The RBS Six Nations makes its timely return with the Northern Hemisphere sides looking to banish painful memories from last year’s Rugby World Cup in which all four semi-finalists came from below the Equator.
Any post-World Cup campaign comes with changes and this year’s annual European contest is no different.
Here we take a look at all six sides – five of which can all count themselves as genuine contenders for the title as they look to close the gap between themselves and their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
After a desperately disappointing performance in an otherwise hugely successful hosting of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the inevitable raft of changes have come as little surprise. Eddie Jones, in charge of 2015’s surprise package Japan, has been instated as head coach after Stuart Lancaster stepped down and a subsequent backroom culling soon followed.
Dylan Hartley’s appointment as captain is seen as something of a risk, with well-documented disciplinary problems leaving a huge question mark, but can be taken as a sign of Jones’ uncompromising and often abrasive approach.
Many Lancaster stalwarts have been moved on – deposed captain Chris Robshaw a rare survivor having performed admirably for club side Harlequins after reverting to blindside flanker where his natural game flourishes. He is joined in the squad by seven uncapped players, including Saracens’ Maro Itoje, who for some time has been tipped as a future captain himself.
Usual suspects include Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell and Mike Brown and their experience will be needed as Jones looks to blood the youngsters. They won’t have the luxury of being eased in, with England kicking off their tournament away to Scotland and facing a further two away trips in Rome and Paris either side of home dates against Ireland and Wales.
The Welsh experienced a bittersweet World Cup, with the ecstasy of beating England at Twickenham countered by a late quarter-final defeat to South Africa.
With Ireland, they are the most stable of the home nations and in Warren Gatland they have a coach who has won the Six Nations three times, including two Grand Slams. The playing squad is practically unchanged and if they can avoid the injury problems which have decimated their team of late they will be confident. The absence of Leigh Halfpenny and Scott Williams is offset by returning Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and – for the later rounds – Rhys Webb.
The fixture list, however, has not been kind with Wales facing both Ireland and England away. With an improved Scotland to contend with, I have a feeling they might struggle this year.
Scotland put in the most respectable of World Cup challenges from the home nations, succumbing to eventual finalists Australia in large part to an awful refereeing decision one minute from time with a place in the semi-finals heartbreakingly close.
With Glasgow winning last season’s Pro12 competition Scottish rugby was undergoing resurgence and with Kiwi Vern Cotter at the helm, they would have backed themselves as credible winners in the tournament. However, with Glasgow struggling badly this season and with several star performers either out of sorts or injured, coupled with a tough fixture schedule, their optimism will have been tempered slightly.
While still contenders, they’ll need to see a serious upturn in form of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell and will need some luck along the way to trouble the big boys.
The luck of the Irish has been in short supply since they won their second successive Six Nations title last year and they were blown away by Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals after losing Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien to injury.
Talismanic captain, O’Connell has since retired from international rugby and Johnny Sexton’s fitness is a worry ahead of their opener against Wales in Dublin. His outstanding kicking game would be sorely missed in a close encounter and with domestic clubs Leinster and Munster both struggling to hit their usual heights I’m expecting a third crown on the bounce to be a step too far for head coach Joe Schmidt’s men.
The unpredictability of the French is the great cliché of international rugby. The reign of Philippe Saint-André saw the flair disappear from their game amidst accusations that their megabucks domestic league makes it difficult for youngsters to get game-time ahead of illustrious foreigners – sound familiar, England football fans?
Guy Novès has since taken charge and has been quick to bring an end to the Saint-André era with several young charges brought in to replace ageing underachievers and the retired Thierry Dusautoir passing the captaincy to Guilhem Guirado.
If exciting backs like Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding and Gaël Fickou are given licence with ball in hand they could be some prospect. It’s a big ‘if’, but I’m backing the French for this year’s championship – it won’t be a Grand Slam though: they have a poor record against England and will be denied a clean-sweep in the final game of the tournament at the Stade de France.
Perennial strugglers Italy are in a strange place. Fireworks were hardly expected at Rugby World Cup 2015 and a predictable group-stage exit ensued. An ageing squad is led once more by the outstanding Sergio Parisse, whose talent far outweighs his compatriots and would be worthy of a place at Number 8 in any other international squad.
Their constant search for a quality fly-half shows no signs of stopping – ever – and their backline is lacking in world-class talent. Passion is guaranteed but with head coach Jacques Brunel announcing his departure after the tournament, I can’t see Italy troubling any of the above now the Scots have upped their game.
RBS Six Nations 2016 begins on Saturday 6th February and concludes on Saturday 19th March.
What a cracking start to the Six Nations it was two weekends ago. A dominant second-half performance from England ensured a famous comeback win over Wales in Cardiff and the all-important bragging rights heading into a World Cup, where the two will meet in the group stage.
Even though journalists and pundits alike were quick to praise Stuart Lancaster’s efforts, much of the post-match analysis was focused on the Welsh winger, George North. In the first half, the Northampton player went to the sidelines after being on the end of an accidental boot to the head from England lock Dave Attwood. Following eight minutes of treatment by the medical staff, North returned to the action.
He was in the thick of it again, however, after half-time when he was involved in another collision – this time with his own teammate, Richard Hibbard. It was a nasty clash of heads and one which left North in a heap on the floor, seemingly losing consciousness for a brief moment. The incident was not seen by the Welsh medical team, meaning that a groggy-looking North played on with no treatment or assessment.
World Rugby is satisfied with the explanation from the Wales medical staff that they did not see the incident, but surely measures have to be put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again? It seems logical that the television match official (TMO) technology ought to be made available to the medical staff in order to quickly identify head injuries and ensure that the injured player(s) are seen to. The fact that North was rested for this weekend’s match against Scotland to allow further time to recover shows that he certainly shouldn’t have been allowed to play on against England.
Former IRB medical adviser Barry O’Driscoll quit his role in a row with his employers over their hands-off approach to the issue of concussion, arguing that players are being experimented on and anyone with a suspected concussion should “come off and stay off”.
There’s no doubt that representing your country is the highest honour in sport and players have been willing to put their bodies on the line, but perhaps it’s only after hanging up their boots that these professionals start to question whether sufficient safety measures were in place.
Rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson spoke to the Telegraph this week, as he reflected on the highs and lows of his career. Not a player to shy away from contact during his playing days, Wilkinson has questioned his choices in certain games where he was desperate to finish the match, despite taking hits that left him “completely out of it.”
The problem for Wilkinson was that there wasn’t a clear-cut protocol when it came to concussion. No one was able to make an assured call on whether he should return to the game or not.
But surely players today should begin to see the bigger picture and acknowledge that playing through injury can jeopardise their wellbeing in life after rugby.
Players with suspected concussions, in my opinion, should be withdrawn from the game and have the decision taken out of their hands. That said, much of the responsibility must remain with the players. Former full-back Gareth Thomas admitted last week that he played in games knowing that he had been concussed, but when the doctor asked him if he was fit to play on, he would assure them that he was. This is, of course, part of the issue – medical staff being pressured by players to allow them to carry on.
Nobody wants to see head injuries on the pitch like the ones at the Millennium Stadium. But one positive thing has come from this, as it has certainly brought to light the issues surrounding the current measures in place for tackling concussion and it looks like a revision of the RFU’s policy is imminent.
This is not an issue that is unique to rugby, though, as more than 4,500 former American Football players are currently suing the National Football League in claims that they were in the dark over concussion-related trauma.
Whilst playing through injury is both brave and commendable, players must think about life after their sporting careers and ensure that their long-term health remains a priority.