Take England, the current champions, they have had so many injuries that they are not in a position to give debuts to new exciting talent. This means that the core of the team will be as last year. Eddie Jones, now enjoying his £1m a year (including bonuses) new contract, has to finish top before questions are raised about whether he can fulfil the his wish and the England team’s wish to win the Rugby World Cup next October, 2019 in Tokyo.
The Rugby World Cup is on the minds of every coach. The Six Nations have a dreadful record stretching back to the opening tournament in 1987. Only England has won it (2003) and reached another final (2007) whilst France in 1991 and 2010 have reached two finals and lost both. All that promise which Ireland and Wales have shown has never really come to fruition in a World Cup. Scotland were minutes away in 2015 against Australia to making the semi-finals otherwise they have disappointed. Italy no longer warrant being part of the Six Nations (they should be replaced by Georgia) and they have had an inglorious record at world cups.
The real problem is that the Six Nations though hugely popular by television owners, sponsors and spectators is not competitive enough and is in the wrong part of the calendar. This reflects on the weakness of World Rugby, the global organisation, which controls the game. We need one global season in the northern and southern hemispheres. This means moving the international season from February to April in the north for the next three years (It will not happen) to May and June and then in three years time introducing a global calendar. I am afraid the rugby jury is out.
So, if we look at the world rankings, New Zealand’s first team is ranked one and its second team, two. Then there is a clamour for who deserves the third birth and it could be England’s ,it might be France, if South Africa is in the mood, it might be them. It probably will not be anyone else. There is a wafer thin difference between Australia, going through harder times, Ireland and Wales. There are though some new kids on the block: Japan who nearly beat France late last year in Paris, Fiji, Georgia plus our old friends from Argentina.
This year’s Six Nations is really only preparation for 2019 and before that tournament there will be yet another Six Nations! As such it is the only time a coach could risk new players and try new formats. One player by common consent England supporters would like to see is Danny Cipriani at fly half. Jones is not taken by his defensive play as if it is worse than the current incumbent, George Ford. Cipriani at his best can rip sides apart as he has shown this year at Wasps. Ask any back row forward and they will tell you they do not like playing against him. Once again he has been left on the side lines. Pity.
Then there is the form and fitness of Dylan Hartley, the captain. Jones likes and respects him enormously but he is not he best hooker in England. I would have preferred to have had a Squad captain and a captain on the day. Instead Jones has Hartley and when he is subbed after 50 minutes, Owen Farrell takes over. It seems to me as if Farrell should be the captain, per se.
Of the other six nation countries the two I fancy are Ireland and France. I wish I could add Scotland in there as they are truly back from the dead. Yet, it would still not surprise me if they took the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield.
Ireland have fewer resources but they have shown an increasing capacity to win what I would call the quarter and semi final type matches in a World Cup. Witness their brilliant victory 40-29 against New Zealand in Chicago in November, 2016 (the All Blacks have a tendency to stiffen up away from home) and the last fixture in Dublin of the Six Nations last year when they raised their game again to beat hot favourites England 13-9.
You generally win a grand slam when you have three of the five games at home. This year that applies to France, Wales and Ireland. Yet the latter two have England away. If you fancied £10 here and there I would place it on France and England!
(Derek last played for England in the Calcutta Cup in 1976)