It was hard to put your finger on it but there was a different feel to this year’s Six Nations launch. Perhaps it was the Netflix cameras around every corner seeking to project rugby to a wider global audience. Maybe it had something to do with Eddie Jones no longer being around to stir the media pot. There was even a solo acoustic guitarist serenading the hacks as they munched their lunch, which was unquestionably a first.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was a sign of a professional sport making a concerted effort to raise its game. One by one the head coaches of the competing nations stepped up to the microphone and spoke with intelligence and candour. Contentious subjects such as the new waist-high tackle trial in England were openly addressed rather than swerved. And the next few weeks, everyone agreed, would be unmissable.
The unspoken reality is that this is rugby’s big chance to shine. With a huge World Cup looming in France this year, the game has never had a better chance to capture floating voters or the uninitiated. Of course there are sobering player welfare issues to resolve but, equally, there could hardly be a more enticing championship in store. Get things right now and the future could soon be much brighter.
The new England head coach, Steve Borthwick, spoke particularly well, not least about his desire for his players to have no regrets. “As a player I was privileged to play 57 times for England. I had the great honour of captaining my country on 21 occasions. Now I look back and I regret a lot of the things I didn’t do. I always put the effort in but did I ever feel I put all my strengths on the pitch? Did I ever feel I gave the absolute best of myself? Would I like to rewind the clock and try and do it again? Yes, I would.”
As a direct consequence, he wants his England players to make a conscious effort to seize the moment. “I want to help these young guys not make the mistakes I made. When they’re old and have no hair like me, I want them to not have regrets. I don’t want them looking back thinking: ‘I wish I’d done that.’ Let’s do it. One thing I’ll promise you is we’re going to make mistakes. But whether we win or lose I want us to be better the next week. I’m going to be authentic and not play mind games. I’ll leave that to other coaches.”
Borthwick, though, did concede that transforming England might not happen overnight given the strength of many of their rivals. While his side kick off with two home games against Scotland and Italy, Jones’s abrupt departure has left his successor little time in which to reinvent the wheel. “The reality is we’re a little bit behind. You saw that in the autumn. Every English supporter wants this England team to perform better than they did then. I also sense a hunger among the players to get back out and put some things right.”
Warren Gatland, who won a grand slam in his first season in charge of Wales in 2008, also suspects there could be a “new coach bounce” for England given the depth of resources at their disposal. “I always think England should be one of the top two or three teams in the world,” Gatland suggested.
In almost the same breath, though, he made clear his view that Wales, with some senior players back, can also improve markedly on their own November struggles. “If you ask them to run through a brick wall the question they’ll ask is: ‘What do you want us to do when we get to the other side?’”
There will be no shortage of motivation, either, as far as France are concerned. The defending grand slam champions have some injury absentees but their head coach Fabien Galthié, rocking a strong white trainers and dark glasses vibe for the cameras outside County Hall in London, is adamant his side will not be resting on their laurels in the coming weeks. “Are we defending a trophy or going for a trophy?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s the question we’re asking ourselves.”
The visit of Les Bleus to Dublin in round two could well be a pivotal fixture but Ireland’s Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton are already challenging their team to embrace the hype attached to their official ranking as the world’s best team. “The pressure’s more internal than anything but if the pressure from outside starts to seep in it’s good for us to have to deal with that,” said Farrell. “We want to get better for what’s down the track, for obvious reasons.”
Sexton, who will be fit to lead the side against Wales in the opening game in Cardiff, is also approaching his final Championship as a player with extra eagerness. “It’s such a special tournament and so hard to win.” Scotland, without a title since the final year of the Five Nations in 1999, are in similarly determined mood while Italy, the supposed also-rans, have defeated both Australia and Wales inside the past 11 months. Whoever wins this season’s Guinness-sponsored tournament, it should be compelling viewing.