Iain Morrison: This could be the last ‘small money’ Six Nations
It can be tricky to see pivotal points in history when you are living them but to future rugby historians 2020 may prove almost as important as the dawn of the professional era in 1996. Private equity firm CVC already has a slice of the Premiership pie, they have one leg under the Pro14 table, and the active discussions on the Six Nations will surely be translated into filthy lucre some time over the next 12 months.
This 2020 season could be the last “small money” Six Nations before the financial landscape changes in ways we can only imagine. If you don’t already have a Netflix/Sky/BT/Amazon Prime account, then hold off until you know which of the broadcasting behemoths will win the rights. On the field of play it will likely be business as usual. England come into the tournament as favourites after a good World Cup campaign and with continuity of coaching – unlike four of their opponents. Eddie Jones’ men host Wales and Ireland at Twickenham but only after a tricky looking trip to Paris next weekend.
One day France are going to surprise us all and, when they do, everyone with a typewriter will insist that they saw it coming. Patience is a necessity because Les Bleus last won this tournament in 2010, and new coach Fabien Galthie has selected this young squad with the 2023 World Cup (in France) in mind.
It will be interesting to see what Shaun Edwards brings to the party. If the Englishman can splice his ferocious defensive discipline onto France’s attacking elan we will have a genuine contender.
Ireland and Wales look set to shake off at least some of the shackles that have restricted their game over the last few years. Ireland’s choice of scrum-half – between the all-round game of Ulster’s John Cooney and Conor Murray’s ubiquitous box kicks – will offer a clue as to how dramatic the change may be.
Joe Schmidt was a highly prescriptive coach and his replacement in the Irish hot-seat, Andy Farrell, is a hugely inexperienced one who has never been boss of anything until now. It’s not that the Englishman hasn’t passed his test, he hasn’t even sat it.
Defending champions Wales also have a new coach and we know from watching the Scarlets play some sublime attacking rugby on Wayne Pivac’s watch that the Welsh back three will see a lot more of the ball than they did under Warren Gatland, even if the fans may have to stomach the odd sour result while the players do a 180-degrees, strategic reverse ferret.
Scottish fans especially will be glad to see the back of Gatland who boasted a perfect 12/12 record against the Scots.
Italy were without a solitary Six Nations win under former coach Conor O’Shea so at least his replacement, Franco Smith, won’t be over-burdened with expectation. In fact Italy’s last win was in February of 2015, against Scotland in Rome, and the Azzurri will target the travelling Scots as they always do.
And so to Scotland who continue to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. If anyone remembers their contribution to last year’s World Cup it will be thanks to that argument with World Rugby and the subsequent fine copped by Mark Dodson. Of more pressing concern is last week’s bust-up between star stand-off Finn Russell and Gregor Townsend which has hogged the headlines, despite the head coach having filled those self-same boots relatively recently.
The Scots playmaker has been banished for the opener against Ireland and it remains to be seen if or when he will return.
With or without Russell, the runes don’t read well for Scotland. Townsend goes into the Six Nations with a forwards coach, Danny Wilson, who is working his notice ahead of a summer move to Glasgow, and a brand new defence coach in Steve Tandy who has had almost no time to change the mind-set of an entire squad.
In truth, Townsend was treading on thin ice even before his man management skills came under scrutiny. The World Cup opener against Ireland strongly suggested that the Scotland coach needs a radical rethink, but self-doubt is not something that plagues him.
“L’affair Russell” will probably pan out one of two ways. Either the squad will pull together in adversity and show the best of themselves in Dublin and beyond or, if enough players sympathise with the stand-off, this Scotland squad could implode, slowly and painfully, before an audience of millions over the next seven weeks. In which case the 2020 Six Nations will mark the end of the small money era… and that of Townsend.