Looking ahead – Six Nations 2016

Let’s be honest, any supporter of a Six Nations’ rugby team would have been bitterly disappointed after RWC 2015. Scrumfuls of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ all round. Teams were broken, coaches questioned (or moved on in the case of Stuart Lancaster and his team), belief irrevocably shattered.

The Welsh put in a valiant effort to overcome hosts and arch-rivals England, but ultimately came up short against a Du Preez-inspired South Africa. The Irish, looking forward with glee to an ‘easy’ pathway to their first ever semi-final at a World Cup, were blitzed apart by the dazzling Pumas and their scintillating back three. The English fell flat on their faces at the first hurdle of the group stage, in a campaign overshadowed by the family-dividing question: ‘to Burgess or not to Burgess?’. The French were utterly bulldozed by an admittedly phenomenal All Blacks team, and Italy once again failed to make an impact on the world stage. Finally the Scottish, perhaps the most heartbreaking tale of all, cruelly denied a spot in the last four by a Craig Joubert refereeing mistake.

The Six Nations 2016 presents a fresh start, a return to the drawing board to try and figure out how on earth to wrestle the coveted William Webb Ellis trophy from New Zealand’s grasp come Japan 2019. Key is establishing the right philosophy early on. It is no longer enough simply to win the Six Nations. It is the style of victory which must now become paramount. Ireland may have successfully retained their Six Nations crown in 2015, but their game plan of accurate, tactical kicking coupled with a strangling defence ultimately came unstuck against the attacking verve of Argentina. It is this creative ability with the ball in hand, admittedly coupled with a solid defence, that Sir Ian McGeechan amongst others identified as a major factor behind New Zealand’s world cup triumph. To copy such a style identically would perhaps be foolish, given rugby is akin to a religion to many Kiwis from the moment they can walk. A trip to Youtube to see Julian Savea’s exploits as a Rongotai College school boy paints a staggering picture of the quality of rugby from a young age on the islands. But the way to win Test matches on the big stage is to score tries, and to couple this creative spark with the confidence and nous to manage the outcome of a game; qualities the Six Nations’ teams severely lacked at RWC 2015.

To focus on the English side, now that Sam Burgess has slunk back to Australia with his tail between his legs, Eddie Jones has a fantastic opportunity to harness the immense talent on display around the Premiership (I daren’t open the tin of worms that is the RFU’s overseas ‘non-selection’ policy) into a world-beating team. Some stars did hold their hands up at the World Cup, the dazzling feet of Antony Watson springing foremost to mind. Joe Launchbury, despite little game time after coming back from injury,  also cemented himself as a world-class athlete and a leader for the future.

Yet there were also fundamental failures. The scrum, long-prized as the English’s most potent weapon, was taken apart by the Welsh; it is high time the donkey Dan Cole is cast aside in favour of the highly promising talents of Kieran Brookes and Henry Thomas of Bath. Robshaw, an honourable character who gave the jersey his all, regrettably came up short both as a No. 7 and as a captain once again; the decisions made in the dying moments against Wales still frequently haunt the dreams of many Englishmen. Please Eddie, let’s pick an out-and-out openside in the No. 7 jersey and leave Christopher to ply his trade on the other flank, where his phenomenal work rate will earn the plaudits it deserves.

The captaincy, then, must be moved on too. The tenacious Mike Brown and the Martin Johnson-esque Joe Launchbury seem to me to be the most likely candidates. Dylan Hartley is the bookies’ favourites at the moment, but how a man who clearly has the temper of a small child (he has been banned for a total of 54 weeks in his career for offences including biting, gouging and abusing the referee) could even be considered as England captain shows just how muddled English rugby has become; without even mentioning that Hartley is currently struggling to get into the Northampton side.

Stuart Lancaster’s selection U-turn during the World Cup marred the back division in controversy, which took away from the fact that England have some truly exciting, young players in their midst. George Ford was jettisoned mid-tournament in favour of Mr Reliable Owen Farrell, and since then his form with Bath has stuttered, perhaps as a result of this knock to his confidence. But let’s not forget he was the star of an England side who scored 18 tries in the 2015 Six Nations, and with his creative eye and timing of the pass possesses an X-factor that Farrell simply doesn’t. If his form doesn’t pick up, why not give the increasingly impressive and much matured Danny Cipriani a run out, recently man of the match against Wasps.

Australia demonstrated the huge benefits of including a second distributor (aka Matt Giteau) in the backline, and Henry Slade of Exeter, sadly injured for this year’s tournament, seems to fit the bill perfectly. Capable of playing across the backline, the brief glimpses of class and ability he offered in England’s first warm up game against France should more than convince Mr Jones that he should be involved in any long term plans. England’s back three were beacons of hope amidst a dreary World Cup, and though Jonny May has been confirmed out of the Six Nations 2016, the trio of Nowell, Watson and Brown should kick on and establish themselves as a truly-world class attacking threat.

Let’s hope the respective Six Nations’ coaches throw caution to the wind and blood some new and exciting players in this year’s tournament. Despite the failures of the World Cup there is talent aplenty, and with all to play for in this new ‘post-McCarter’ era, it’s high time the rugby fans of Europe were given something to cheer about. If all else fails, there is the mouth-watering prospect of Sonny Bill Williams and other stars battling it out against the stunning backdrop of Rio de Janeiro, as rugby sevens makes its bow at the Olympics 2016.