In what was to be a common theme during a virtual launch where each representative was safe in their camp rather than wandering around a conference centre in their kit and trainers like previous iterations, the talk was also pretty safe. It was standard chat around striving for constant improvement from one game to the next, not looking beyond the weekend and so on. Players are rarely drawn into admitting they’ve thought about that 100th Cap or the possibility of winning the tournament. But then it’s an easy tournament to lose, much harder to succeed and the 2022 version promises to be no different.
England‘s soundbite specialist Eddie Jones may be the coaching equivalent of Marmite these days but he duly gave us a fine “best rugby tournament in the world” quote for all the posters at the outset of the day. His particular brand of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” is not to everyone’s taste but you can see the urge to try and make the process of press conferences at least partly entertaining for himself at least.
Next up was Andy Farell and Jonny Sexton of Ireland, who spent large chunks of their allotted time fielding questions about Owen Farrell who had been ruled out through injury only moments before.
Fresh off a bruising win over New Zealand, Ireland are going into the tournament with a full squad to pick from with the exception of Iain Henderson. James Lowe is still out but Joey Carbery is a lot closer to return than perhaps expected and has just resumed contact training.
The week after the Japan game or the All Blacks game they [the results] were irrelevant. We’ve got to be constantly improving to be sure we’re in with a chance.Andy Farrell, Ireland Head Coach
Despite the presence at his side of veteran Jonny Sexton – who will be 38 at the next World Cup – Farrell clearly sees his team on a journey to the 2023 event that started properly last autumn, but cautioned that despite such thinking the Six Nations “always takes its own course”.
Former All Black fullback Kieran Crowley has taken the reins at Italy, after coaching Benetton Rugby for five years. This follows stints coaching Canada and the undefeated 2007 New Zealand Under 19 side, so his coaching pedigree is not as raw as you might think.
Still, with all the other sides knocking off Southern Hemisphere scalps in the Autumn he had to be content to take the positives from a win over Uruguay.
“If you have a win you have a win, it’s test match rugby… We have to use that result as a springboard.”Kieran Crowley, Italy Head Coach
Whether Italy can bounce off the bottom of the table remains to be seen, but Italy’s new coach spoke in favour of the new law changes around eligibility. Italy are currently looking at a very narrow pool of one cap who might theoretically be tempted to swap allegiances after a three year test-match absence, namely Alex Lozowski, who hasn’t been capped for England since November 2018.
He also touched on (son of Michael) Louis Lynagh or Paolo Odugwu declaring for Italy but revealed that neither man has thrown their hat in the ring yet.
With the spectre of Sergio Parisse’s return there was a lot of talk about captaincy and leadership, with Crowley touching on some inspirational All Black leaders he served under in the past that indicate the type of inspirational characters he wants to lead Italy forward, even if he’ll have to be content with the resources available for now.
“They’re still a young team, hopefully we see performances this year that show they have improved. This is going to be the most competitive Six Nations ever.”Kieran Crowley, Italy Head Coach
The theme coming from Wales (but not the Welsh camp) was wondering whether underperforming regions affect how the national team prepare and perform. Head Coach Wayne Pivac refused to be drawn into that particular mire but said that while it wasn’t ideal, the players would be given anything to play at the best of their abilities.
Speaking of the good start Wales had last year – including a win over Scotland, who had until then hoped to build on their historic Calcutta Cup win – Pivac highlighted the importance of early momentum in this tournament, as wins put you into the driving seat and allow for the sort of confidence that often sees Wales outperform the sum of their parts, at least in terms of regional form.
“Every team is coming into the tournament in really good form which hasn’t happened for a number of years. It’s up in the air for anyone to go and win the tournament this year.”Wayne Pivac, Wales Head Coach
Having ripped the All Blacks apart in the autumn, the implacable Fabien Galthie’s France are possibly further along their own journey as pre-tournament favourites, and their coach spoke of looking to make that last step up in level to being consistently good – the sort of consistency that wins tournaments.
He’s not currently helped by the loss of a good number of players including new captain and fashionista Antoine Dupont to Covid protocols., with Gaël Fickou taking on press duties in his absence.
But with everyone dispersing to their clubs straight after that famous win, the coach doesn’t expect us to see if the New Zealand result will improve player confidence within the France environment until training resumes properly, or perhaps even until their opener against Italy. France apparently approach each game with a fine toothcomb analysis of each team’s culture but whether that means style of rugby or a more zen-like appraisal of things like attitude, leadership or how many tinnies you’re allowed to drink per day in camp, only Galthie really knows.
And what of Scotland?
Head coach Gregor Townsend spoke of the excitement at seeing fans back for the “biggest fixture of the year” in “a brilliant tournament” as a great boost for Scotland, a sentiment echoed by Hogg around the prospect of belting out the national anthem in front of full BT Murrayfield.
There was little in the way of controversy or great news around the squad. Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Rowe are on the road to recovery from the illness (though the hulking wingers Instagram suggests he’s been on holiday) that saw Sean Maitland called up as cover this week. Bath back-row Josh Bayliss has begun return to play protocols after going off with a head knock in the loss to Leinster at the weekend.
Speaking on the momentum-killing loss to Wales last year, Townsend felt that Scotland were a “tap tackle away from winning that game”. But can’t escape from the fact that failed to follow up on a great result at Twickenham. Inconsistency is still the enemy of Scotland and it stalled their tournament challenge. On the other hand, unheralded Wales profited from it greatly on the journey that would see them on the way to the Six Nations crown.
Although last year’s first away Calcutta Cup win in 38 years “counts for nothing this season”, skipper Stuart Hogg said the camp were hugely excited for the visit of England next weekend. Scotland have now won three out of the last four encounters with England and will find it increasingly hard to assume the mantle of underdogs especially at home.
Townsend felt most of the insights gained from his Lions experience as a coach over the summer were used preparing for the South Africa game in November but felt that insights into the opposition from Scotland’s largest Lions contingent in 32 years would actually be the more important in terms of helping Scotland profit from the tour in this tournament.
Asked if a gradual improvement in results up to last year’s historic away double at Twickenham and Paris meant it was now “win or bust” in terms of what constituted a successful tournament for Scotland, Townsend, like Farrell before him, preferred to think of it as being on a continuous path to improvement.
“Win more than 3 games you’ll finish in the top 2. We’ve had the experiences, we’ve got the players and we’ve got the belief but the teams around us are all playing really well.”Gregor Townsend, Scotland Head Coach
What Scotland fans really want to see over the next few weeks is a steady upward curve rather than a rollercoaster between high and low spots – never easy when the 2022 tournament looks a tougher prospect than ever.