Sparks will fly in Six Nations with crowds back and competition fierce | Robert Kitson
The annual Guinness Six Nations launch, much like the first daffodil, is one of the traditional harbingers of spring. The world’s oldest annual rugby championship rarely disappoints and lends instant colour to winter’s grey canvas. This year its imminent arrival is more welcome than ever, with the widespread return of full stadia and travelling supporters already raising the spirits of players, punters and publicans alike.
Was an extra frisson discernible as the 2022 coaches and captains laid out their respective ambitions? It was hard to tell via the various video linkups but there was absolute agreement in one respect. Everyone involved is anticipating a cracking tournament, with hopes high that last autumn’s thrills and spills will be faithfully replicated when the fur starts to fly on Saturday week.
As Scotland’s head coach, Gregor Townsend, was quick to stress – “it does make a difference” – England will not be entering a muted Edinburgh echo chamber when they head north. Wales’s new captain Dan Biggar felt similarly – “we’re hoping the advantage of playing three games at home with full crowds is going to be a huge plus” – although performing decently also helps. Wales, contrary to many predictions, hoisted last year’s title without a single massed choir or inflatable leek in sight.
The other universally acknowledged truth is that teams who begin strongly frequently prosper. In this case, with Ireland and France both beating New Zealand in November, and Scotland and England also in promising autumn form, the opening two weekends will be particularly key, as the English found when the Scots upset them at Twickenham last year. “The first couple of weeks are pivotal as to how the campaign will go for you,” Biggar confirmed. “If you get off to a good start everything becomes a lot easier.”
As things presently stand, with France’s Covid issues seemingly fading, it is England who have most still to resolve before the curtain goes up. Even before a fire near their hotel in Brighton on Tuesday night forced the entire squad to relocate to a nearby pub, injuries were already an issue. With Owen Farrell now out of the tournament , Jonny May facing knee surgery, Jonny Hill doubtful for Scotland and Joe Marler still isolating with Covid, Eddie Jones has plenty on his plate.
Footage of his team training on a chilly, pebbly Brighton beach and passing weights to each other in a freezing sea were also a conspicuous contrast to the warm weather Portuguese camps of years past, though arguably better preparation for a cold, damp day at Murrayfield. Townsend, either way, is taking nothing for granted as Jones weighs up his leadership, midfield and back five pack options. “Whatever team England put out we know they’re going to be strong,” Townsend said, suggesting the visitors would pose a more attacking threat with Marcus Smith at 10. “If he’s selected then England will play a different way. They’re going to have to bring Marcus into the game and show his strengths so we’ve got to negate that. You have to play close to your best to beat a team of England’s quality.”
Something similar, though, is true of France with the Italy coach Kieran Crowley openly hailing them as the squad to beat. “France for me are the team of the moment in world rugby,” said the former All Black full-back. “I think they are the favourites for the next World Cup.” With the Azzurri heading to Paris on Sunday week, some deliberate posterior smoke-blowing is involved but not many right now would dispute his general contention.
Fabien Galthié, still channelling his inner Roy Orbison with those tinted, black-rimmed glasses, has had his players training at the Foreign Legion’s base near Marseille and expects his 14 unavailable personnel to be back in the mix by Sunday. Italy, meanwhile, have not entirely given up hope of Sergio Parisse featuring later in the championship once he is match fit again following a broken hand and a dose of Covid.
In some ways, though, nobody is approaching the annual game of gumshield-wearing Cluedo more eagerly than the revved-up green machine of Ireland. Having beaten New Zealand , expectations are suitably high and the recent displays of the Irish provinces have further bolstered that optimism. Unlike England they will be limbering up in Portugal and Andy Farrell is challenging his team to “push new boundaries” and aim high. “It makes me laugh when coaches say they want to finish second or third,” Farrell said. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to finish first.”
His captain Johnny Sexton also seems pumped for the opener against Wales when he and Biggar could set a collective all-comers record for the most talkative pair of captains in history. “Over the years they haven’t been shy in saying they’re not mad about the Irish,” Sexton said. “They are different players when they play for Wales and they’ll turn up 100% ready to go. They won the Championship last year, they were close to winning another grand slam and they’re a team to be reckoned with.”
The Wales coach Wayne Pivac, though, is lacking a raft of senior players through injury and is disinclined to wallow in the past or dwell on their status as defending champions. “It’s a nice tag to have but that was last year,” he stressed, suggesting his side could be “a little bit undercooked” in terms of preparation. “Challenges probably don’t come much bigger … but we’d like to think we’ve got a few champion players.” Relief from a grim, Covid-strewn winter is almost here.