Six Nations evolving but core principles remain on eve of championship

3:12 PM GMT

It is time for the rugby to do the talking. Fears over new high-tackle sanctions and the odd anachronistic verbal dig here and there will be mean little when Scotland and Ireland kick off in the cool Edinburgh air on Saturday afternoon as the Six Nations is propelled into European rugby consciousness with its fundamental principles still intact.

As the debate over the global season continues, the Six Nations still stands as the northern hemisphere’s finest tournament, but this year’s incarnation comes with a slight facelift. The hope from the powers that be is the introduction of bonus points will see a renewed intensity to the final throes of matches long consigned as foregone conclusions, but their addition is likely to have little bearing on the final outcome.

And for the women’s game, for the first time all 15 matches will be broadcast live. It is a hugely positive step forward.

The intensity and national fervour becomes intoxicating. Every year those who have little interest in rugby get caught up in the buzz of chest-thumping patriotism as six cities get their taste of oval-ball Valhalla, as across five wonderful spring weekends, the six nations contest for European rugby supremacy in what will be a frenzy of tries, high tackles, singing, drinking, tears, adulation, sporting disagreements and thrills.

The 2017 Six Nations promises to be fiercely contested. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There are new faces in this year’s tournament. Away from those making their debuts, Italy have a new coach in Conor O’Shea, while Wales have turned to Alun Wyn Jones as their skipper. He joins the other five — Dylan Hartley, Sergio Parisse, Guilhem Guirado, Greig Laidlaw and Rory Best — who captained their nations in last year’s championship.

Rugby offers rare guarantees, but on March 18, certainty dictates there will be one country’s colours dangled over the relatively new Six Nations trophy. England’s white and blue currently adorn the six-sided gong, but with a target on their back, the other five nations will all be looking to take Eddie Jones’ unbeaten team down a peg.

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England head into this year’s tournament as favourites, despite an injured contingent including Chris Robshaw, George Kruis, Anthony Watson and the brilliant Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy. They start against France on Saturday looking to make it 15 games unbeaten, 14 coming under Jones. He may have sustained a black eye for his troubles since he looked on proudly with that unique grin when they lifted the trophy in the Stade de France last March, having seen off the best Europe had to offer, but his will to win is just as relentless.

He has told his England team to prepare for war when the Anglo-French rivalry is rekindled Saturday at Twickenham, when Guy Noves’ ever-improving France come to town.

Noves’ decision to pick the mercurial Baptiste Serin at scrum-half is perhaps the most eye-catching of selection calls ahead of the weekend and the old clichéd adage of French unpredictability is still as predictable as ever. For those who predict their Six Nations winner by looking into tea leaves, France have won every championship finishing with a 7 since 1967. C’est pas vrai!

Before England face France, Scotland lock horns with Ireland at Murrayfield. It is Vern Cotter’s final tournament in charge of Scotland before he passes on the reins to Gregor Townsend and the quietly-spoken Kiwi will not want to go without making some noise in this year’s championship.

Like France, they too are improving game on game and in this year of the British & Irish Lions, they boast a number of contenders hoping to force their way into Warren Gatland’s reckoning — no more so than outstanding fullback Stuart Hogg and second-row Jonny Gray.

Eddie Jones’ England go into the tournament as favourites. David Rogers/Getty Images

A win over Ireland would really cause the other five nations to take notice, but it is Ireland who are England’s greatest challengers for the title. Their round-five match in Dublin is already being billed as a potential Grand Slam decider, but without Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’Mahony for their opener in Edinburgh Saturday, their strength in depth is being tested.

Despite those two key absentees, Ireland’s win over New Zealand last November showcased their quality and when you have a back-row of CJ Stander’s quality alongside a host of experienced Lions in your team, you are going to be optimistic of winning the tournament. And then you add in the brilliance of coach Joe Schmidt and you see why they are England’s greatest threat.

Wales start their campaign against Italy Sunday in Rome. O’Shea’s Italy secured a landmark victory over South Africa last November and are showing signs of finding an identity. This championship is likely to come too soon in their stages of evolution, but don’t rule out them taking down one of the other five nations.

Wales coach Rob Howley, stepping in for Gatland, will be wary of their threat, and with Alun Wyn Jones, he will not settle for anything less than a team anchored on focus, never-say-die attitude and a desire to win. They are flying under the radar, but with Leigh Halfpenny back in the side and Sam Warburton playing without the pressures of the captaincy, they should not be ruled out of contention.

It promises to be the most competitive Six Nations in recent memory.

It is at this time of year when memories drift back to your first Five/Six Nations match — whether it was the first time you were smuggled into a pub to watch the rugby on an eye-strainingly small screen, the congregation in a clubhouse or hands clasped with a parent as you pick your way through a crowd like a mouse among giants.

The patriotic colours covering any of the original five and now cities have always loomed large as you approach the stadium. The smell of pop-up barbecues in the air and the beer just that absent bubble too flat remain the same, as do the thuds as player contacts defender, and the roars greeting tries are just as ear-splitting as ever. It is a special time of the year. Savour it.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/18612026/six-nations-undergoes-facelift-2017-core-principles-remain-eve-championship
Six Nations evolving but core principles remain on eve of championship
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