Six Nations: pressure mounts as old rivalries are resumed, writes Jill Menghetti

ENGLAND rugby fans are looking for a fightback in the RBS 6 Nations Championship following last year’s disappointing performance as World Cup hosts. Over the six weeks between 6 February and 19 March the players certainly have a point to prove, now led by their first-ever overseas coach, Aussie Eddie Jones, and controversial new captain Dylan Hartley.

The Six Nations is a fascinating tournament played annually between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. It’s a straightforward scrap, with the trophy going to the team that emerges top after five rounds against each of the other sides. Two points are awarded for a win and one for a draw. Scoring-points difference comes into play to decide the winners should teams finish on equal points.

In the World Cup, champions New Zealand, Australia and South Africa gave the other nations lessons in the core skills of running and handling but the Six Nations is something else. It’s a matter of sheer grit with matches played in the harsh conditions of a European winter. Games are played in all the respective capital cities with home fixture advantage alternating each year. So this time England have only two games at Twickenham – mouth-watering derbies against Wales and reigning champions Ireland – but three away, in Edinburgh, Rome and Paris.

The Six Nations has become increasingly prestigious with the ultimate prize being not only to claim the trophy but to win it with a Grand Slam by beating all the other sides. Although the inaugural tournament was just 16 years ago when Italy joined the fray (Italian rugby has an enthusiastic and very vocal following), the event has deeply historic roots and rivalries. It grew out of the Home Nations Championship, the first international rugby union tournament, founded in1883. Fiercely contested by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Triple Crown honour is now awarded during the Six Nations when one of the quartet wins all three of their matches against the others.

This is one of the great features of the tournament, that while a team may lose out on the Six Nations title or the Grand Slam they can still go for the Triple Crown or one of the other competitions within the championship. The oldest is the Calcutta Cup between England and Scotland, dating from 1879 and so-named because the trophy was made from melted-down Indian rupees donated by the Calcutta Club. Meetings between these old enemies produce one of the most passionate clashes in the entire championship – and this year it’s on the opening weekend, with Scotland having home advantage at Murrayfield as visitors England look to retain the famous trophy.

The Millennium Trophy, presented to celebrate Dublin’s millennium in 1988, goes to the winners of the 10 Trophy-Imagematch played between England and Ireland. This will be another huge game, on 27 February, with England on home turf intent on revenge following defeat last year, coupled with losing the title on a dramatic final day when the Irish thrashed Scotland 40-10. It meant England needed to beat the French by a 26-point margin. They nearly did it but had to settle for second place after winning 55-35, just failing to score from a last-ditch driving maul.

Ireland and Scotland play for the Centenary Quaich (a Gaelic drinking vessel), contested annually since 1989. Other silverware awarded during the Six Nations is the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy, contested since 2007 by France and Italy. It was created for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Italian hero who helped unify Italy and volunteered in the French Republican Army against Prussia. The French – Les Bleus – have a proud history as a rugby-playing country and are renowned for their flair and unpredictability. They officially joined the four home nations’ contest back in 1910, when the tournament was renamed the Five Nations to reflect the new structure.

Only England and Ireland have avoided bottom spot since the Six Nations began in 2000. Only Italy and Scotland have failed to win the title since then. Last year – Vern Cotter’s first in charge – Scotland finished bottom of the table without a win but this year Scottish hopes are buoyant after coming closest of the northern hemisphere sides to reaching the World Cup semi-finals, losing by just two points to Australia.

Wales also came agonisingly near to landing a semi-final slot, going down to South Africa by four points. Since then Wales have moved two places up the world rankings to fourth, currently top of the Six Nations sides. Ireland have slipped from third to sixth, with England going from fourth to eighth. France are still seventh while Scotland have moved from 11th to ninth. Italy have made the most progress, climbing three places to 12th.

The England-Wales match on 12 March is sure to be another Twickenham cracker, with the highly-rated Red Dragons out to avenge defeat last year in Cardiff. The Welsh have a superb Six Nations record under Kiwi coach Warren Gatland with three titles, two Grand Slams and two Triple Crowns – and they were the third team in with a shout for last year’s title on that extraordinary final day. Gatland is confident  they can pick up from where they left off at the World Cup. He has made no wholesale changes to his team and says they are going into the tournament with self-belief.

England have frustratingly finished their Six Nations campaign in second place for the past four years after claiming their last title in 2011. Their other wins were in 2000, 2001 and 2003, the latter being a Grand Slam. However, England fans are excited about the new era under Eddie Jones. He only took over in November following three years as head coach of Japan but hopes are high that his side can win the Six Nations at his first attempt. As we went to press, England were the 13-8 favourites to win and 10-3 to win it with a Grand Slam.

Jones caught the eye last year when Japan produced the biggest shock in World Cup history by defeating South Africa. His track record is impressive: he led Australia to the final of the 2003 World Cup and was technical adviser to the South Africa team that won four years later. He has retained most of the England players who were part of last year’s World Cup campaign under Stuart Lancaster but has also included a number of uncapped players.

Most controversially, he has named as England captain Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker who has racked up a total of 54 weeks of bans for offences such as biting, gouging and striking. But Jones has praised the 29-year-old, who missed the World Cup through suspension, for his honesty and hard work. He admires the player’s fighting qualities and expects him to lead England tactically and passionately. It will be fascinating to see how Hartley, who captained his club to the Premiership title in 2014, responds to the honour this second chance represents.

England follow their testing opener at Murrayfield with a trip on 14 February to Rome where they will seek to impress against the minnows of the championship. Then there’s a break before round three on 27 February for the home game against defending champions Ireland who will be seeking an unprecedented three Six Nations titles in a row. Coach Joe Schmidt won’t alter a winning formula but his squad will miss some key players through injury. Rory Best, a mainstay of the Irish side since 2005, replaces Paul O’Connell as skipper.

England’s next game is again at Twickenham, the fourth-round fixture against Wales on 12 March, and they wrap up the campaign a week later with a challenging match away to France. This is another of the fiercest rivalries in international rugby and the result could prove to be the clincher for the title on a deciding day of action.

So the stage is set for another bruising, absorbing championship. If you haven’t managed to get tickets, you’ll miss the stadium buzz but you’ll still be able to watch every game. The Six Nations is being broadcast jointly by BBC and ITV, with all England, Ireland and Italy home matches on ITV and all France, Scotland and Wales home games on the BBC.

 

 

Picture: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland