Saturday, May 28

Sparks will fly at the Six Nations with the returning crowd and fierce competition | Six Nations 2022

The annual release of the Guinness Six Nations, like the first daffodil, is one of the traditional harbingers of spring. The world’s oldest annual rugby championship rarely disappoints, bringing instant color to the gray canvas of winter. This year, its imminent arrival is more welcome than ever, with the widespread return of full stadiums and traveling fans already lifting the spirits of players, bettors and publicans alike.

Was there an added chill when the 2022 coaches and captains laid out their respective ambitions? It was hard to tell from the various video links, but there was complete agreement on one thing. Everyone involved is anticipating a cracking tournament, with high hopes that the thrills and spills of last fall will be faithfully reproduced when the skin starts flying on Saturday of the week.

As Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was quick to emphasise: “It does make a difference.” England will not enter a muted Edinburgh echo chamber as they head north. New Wales captain Dan Biggar felt similarly: “We hope that the advantage of playing three home games to a full crowd will be a big advantage”, although a decent performance helps too. Wales, contrary to many predictions, lifted last year’s title without a single massive chorus or inflatable leek in sight.

The other universally recognized truth is that teams that start out strong tend to thrive. In this case, with Ireland and France beating New Zealand in November, and Scotland and England also in promising form in the autumn, the first two weekends will be particularly key, as the English discovered when the Scots beat them at Twickenham last year. . “The first two weeks are critical to how the season is going to go for you,” Biggar confirmed. “If you start well, everything becomes much easier.”

Dan Biggar will lead Wales in their defense of the Six Nations, starting in Ireland
Dan Biggar will lead Wales in their defense of the Six Nations, starting in Ireland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA

As things currently stand, with France’s Covid woes seemingly fading away, it is England who still have the most to sort out before the curtain goes up. Even before a fire near his hotel in Brighton on Tuesday night forced the entire team to a nearby pub, injuries were already a problem. With Owen Farrell now out of the tournament, Jonny May facing knee surgery, Jonny Hill in doubt for Scotland and Joe Marler still in isolation with Covid, Eddie Jones has a lot on his plate.

Images of his team training on a cold, stony Brighton beach and passing weights to each other in a frigid sea also contrasted markedly with the warm-weather Portuguese camps of previous years, though arguably better preparation for a cold day and wet in Murrayfield. Townsend, however, is taking nothing for granted as Jones weighs his options for leadership, midfield and back five. “Whatever team England brings in, we know they will be strong,” Townsend said, suggesting the visitors would pose more of an attacking threat with Marcus Smith at 10. “If they do select him, England will play differently. They’re going to have to bring Marcus into the game and show his strengths, so we have to deny that. You have to play close to your best level to beat a team of England’s quality.”

Something similar is happening with France, however, with Italy coach Kieran Crowley openly hailing them as the team to beat. “France for me is the team of the moment in world rugby,” said the former All Black full-back. “I think they are the favorites for the next World Cup.” With the Azzurri Heading to Paris on Sunday of the week, it’s a deliberate later smoke blowing, but not many at this point would dispute his blanket assertion.

Fabien Galthié, still channeling his inner Roy Orbison in those black-rimmed tinted glasses, has had his players train at the Foreign Legion base near Marseille and hopes his 14 unavailable staff members will be back by Sunday. Meanwhile, Italy have not entirely given up hope that Sergio Parisse will feature later in the championship once he is fit again after a broken hand and a dose of Covid.

Somehow, though, no one approaches the annual mouthguard-wearing game of Cluedo with more enthusiasm than Ireland’s revved-up green machine. Having beaten New Zealand, expectations are suitably high and recent performances from the Irish provinces have further bolstered that optimism. Unlike England, they will prepare in Portugal and Andy Farrell is challenging his team to “push new limits” and aim high. “He makes me laugh when coaches say they want to finish second or third,” Farrell said. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to finish first.”

Their captain, Johnny Sexton, also seems fired up for the opener against Wales, when he and Biggar could set a collective record from all entrants for the most talkative pair of captains ever. “Over the years they haven’t been shy about saying they’re not mad at the Irish,” Sexton said. “They are different players when they play for Wales and they will be 100% ready to play. They won the Championship last year, came close to winning another Grand Slam and are a team to watch.”

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However, Wales manager Wayne Pivac is missing a host of senior players due to injuries and is unwilling to wallow in the past or insist on their status as defending champions. “It’s a good etiquette, but that was last year,” he emphasized, suggesting his side might be “a little raw” in terms of preparation. “The challenges are probably not much bigger…but we would like to think we have some champion players.” Relief from a bleak, Covid-ridden winter is almost here.

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