France favourites and England rebuilding in unusually unpredictable Six Nations | Andy Bull
Twickenham Stadium has a particular smell on a game day. It’s the fug of sweat and condensed breath when you’re pressed up close, sizzling sausages and onions, spilled beer, mud, waxed jackets and, when it’s raining, of wet wool. You used to catch gusts of cigar smoke, too, until they banned smoking. I never thought I would miss it particularly, but round about now anything that offers a hint of spring is welcome. After the past two years, when the Six Nations lost so much of its colour and fun while it was being played in empty stadiums, the prospect of having it back again feels pretty good.
That’s the thing other fans never understand. When people say the Six Nations is the best tournament in the world, they are not talking about the quality of the rugby but everything around it: the good cheer and bellyfuls of beer, the walk down Whitton Road, the Royal Welsh’s regimental goat, the first burst of La Marseillaise and (better yet for everyone else) the way the French will hoot and whistle their own team when they’re losing, the painfully slow going of the opposition coach when stuck behind the pipe band on a slate-grey day at Murrayfield, The Fields of Athenry, the uproar in Cardiff city centre.
It will be enough to have all that back or as much of it as the restrictions on travelling fans allow. But this year, as it happens, the rugby is shaping up to be pretty good too.
Just ask Eddie Jones. He used to cross his fingers when asked about that view of the tournament. “When I started six years ago, they were always talking about how it’s ‘the greatest rugby tournament in the world’,” he told me last month. “And you know probably under my breath I was saying: ‘I don’t think that’s the case,’ but now I don’t think there’s any debate.”
Well, maybe Jones would say that given England finished fifth in 2021, but even the people who take most of what he says with a pinch of salt will agree he has a point. This tournament is set to be the most competitive in years.
At the end of November, the northern sides won a clean sweep over the four southern hemisphere teams. England beat South Africa by a point, Wales did the same against Australia , and, in the standout match of the year, France beat New Zealand by 15. It was the first time the three teams had been beaten on the same weekend since 2002.
Scotland, who had defeated Australia a fortnight earlier, beat Japan at Murrayfield. The following day, Ireland, who had beaten the All Blacks the previous week, thrashed Argentina 53-7. If you were a European, it was the best weekend of Test rugby in a very long time.
The world lurched, but it has not turned upside quite yet. South Africa and New Zealand top the rankings and they and Australia, too, had their own good reasons why they underperformed on tour, but there is an undeniable sense of something stirring.
The All Blacks coach, Ian Foster, said at the end of the autumn: “The top six or seven teams in world rugby right now are strong.” Jones agrees: “The five bigger countries are all on an upward curve.”
Every one of them can beat the other and each will believe they are capable of winning a grand slam, which is precisely why pulling it off has never been harder.
It says a lot about how good France are that they start as clear favourites. The schedule suits them, too, because it begins with home games against Italy and Ireland, who have become quietly formidable under Andy Farrell. They have now won their past eight Tests.
England are intriguing, still rebuilding, and Jones says the question is whether “we can play really good rugby for five games and keep going on the pathway we’ve set ourselves, with an exciting young group of players, and some older players coming back who want to prove that they can still be the best”. Their tournament may turn on whether they can win that first match at Murrayfield.
Scotland are also searching for more consistency. Last year, they did the hard part and won away against England and France but still ended up finishing fourth after they were pipped by Ireland and Wales at home.
Wales, the champions, seem to be struggling, as ever, with a spate of injuries, but so often seem to find a way to win that you would be a fool to write off their chances.
Which leaves Italy and the perennial questions about whether they are worth their place. Only Jones believes they’re improving too, under their new coach, Kieran Crowley.
“People shouldn’t underestimate what a great job he did for Canada,” Jones says. “When I started off with Japan, Canada were ahead of us and he’d done a fantastic job, he got them up to like 12th in the world.
“He will do a great job with Italy because he’s had that experience of coaching a tier-two country and he knows how to bring them up.”
Spring’s a way away yet, but winter’s looking up.