THE RBS Six Nations 2016 was launched again at The Hurlingham in West London. All six captains and coaches were jettisoned to the venue to face the world’s rugby media for the annual interrogation which usually begins with "what would be an acceptable finishing position for England/ Ireland/ Scotland/ Wales/ France/ Italy? (delete as appropriate)”, ends with the race to see which nation can escape most quickly from the tedium of answering the same questions by at least seven different media channels!
The delightful sports presenter Andrew Cotter put the captains through their paces in a live Q&A, with three new faces on the podium in France’s Guilhem Guirado, Ireland’s Rory Best and England’s Dylan Hartley, alongside Sam Warburton, Greig Laidlaw and the legend that is Sergio Parisse. Hartley jested at Cotter who went straight for the jugular with a loaded question on leading by example, amusingly retorting “Everyone else got to talk about their teams but we get to talk about me.”
Chatting to Rugby Writers later in the morning, Hartley defended his quip, “It’s a frustration that I’m being asked about it and having to repeat answers. It’s the same answer to you – let’s talk about the team and how motivated we are for this game.”
Meanwhile, England’s shiny latest incarnation of Head Coach, Eddie Jones, gave his first impressions on the Six Nations: “I’ve never seen so much media, that’s the first thing! As a kid I grew up watching ABC in Australia which is the equivalent of BBC and it was the giants of the game playing the game. I still have memories of JPR Williams, Phil Bennett, Colin Deans. They were great players. It’s a tournament full of tradition and emotion. The rivals between the countries is immense, so to be part of it is a great honour and very humbling.
And when probed on the eternal North vs South debate, “At the moment the southern hemisphere teams are probably three to five per cent better than the northern hemisphere team, but that can be turned around in eight weeks.”
Jones has Scotland up there as favourites for the starting Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield after his team got booted out of the Rugby World Cup two week s before the pool stages were even over, while the Scots missed out on semi final glory by a whisper. But Scotland Head Coach, Vern Cotter took exception to the rational.
"I don't know how Eddie works that out. It's just a psychological lever that he's trying to use, to take the pressure off himself," Cotter said.
"I gather that England are still ranked ahead of us by World Rugby. I didn't think England would need that, I thought they would be comfortable with the favourites' tag."
Facing Ireland in Dublin in round one, Wales coach Warren Gatland tempered his view on the first encounter against the incumbent champions, “What I have learned in the past is that you do not write off Ireland and you do not criticise them. They are a fantastic side and will be a tough team to beat. You have to take your hat off to Ireland in terms of having a game plan that has been incredibly effective.”
Ireland, who will be defending their title for a third consecutive year, are ready for the challenge, despite losing Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, and Coach Joe Schmidt has no qualms about his new captain, Rory Best, “Off the pitch he's the consummate professional. And as a gentleman farmer he's got lots of time on his hands to commit to the various duties that captaincy requires!”
And the competition kicks off in Paris with France taking on Italy at the Stade de France. New coach Guy Novès is ready to restore pride in Les Bleus, “The first message I wanted to give to the players was that they do not go onto the pitch just to take pleasure, but also to give it. Professionalism has allowed players to work in fantastic conditions, but there is no god given right except the one to give the best for your country when selected.”
Lastly, Azzurri coach Jacques Brunel, who is seeing out his last tournament before the mantel is passed to Harlequins Director of Rugby, Connor O’Shea, has the hardest job on his hands.
“We have lost 13 players to injury and have very little experience in the squad. Our objective is to be competitive, but we have very little time. In fact, we should be practising as we speak.”