, they have only a six-day turnaround before facing France, with England a fortnight later.
There was a feeling in the French rugby media that the job has come too late for the 61-year-old Guy Novès, who won 14 French titles and four European Cups in his 20-year reign at Toulouse. But judging by his training camp selections and utterances, he still has plenty of fire in his belly and it will be fascinating to see how this prophet in his own land does in the Test arena.
Novès has already made significant changes, with their superb hooker Guilhem Guirado replacing Thierry Dusautoir, who has retired from Test rugby, as captain. The exclusion of Mathieu Bastareaud promises less of the one-dimensional power game so depressingly favoured by Philippe Saint-Andrè, as do recalls for the likes of Maxime Medard and Hugo Bonneval.
France may at least try to play French rugby.
Under Saint-Andrè, Les Bleus finished in the bottom half for four years, failing to beat Ireland once in five attempts or Wales in four, before that sad 62-13 World Cup quarter-final postscript against New Zealand.
Speaking of his expectations for his players, Novès said: “Once we trust him with the jersey emblazoned with the cockerel, his mission is to give pleasure to our supporters and partners.”
If Novès can gather together 23 French players who actually like each other they could be in business.
To assist their hopes of generating momentum, they host Italy on opening weekend and have a seven-day turnaround before welcoming Ireland to the Stade de France, which looks like defining their campaign.
England are liable to be rejuvenated under Eddie Jones, along with former Saracens Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick. A strong defence and set-piece game ought to be the bedrocks of their campaign, and since their 2011 title England have been runners-up every year.
The faltering form of their Bath backs is not encouraging, but against that Owen Farrell and his Saracens buddies have been flying.
Jones’ main task appears to be finding a balanced and potent midfield; a problem which long predates his appointment and one that has been complicated by the absence of Henry Slade and, initially anyway, Manu Tuilagi.
With Italy in Rome eight days later, no less than Scotland, England’s opener in Murrayfield looks to be defining, as they have Ireland and Wales to come to Twickenham in rounds three and four.
Were Scotland to beat the auld enemy in Edinburgh, it would augment the feel-good factor generated by their World Cup showing when controversially losing their quarter-final to Australia by 35-34.
Drawn from two teams, with Pro12 champions Glasgow as bulk suppliers, they have cohesion, have finally unearthed midfielders and Greig Laidlaw showed clear signs during the World Cup of taking his game and leadership to a new level.
In eight of the last 10 years Scotland have finished in the bottom two, but this time they really do look better equipped to take scalps, and certainly more so than Italy.
The Azzurri have accumulated ten wooden spoons since their advent to the Six Nations, and been whitewashed six times, and with outhalf remaining a key problem, it’s difficult to see how this will change in coach Jacques Brunel’s farewell campaign.
Some things don’t change, but on balance a third Irish title in succession looks a tall order.