As dreary January departs stage left for another year, rugby fans know that February brings an abundance of joy. The RBS 6 Nations tournament is upon us and will act as a rehabilitation for the competing teams to recover from what was a traumatic Rugby World Cup tournament experience exposing flaws in squad depth and basic skill set and game management execution. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at some of the potential talking points which may emerge during the competition.
The Northampton Saints hooker will be prime time material for all rugby journos during this tournament if the player is involved in any controversial off the ball incidents. The captaincy appointment was greeted with surprise in some quarters but Eddie Jones wants a player who will lead from the front so much so that the former Japanese head coach wants the player to be his “Tarzan” which is fair enough only that Tarzan was inclined to fight with anything that moved in the jungle. The modern day jungle for Hartley is on the pitch and given his disciplinary track record will be a man who will have his emotions tested by opposition throughout. It will be interesting to see how the player reacts because his all round game is excellent. Hartley’s lineout throwing is beyond reproach and his work rate with or without ball in hand is immense. The temperament factor will continue to loom large on the player and if there is a unsavory incident involving Hartley, expect the media hoards to have a proverbial field day and create problems straight off the bat for Eddie Jones.
Ireland – Post O’Connell Leadership Void?
There is a gaping leadership void in the Ireland squad after the retirement of Paul O’Connell and the injury to Peter O’Mahoney. Rory Best is the new captain and to be fair, the Ulster player was a resounding appointment within the national team camp. However, Best will require other players in the squad to step up and take a more of a leadership role. The likes of O’Brien, Heaslip, Murray, Rob Kearney, Toner are now the senior leaders of the side. It will be interesting to see how Joe Schmidt approaches the problem and how the players in the squad embrace the challenge of filling such a void left by the legendary Paul O’Connell. A transitional period potentially for Ireland as Schmidt and team adapt with injuries and retirements.
France – Expansive Rugby Style
Guy Noves’ resume is beyond reproach. He has won every club honor with Toulouse and this is a natural progression to take up the national team head coach role. His early squad selection for this tournament suggests that Noves wants to implement a more expansive brand of rugby. The decision to drop Bastareaud, the man mountain who can gain game line yards at ease due to his physicality has being deferred until further notice which means that Wesley Fofana will be asked to orchestrate the third quarters with clinical passing and intelligent running lines. France are an unknown quality heading into this tournament which is always dangerous for other foes. Noves cannot do much worse than his predecessor Saint Andre who was caught between an abrasive pack platform and a misfiring back line style. For the benefit of the tournament, France need to be competitive and playing a brand of rugby which appeals. Noves’ old school rugby principles may be also ridiculed by pundits if France continue to plod through the tournament.
Wales – Consistency Consistent
Wales come into this tournament somewhat under the radar. Their squad is along familiar lines and with the best back row in the competition, opposition are going to struggle to get any fast ball to work with. Warren Gatland will eye up another tactical masterclass against Ireland at the weekend; eliminating Ireland go forward ball at source with excellent defensive line speed, industrious breakdown work rate and putting pressure in the set piece. George North looks primed to have an exceptional tournament. His work rate is superb and if Wales supply the dominant winger with early ball in advanced positions, good things will happen for the Welsh side. The question is whether their scrum can handle the pressure exerted by the likes of England and France. Consistent team selection will continue to be the hallmarks of Warren Gatland’s side and one would not argue if they are top of the pile come April.
Scotland – Surprise Team?
The tournament is primed for Scotland to be competitive in this tournament. Their encouraging Rugby World Cup performances culminating in their controversial loss to Australia in the last eight suggests that Vern Cotter and management have turned the corner with this side. The front five are gradually improving as an unit (albeit the scrum sometimes is inconsistent and issues defending the maul). The lineout is buoyed by the Gray brothers which provides good platform for Laidlaw and Russell to unleash the back line led by the marauding runs of Stuart Hogg at full-back from deep. Laidlaw’s unerring kicking from the tee means that Scotland will put points on the board. The England fixture is pivotal; a win and the team will revel in the tourney, otherwise it will require Scotland management to get to work on the demons of the past once more. All the good work of the Rugby World Cup cannot go to the waste for Vern Cotter’s men, suspect Scotland to be the surprise team of the tournament.
England – New Era
The big question leading into this tournament is how radical will new England head coach Eddie Jones be? Several up and coming players have raised their hand for selection including Wasps’ Eliot Daly and Saracens Maro Itoje who is the proverbial man mountain. Jones’ managerial performance with Japan during the RWC was one of the highlights of the tournament; deployed an expansive style with Japan which was easy on the eye. Can the England squad ditch the bad habits of the past which included poor discipline, dreadful game management decisions in the heat of battle and ability to identify space put wide when presented. Eddie Jones and new management will need time to implement their defensive and attacking philosophy to a group of players who will be under the English media microscope. The question is if the going gets tough, will management and players shirk their responsibilities? Hartley’s captaincy will be tested and it will be an interesting side note to a new era in English rugby.