I n 1984, when replacements at will were not permitted, and Scotland won the Grand Slam, we used only 18 or 19 players in the four matches. So we were lucky with injuries that year. It’s inconceivable that anyone will be as fortunate this spring.
Even setting aside the number of players who will miss the whole Six Nations or at least its first rounds, one can be sure that some who start next weekend will finish their involvement in the tournament then. Everyone will be missing players from the beginning, though it seems that Ireland are missing fewer than others. This might make them favourites if they didn’t have to go to Twickenham in the last round – a tough assignment even if it is St Patrick’s Day.
Ireland may be the best organised of the six unions, and they have both outstanding players and enviable strength in depth. Nevertheless, logically, England start as favourites. They have won the last two tournaments, and can field an experienced side, accustomed to success. More tries are usually scored now, but goal kicking remains important, and Owen Farrell kicks goals more reliably than anyone else. England have lots of injuries, but, looking at the list, only two or three would be in Eddie Jones’ first-choice XV. One of these is Billy Vunipola and England do look considerably weaker without him.
There are other doubts about England, however. Or, at least, I have doubts about them. Their form in the autumn was generally uninspiring – even though they were undefeated – and English clubs have fared badly in the European Champions Cup. Then I have a suspicion that their loquacious and sometimes entertaining coach, Eddie Jones, may have taken this team as far as he can. They weren’t as good in his second season – except sadly in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham – as they had been in his first. So how will they be in his third? All the same there are so many talented players available to him that it’s hard to see them not finishing in the top two. There is always a solidity about England. Alone of the six nations they rarely suffer a heavy defeat in the tournament.
Jones, in his engagingly provocative manner, has been questioning the Scotland team’s ability to respond to pressure. All very well, he implies, to be able to play champagne rugby in the autumn. The Six Nations, however, is a sterner test. Moreover, it’s one thing to play well against the All Blacks when you are not expected to win; quite another to play and win in that style in the grim and demanding high-pressure atmosphere of the Six Nations. There’s something in this, but not perhaps that much. It’s not as if this Scotland team hasn’t come up the hard way, and acquired experience on the journey. En route they have shed any inferiority complex.
It looks like the most open Six Nations in years, all the more so because nobody knows what sort of French team their new coach Jacques Brunel will put on the field, or indeed how he will want to have them playing. I would guess that a Grand Slam for anyone is unlikely. The home team wins more often than not; winning away is always tough. So in theory the countries with only two away games have a slight edge. This year that’s France, Ireland and Wales, but for a Slam, France have to win at Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium, Ireland at the Stade de France (their first match) and Twickenham, Wales at Twickenham and Lansdowne Road. In none of these matches have the visiting team a better than 50-50 chance. England have Wales and Ireland at home, but may nevertheless think that being away in Rome, Edinburgh and Paris is less daunting than a visit to Cardiff or Dublin. But the way the fixtures are arranged seems to me to make a Slam improbable.
In the absence of a Slam we may find the title decided by bonus points, stupidly introduced last year and stupidly persisted with. Bonus points make sense in a prolonged league campaign since things even out over the months; they make less sense in a five-match one. What’s more they are unnecessary. Some of the most gripping matches in the tournament are low-scoring; some with lots of tries much less exciting. Still we seem to be stuck with the stupid idea. But nobody ever said the rugby authorities didn’t come up with some daft notions. Sadly, they too often stick with them.