by Matt McIlraith
A joke did the Southern Hemisphere rounds after the World Cup: ‘They’re thinking of bringing a plate competition into the tournament for the teams that don’t make the semifinals. It’s called the Six Nations!’
While the humor reflected the spectacular failure of Europe’s best, Southern Hemisphere smugness shouldn’t distract from the significance of this month’s Six Nations, as the run to Japan 2019 begins.
Of the combatants, in what shapes as one of the most intriguing championships in recent memory, England arguably has the most at stake. Title-less since 2011, the decision to turn to Australia for its coach carries with it huge risk, intensified even further by the move to install serial hothead Dylan Hartley as captain.
Eddie Jones has long polarized, and is the most un-English of choices RFU heavies Bill Beaumont and Ian Ritchie could have made. Notoriously difficult to work with, which led to a number of the backroom team bailing during his Wallaby days, Jones was rumored to be at odds with players prior to departing Tokyo.
This creates the potential irony that the outcome which ultimately landed Jones the job – Japan’s shock win over South Africa – might not have been the personal triumph for England’s new coach it has been portrayed as since his appointment.
Regardless of the whys and wherefores, the RFU painted itself into a corner when insisting on a recruit boasting past international experience. It ruled out local aspirants, and left little choice once it became apparent that Jones and his equally polarizing South African counterpart Jake White (alongside the USA choice John Mitchell), were the only options on a surprisingly slim menu.
So the RFU has a lot at stake with Jones.
If the Six Nations goes badly, Southern Hemisphere scribes will be forgiven for thinking that as far as humor goes, the English game is a gift that keeps on giving.
While England’s fortunes will inevitably provide the major storyline, the progress of France under new coach Guy Noves is equally significant as far as the next World Cup is concerned. An old school disciple, it was thought Noves was too strong a personality to ever get the national job, while the man himself seemed content collecting club trophies from his Toulouse power base.
But these are desperate times for Les Bleus. Results suggest the players never took to his predecessor Phillippe Saint-Andre, with rumors abounding through his tenure that discord was rife. Go back a coach, and the same was said of Saint-Andre’s immediate predecessor, Marc Lievremont.
So now the French have gone for Noves, a straight out coach rather than politician, and a practioner of tough love. It will be interesting to see how it goes.
Then there’s Ireland, two-time winners, but seemingly headed down the hill, performance-wise, following an underwhelming World Cup. Joe Schmidt did a great job guiding an experienced group to the next level. Does he now have the acumen to mastermind a successful rebuild, which might put him in poll position to eventually move on to coach his native New Zealand?
The All Black job is also undoubtedly in the long-term sights of two other Kiwis, Scotland coach Vern Cotter and Wales’ nine-year boss, Warren Gatland.
With an experienced and settled line-up, on the back of a passable World Cup quarterfinal finish, Wales should start favorites. It is not a state from which they traditionally excel.
The tournament was still a party of five the last time Scotland won it, in 1999.
This puts the expectations of last year’s wooden spooners into perspective, but having been robbed of a World Cup semifinal by an inexcusable refereeing howler from Craig Joubert, Cotter’s men may now boast the belief to cause an upset or two.
Scotland will be a handful at home first up for Jones and company: how many Englishmen are comfortable on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall?
Six Nations comfort is something Italy has never had. It’s hard to see that changing this time around, although the Azurri could always set their sights on heaping embarrassment on the other non-quarterfinalist among the Six Nations band.
Whatever happens, it should make for a good watch. Over to you, Mr. Jones!
Matt McIlraith has been Communications director for the Crusaders, New Zealand, and Australia. Previously he was Managing Editor of New Zealand Rugby News.