Alarm bells were literally ringing out at yesterday’s NatWest Six Nations launch in London but, publicly at least, rival nations appear to be waiting to be convinced Scotland can deliver on the promise of last year and make a genuine bid for a first-ever title since Five became Six.
A fire alarm briefly interrupted the set-piece press conference which kicked things off at the Syon Park Hilton yesterday morning before it was left to the coaches and captains to hot up the anticipation for this year’s championship, which gets under way a week on Saturday.
Warren Gatland, returning to the Wales job after a Lions sabbatical in which he selected few Scots and fielded none in the Test series, praised the progress of Gregor Townsend’s men but confidently predicted his team would win a championship in which a visit from the men in dark blue is the first hurdle.
England coach Eddie Jones, pictured, has never knowingly left a pot unstirred and questioned whether Scotland can deal with the expectation, a tactic he employed ahead of last year’s Calcutta Cup encounter and was rewarded with the thumping vindication of a record 61-21 rout of Vern Cotter’s Triple Crown chasers.
It wasn’t long before Jones’ “pressure” remarks were put to Townsend, to which the Scotland coach smiled and replied: “Was he talking about England or somebody else?”
When it was confirmed that the Aussie had specifically been talking about Scotland, Townsend was quick to play down any suggestion that his players would be burdened by the surge of hope created by some fine victories last year, particularly the staggering 53-24 hammering of Jones’s homeland Australia.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Townsend, pictured right. “We have high expectations of our playing group and we have to because we’re playing the best teams in the world.
“We took on the No 1 team (New Zealand) and the No 3 team (Australia, now fourth) in the world in our last two games. England and Ireland are now the second and third ranked teams in the world, so we want to create a belief within our group that we can win those games. There’s obviously expectation for other teams to perform well. I think it’s a great tournament this year with so many teams having performed well in the November series.
“It showed the Northern Hemisphere in a really good light, but it makes the championship more difficult for each competing team and more competitive.”
To be fair, that was an assessment also made by Jones, who said: “You just sense there is a greater excitement. You’ve got a well performing Ireland and Scotland. Wales have always been strong, France have traditionally been a powerhouse of Six Nations rugby, and Italy are mischievous, aren’t they? Then you’ve got us.
“There is also the geographical proximity of the countries that makes it more intense. I think it’s just a wonderful tournament and I’m humbled to be part of it.”
That said, the England coach was quick to gift Ireland with the burden of the favourites’ tag.
“If you read the press, which I do, Ireland have got a centrally contracted system, their players are in great nick, three of their provinces have done well in the European competition,” said the former Wallabies and Japan boss.
“England have all these injuries, we don’t have a central contract system. We’re lucky to have one side in the European [Champions Cup quarter-finals]. How can we compete?”
Townsend, meanwhile, believes that confidence gained from success, at both club and international level, is the perfect way to combat any sense of being overwhelmed by expectation.
“I believe – and I’ve had evidence of this at Glasgow – that, if you have high expectations of players, you’re saying to them I believe in you,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard to achieve it, but this is what I believe we can do.
“You need to have the tangible results of that, so players need to see what they’re doing in training, their own abilities, their cohesion as a group can lead to some very good moments that can lead to some victories.
“Fortunately, we’ve got that and obviously it’s not just been the last three games, it’s been a process of a few agonising defeats to Australia a couple of times in the last few years (2015 World Cup quarter-final and 2016 autumn Test series) that have created that resolve and that belief in our players that we can beat the best teams in the world.”
Glasgow’s victory over Exeter at the weekend provided another example, although belated in a disappointing European campaign, of that. The game contained another front-row injury blow as hooker George Turner’s hopes of featuring in the tournament were wrecked by a knee injury, but their were positive returns for key attacking weapons Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour. “I watched the game with my fingers crossed for most of it and then by the end for Tommy and Stuart it was great,” said Townsend. “It was great to see them not only play a game, but to play so well, to be confident against very good opposition.
“Two of the tries that were scored were world class, involving more than just those two players, so that was pleasing It’s good to win your last game before you come into an international series. The players feel better about it when they’ve got that evidence that what they’re doing works.”