Six Nations: Fresh feel with new coaches, captains, ideas
Out with the old, in with the new.
That’s the theme heading into the 2020 Six Nations, with only two teams -- England and Scotland -- retaining their coach for the start of the latest Rugby World Cup cycle and four appointing new captains.
A total of 47 uncapped players were called up to the six training squads for the tournament, and there should be a shift in playing approaches, too. Wales, the defending champion, should have a more attacking style under new coach Wayne Pivac compared to the efficient and pragmatic system of predecessor Warren Gatland. England has a sevens specialist, Simon Amor, in its new-look backroom staff under Eddie Jones. France has also ripped up its technical staff under new coach Fabien Galthie, which now includes a no-nonsense defense coach in Shaun Edwards.
The first Six Nations after a World Cup is always hard to predict. New eras and fresh styles are being put in place, and there can be a drop in motivation levels, however small, with the next World Cup so far in the distance.
This one, which starts on Feb. 1, looks no different.
Fresh off reaching the World Cup final in Japan, England starts as favorite with British bookmakers for a record-extending seventh title of the Six Nations era. Yet it could prove to be a challenging campaign for Jones, given the fixture schedule -- England starts with matches away to France and Scotland before Ireland and Wales visit Twickenham in back-to-back rounds — and the potential for unrest in the squad in the wake of the Saracens salary-cap scandal.
Twenty-two players from the World Cup squad remain in situ so there is some continuity, and Jones has enviable resources to call upon even though No. 8 Billy Vunipola will miss the entire tournament after breaking his arm last weekend.
The forwards and backs are under new guidance following the appointments of Matt Proudfoot and Amor, so Jones might use the tournament as a testing ground for his ideas at developing England’s game.
Losing to the French in Round 1 would really spice up the tournament, potentially reawakening a sleeping giant in the process.
Les Tricolors head into “Le Crunch” as the biggest unknowns in this Six Nations. A new coach in its former scrumhalf Galthie, a new captain in back-rower Charles Ollivon, a heavily reshuffled training squad containing 19 uncapped players, and only one player in his 30s.
The aim? Not just a first title since 2010 -- “A successful championship is a championship that is won,” said Galthie, displaying the kind of mentality some of his predecessors might have lacked -- but to reconnect with an apathetic French fan base.
“Our story is very much a love story with the French public,” he said.
As for Pivac, a daunting test awaits as he replaces Wales’ most successful and longest-serving coach in compatriot Gatland. Jones, as cheeky as ever, couldn’t resist a jibe about it.
“They’ve got Gatland’s Gates in Cardiff now,” Jones said at the tournament launch in London. “Every time Wayne walks through there, he’ll be going through something that pays homage to Warren and he’ll feel that expectation."
Thankfully for Pivac, he’ll be going into battle with warrior lock Alun Wyn Jones, and the much-respected 34-year-old captain will not allow a slip in standards.
Repeating last year’s grand slam might be too much to expect from a Wales team that faces away matches against Ireland in Round 2 and England in Round 4, and will be looking to show another side to its game.
“We’re trying to add value to the attack,” Pivac said, “and try to evolve that over a period of time.”
There’s fresh, yet familiar, leadership with Ireland, too, as Andy Farrell begins his tenure as coach after replacing Joe Schmidt. It’s his first stint as a head coach for a club or country, and Farrell has picked as his on-field leader Jonathan Sexton, who will be the full-time captain for the first time just when many are saying his injury-plagued career is in its twilight.
Farrell, at least, has had a year to prepare for this moment, after being handpicked early as Schmidt’s successor. Franco Smith, a South African, was named as interim Italy coach only in November after Conor O’Shea abruptly resigned from the post, six months before he was due to leave.
Smith takes charge of a team that will again be favoured to finish in last place, like the Azzurri have for the past four years and in all but six championships since the Five Nations added a member for 2000.
“Of course we want to win five,” Smith said, “but we must be realistic.”
And realistically, Scotland will not be winning the Six Nations for the first time, either.
Chastened after failing to get out of its pool at the World Cup, the Scots have three away matches starting in Round 1 in Dublin, where Ireland have lost once home in five years in the Six Nations. Ireland also thrashed Scotland 27-3 in the World Cup.
To make matters worse, Scotland will be without star flyhalf Finn Russell for the first match, and maybe more, after he breached team protocol during a training camp at the start of this week.
Amid the many changes for this tournament, some things remain the same: The match between Italy and Scotland, in Round 3 in Rome, should decide the wooden spoon.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80