Excitement Builds Towards the Northern Hemisphere’s Premier Competition

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The 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship countdown hit ‘full stride’ this week, with the official launch event held at its traditional home – The Hurlingham Club, in London. Last Word On Rugby were present and experienced the buzz and the inside scoop, as excitement builds towards the Northern Hemisphere’s premier competition.

BBC Sport’s Andrew Cotter was compere for the day, and official Six Nations proceedings kicked off with a group press conference. Messages from the sponsor and a video montage from the 2016 Championship created an atmosphere that this year would be ‘even bigger than last’.

RBS Six Nations Championship Chairman, Pat Whelan, detailed the new competition features that have been designed to improve this year’s spectacle.  Everything from the bonus point system, to each of the women’s championship matches being screened live on its own dedicated digital channel. A terrific new initiative that has been developed in order to expand the appeal of this historic tournament.

All the respective captains from both the men’s and women’s competition then made there way up to the stage, fielding questions from the gathered International media and a mass of photographers.

Three Potential Lions Captaincy Candidates

The tension was palpable and an excited hum within the main press room fell silent as the captains sat in waiting. Here were the three potential Lions captaincy candidates on stage together, all bristling with energy in anticipation of the kick-off of the tournament evident on their faces.

Dylan Hartley was, not surprisingly, keen not to focus on his recent red card and subsequent ban for foul play.  Instead, Hartley was determined to emphasize ‘the job in front of him’. A task that the whole England squad were prepared for and that they would be fully focused on: France at Twickenham, on February 4.

Alun Wyn Jones was his typically humble self, emphasizing his appointment as captain as ‘an evolution of the team ethos’ rather than any sharp change of direction. He answered, when the inevitable leadership question was raised;

“If I need to change too much then I’m doing something wrong.”

New Tackle Law Directives

This year’s tournament will be the first under the new high tackle directives.  A lot of the talk was about whether coaching teams have specifically focused on avoiding the potentially severe ramifications of intentional; or unintentional, high tackles. Every head coach had a similar pragmatic message that nothing has changed in terms of the tackle ‘laws’.  However, they admitted that they had to ‘get smart’ to realize the consequences of players putting themselves in those situations.

The Welsh camp have gone one stage further and have asked referee Nigel Owens to spend some time with them. The Welshman will assist WRFU in detailing small margins that could be the difference between keeping fifteen, fourteen or even thirteen men on the field for the full 80 minutes–a fact which could determine the outcome in the Championship.

Eddie Jones Backs Hartley 100%

In a distraction from proceedings, Eddie Jones arrived sporting a black eye and a bandaged cut left eye. Of concern? but in typical Jones style, he joked that it was “as a result of the training camp moving on from Judo to MMA!”. The tongue-in-cheek joke among the media and across the social networks was that maybe he hadn’t given Hartley the captaincy back initially, and that Dylan had ‘persuaded’ him to think again! But in reality, Jones backed his captain 100% and knew he had put in the work to prove him right.

The message from the England duo was clear though. They were not looking beyond France and that Les Bleus would pose a formidable first-up opponent in the defense of their Grand Slam title. Jones stated, “France have been going extremely well you know, they should’ve beaten Australia in November. They could’ve beaten New Zealand, you know if you take out Barrett’s intercept pass–they win the game”. With the wry grin, he is confident and as driven as he proved in his first 12 months as head coach.

Sexton Close to Returning

Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt’s goal for the Championship was to get into the top two, and he was pleased to report that Johnny Sexton was close to returning to training, hopefully next week.

Rory Best highlighted the confidence the autumn results had given the Irish team and that they could build-on those matches, as they moved into the tournament. “It’s obviously great to get a few really good performances, a few really good results but I think it’s something that we’ve built on for the last number of years but with this squad, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in 2016.

“It’s all about making sure we’re pushing forward, making sure we’re trying to improve and you know, we picked apart stuff that we did in November that we did well that we want to improve on but also some stuff that we didn’t do so well that we have to improve on.”

(L-R) Conor O’Shea, Head Coach of Italy, Joe Schmidt, Head Coach of Ireland, Vern Cotter, Head Coach of Scotland, Eddie Jones, Head Coach of England, Guy Noves, Head Coach of France and Rob Howley, Head Coach of Wales. during the 2017 RBS Six Nations launch (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Scotland’s Vern Cotter was keen to play down the expectation that the success of Glasgow in European competition this year would automatically translate across to Scotland’s fortunes.  He was keen to point out that it had given the squad confidence–although to talk about winning too many games, or even the Championship, was ‘realistically not achievable’.

French Inconsistency Must Improve

Guy Noves faced questions about France’s notorious inconsistency and he rallied; “each nation has its features, I don’t want to deny where we come from”. That said, he agreed that they maybe needed to try and ‘produce more consistent displays’ in order to provide a run of results to challenge for the title.

LWOR posed the question to the French Captain, Guilhem Guirado, as to ‘whether he was looking forward to any specific battles with particular opposing hookers?’ His response was clear that “each opponent presented a different challenge” and that it was;

“more about the team performance more than my own.”

Guirdo did concede however, that the position of hooker had now become ‘one of the most important in the game’.

Italy Steeped in Rugby History

There was a very clear message coming from Conor O’Shea at the Six Nations launch concerning the history and the passion for rugby in Italy. He encouraged people to ‘travel around the country and experience what it meant to the Italian fans’ for the Azzuri to do well in 2017. Along with fellow coaches Mike Catt and Brendan Venter, he is determined to ‘not just focus on individual matches’ – although he cited the victory over South Africa as a huge boost to their confidence. That will be tested on February 5, at Stadio Olimpico.

Rather his concern is to build the legacy for Italian coaches to come through into a structure that can help them flourish, and continue to improve the national side’s fortunes within the world game.

Six Nations 2017 – Most Closely Fought Championship in Recent Memory

Overall, there was a real buzz about championship, and a feeling following on from the autumnal performances–as well as the high level that teams from each of the six nations have been playing at. Combine that with how well players/competition sides are playing in the European leagues, that this is going to be one of the most closely fought championships in recent memory. For mine, it could be one that just might throw up ‘an unexpected victor’ at the end of it.

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Follow all the action with us here on Last Word On Rugby as the RBS Six Nations Championship takes its course.

 

“Main Photo Credit”