England’s bid for Six Nations hat-trick serves as motivation to rivals

first_imgIf this year’s tournament does kick off with an unprecedented hat-trick of opening weekend away wins, then, it will be more because of its perennial perversity than any major psychological shift. France, under new management for the third time in the last four Six Nations seasons, beat Ireland in Paris two years ago with Guy Novès in charge but the visitors are now a much more ominous proposition. A win at the Stade de France on Saturday with a try bonus point followed by three commanding home victories over Italy, Wales and Scotland (very few conquer Dublin these days) would be no huge surprise. What price, by then, a predictable English parade at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, particularly if Jones’s men have taken the low road out of Scotland?The rejuvenated Scots, without a win in Cardiff since 2002, will be desperate to break their hoodoo on Saturday, if only to show their autumn progress was no mirage. Injury-plagued Wales, for all the steely resolve of Alun Wyn Jones and others, will find life horribly difficult should their first two matches end in defeat. Share on WhatsApp Was this helpful? Quick guide England team to face Italy So here is a question: does history have any bearing on the outcome of a modern Six Nations championship? Eddie Jones is unconvinced and wants his England players to jettison any preconceptions before the 2018 edition. Doing so, he argues, will dynamite the annual mountain of psychological baggage and remove one of the bigger obstacles between his squad and an unprecedented third successive outright title.It is a nice idea. The events of the last decade or the last century should, in theory, not make a jot of difference over the next seven weeks. The matches will still take place on similarly sized grass rectangles containing familiar-shaped posts. History is something to be made, not fretted about. It does not inevitably follow that Ireland, France and Wales will thrive simply because they have three home fixtures this season rather than two. Share via Email Share on Pinterest Italy rugby union team Facebook Pinterest Ben Te’o ousts Jonathan Joseph to start for England against Italy in Six Nations Since you’re here… features Support The Guardian France and Italy are likely to be more competitive than some imagine without securing fistfuls of wins to show for it. And England? Betting against Jones’s bandwagon seldom pays off but there remains a sense of the team still being 12 months away from their peak. That makes them genuine World Cup contenders but, in the absence of Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly, leaves the door ajar for Ireland now.And what of the championship itself? The mantra remains the same: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When a leading Six Nations official was asked the other day if he felt the tournament should be doing more to help promote rugby outside the established nations, it was as if he had been invited to participate in a game of naked charades. France have shifted this month’s Italy game to Marseille but there is further scope. Imagine France v England in Barcelona’s Camp Nou; if the Tour de France can start in Yorkshire anything is surely possible. Is the idea of Georgia joining the Seven Nations army really so radical?Aside from ending the home/away differential, a subsequent annual play-off each May would also galvanise the rest of Europe. To oppose it purely on financial grounds is to be blind to the potential benefits because, let’s face it, the last thing rugby needs right now is to be perceived as complacent. Even if the stretcher count is reasonable in the opening fortnight – and what constitutes “reasonable” is increasingly debatable – the sport’s current injury toll is not a good look. Let us all pray, then, for a Six Nations that reminds the majority why they love rugby and encourages the next generation to give it the benefit of the doubt. It really will be a grim day for northern hemisphere sport when, say, England v Wales or Ireland v Scotland generates little pre-match anticipation.So prepare to banish those winter blues and dry Januarys in one glorious fell swoop. If Ireland – chasing a third title in five years under Joe Schmidt – can live up to their billing, Scotland continue rampaging and Wales bottle some of the Scarlets’ magic potion it really could be a spectacular tournament. Jones’s England may be resistant to Six Nations folklore but, year after year, it seriously motivates their enemies. Ireland rugby union team Hide England XV: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), B Te’o (Worcester), O Farrell (Saracens), J May (Leicester); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Simmonds (Exeter). Replacements: J George (Saracens), A Hepburn (Exeter), H Williams (Exeter), G Kruis (Saracens), S Underhill (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), J Joseph (Bath), J Nowell (Exeter). Share on Twitter Scotland rugby union team Wales rugby union team Twitter France rugby union team Thank you for your feedback. Share on LinkedIn Facebook Topics Pinterest Read more Share on Facebook However attempting to strip away more than 130 years of rugby heritage as if it were fading wallpaper is an awkward game to play at times like this. Listen to the anthems in Cardiff and then try to argue the Six Nations is just another mundane tournament with history barely on its curriculum. Its claustrophobic geography is primarily to blame: for the neighbours the pleasure of beating England never loses its sweetness. No amount of historical airbrushing can erase ancient cross-border rivalries; the collective desire to topple the two-time champions from their lofty perch, if anything, is intensifying.One Irish newspaper even referred this week to “Eddie Jones’s evil empire” which is one way of describing the Surrey stockbroker belt where England continue to have their training base. It is almost like being back in the turn-of-the-century Woodward era when Twickenham was regularly twinned with Millwall: no one likes us, we don’t care. For many, if not everyone, taking deliberate aim at the “white Orcs” rates high among the tournament’s main attractions.All of which makes the latest edition – sorry Eddie – as dog-eat-dog as ever, enriched by its past and all the more fascinating for it. The mathematics are equally compelling: in every post-Lions season since 1980 England have failed to win the Five or Six Nations. There have been only six outright English title successes in even-numbered years (admittedly a harder task before champions were crowned on points difference) since France rejoined in 1947. Of those only three involved a grand slam. The 2016 clean sweep under Jones was exceptional in every sense.Jones’s would-be ghostbusters will find it even harder this time. Venues alone should not sway outcomes but last season, Rome aside, there was only one away win – England’s in Cardiff. This week’s wonderful pre-tournament photo of Italy’s squad gathered in the Colosseum was clearly designed to promote the same theme. England may be playing at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday but anyone imagining the Azzurri will trot meekly out for a routine slaughter does not know Conor O’Shea very well. Sergio Parisse leads Italy into battle on Sunday against England in Rome. Photograph: Giuseppe “Pino” Fama/Federazione Italiana Rugby Scotland players at Murrayfield on Friday. Photograph: David Gibson/Fotosport/Rex/Shutterstock Twitter Six Nations 2018 England rugby union team Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images Europe … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. 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