Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes previews the 2016 Six Nations Championship
Last Updated: 01/02/16 9:00pm
Stuart Barnes looks ahead to the 2016 Six Nations and says victory appears to be light years ahead of development in terms of importance for Eddie Jones and England...
1. The Six Nations is a great relief to European fans, critics and coaches. No New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina to pop our patriotic bubbles. The tournament is wonderful for the fact that non-rugby historical gripes give the championship an edge those World Cup-winning types down south don't possess.
The geographical proximity plays into the hands of the Six Nations as well. The longest trip for British and Irish fans is Rome. Rome is not far and Rome is a fantastic city.
I read the city is allowing free entry to the many marvellous museums in the Italian capital.....yes you can't blame a fan for loving the tournament.
2. On the other hand, you can't talk up your team as 'world class' until the summer and autumn come around when they play those pesky southern hemisphere teams and lose a lot more often than not. It has been ever thus.
Maybe burying your head in the sand and enjoying the local rivalries is best. But please don't talk about great teams and coaches off the back of a tournament that has clearly been second rate on the field.
Wales and England, in particular, are guilty of exaggerating regional success and ignoring the global deficiencies in their game.
3. On that note, I see that storm Henry is set to hit the country. I had barely got to know Gertrude on first name terms before Graham prepares to make his windy entrance.
Yes, Graham Henry, eminence grise of New Zealand rugby has been having his say about Wales and it's not altogether flattering. Wales lack a sense of adventure says the former Wales and World Cup-winning All Black coach. It's nice to have such a distinguished voice joining the chorus.
It's a song a few (yes, I sing bass) have been singing for some time and one that causes annoyance with some in Wales. This saddens me; I grew up in Wales and have much affection for the game in the Principality. I would like to see Wales, along with England and the rest of our old continent, doing better on the world stage.
4. However, with Warren Gatland saying performance levels might just be as important as immediate results in the construction of a great team and his attack coach Rob Howley accepting Wales have lacked a bit of something special in the try-scoring department, hopes are high of something broader minded.
Wales have won the last two post-World Cup Six Nations tournaments in a slamming style. Maybe they will do it a third time, maybe they won't but I like the idea of expanded ambition.
5. England have talked about the need for a more innovative attack and the need for a better set piece as well as defence. They have, in fact, talked quite a lot via the engaging Eddie Jones but the nature of the squad and the clues derived from those sent home suggest England are beginning the new Jones era with victory light years ahead of development in terms of importance.
It started out that way with the previous regime and while injuries played a part in England not building the wealth of capped experience Stuart Lancaster wanted, so too did some conservative selections. I think back to the delayed introduction of George Ford in particular.
6. North of the border, the straight talking man you must listen to, Jim Telfer, reckons this is going to be a conservative start to the 2016-19 era of Eddie Jones. It is hard to disagree. If Telfer is right and England are playing low risk on the selection front then nothing less than a title is required.
Lancaster won four of five games every time but didn't get it right come the World Cup. If the immediate future is the only focus for the moment - and that's Jones' call, he might think he has ample time to plot Tokyo - results are foremost, no excuses for defeats.
As Wales and Ireland, the two leading six nations of recent times, come to Twickenham, England should have a crack at the title.
7. This is surely a good time for Ireland to regroup. They are on course for three consecutive titles but with the loss of so many outstanding players in recent times and the dismantling of their pre-programmed game plan in the quarter-final against Argentina, Joe Schmidt has the excuse to introduce new blood and style and plot a different path for Ireland.
If they find a game plan that is somewhere between Schmidt's Leinster style and Ireland's more methodical manner, the future will be all the brighter even if that third title does not materialise.
8. So much for the top three, now to the also-rans. France finished fourth three times and sixth once under Philippe Saint-Andre and still some talked them up as a World Cup force.
Now Saint-Andre has gone and they have replaced the former French winger with a fading coaching record with another former French winger with a fading record, as coach. Guy Noves did glorious things in the first half of his Toulouse reign but for the last three years not only have they won nothing, they have played with all the style and grace of the national team.
France have been the most predictable of all the six nations, big, slow and disappointing.
All evidence suggests he will play it big and slow as France have for many a braying-donkey year. They say you can never tell which France will turn up. Alas those 'theys' have disengaged their memory when they spout such clichés.
France have been the most predictable of all the six nations, big, slow and disappointing. Let's hope Noves' last three years have been nothing but an aberration and France return to the big time with a blend of power, pace and subtlety.
9. Vern Cotter has an interesting performance graph as Scotland coach. Rising fast in his first autumn in charge (the 40-plus points put on Argentina look good in hindsight, don't they?) then the Wooden Spoon and five defeats in the Six Nations before the heartbreak of elimination in the quarter-final of the World Cup. The comprehensive loss to South Africa and the squeaky victory to seal the second qualification spot behind the Boks have been forgotten; it's not part of the official story.
But still, it was a rise on the graph. Cotter, of all the six coaches, seems to have been the one with an eye on performance as much as results. I hope Scotland put last season's misery behind them because the coach is on the right track. Plenty is possible if they beat England on Saturday. Conversely defeat leaves them open to plenty of bad things happening yet again.
10. Italy have the best scrum in Europe - or had - according to Eddie Jones pre the World Cup. They might be aging in that department but they'll be decent. Whether they can find the control at half-back to give Sergio Parisse the odd blow during a game is the key to their fortunes.
Whereas bigger rugby nations should be balancing the need of Six Nations and World Cups, Italy should just throw the lot at the annual tournament. A successful Six Nations team is their route to winning popularity and new players for the future.