The prospect of the Six Nations never fails to lift the gloom that can descend as quickly as the sun at this time of year in the northern hemisphere.
History usually plays a significant role in fuelling that heightened anticipation but this year the future will also come in to play with this year’s battle for supremacy also set to be a key proving ground for those Homes Nations players hoping to claim a place on the British & Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand.
But they are not the only ones set to come under the microscope with the Championship also a high-profile test for the coaches, one that is second only to the Rugby World Cup when it comes to pressure, scrutiny and, if you are successful, prestige.
What are the challenges facing each coach and who will bolster their CV with a Six Nations title? Who will take a step nearer the exit?
England – Eddie Jones
It would appear Jones can do no wrong having enjoyed a dream start to his tenure as England head coach. He has quite rightly been lauded for injecting life, confidence and belief into a squad left at a worryingly low ebb after they were dumped out of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The result was an unbeaten year that included a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series whitewash of Australia and a clean sweep of the November internationals including victories over the Wallabies, South Africa and Argentina. In addition, his players once again boast the belief to match their undoubted talents.
Jones has issued a warned his players that no-one ‘owns’ and England shirt and insisted none are truly ‘world-class’ in a bid to prevent that confidence descending into a swagger but of greater concern will be the injury woes that are set to strip him of the services of the likes of Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler for all or some of the Championship.
Typically of Jones, he has almost welcomed the injuries as a chance to develop the strength in depth that will be required to win the next World Cup in 2019 – and of course he still has an abundance of talent at his disposal including the ever-impressive Maro Itoje who, incredibly, still has less than a year’s experience at the top level.
Unfortunately for rugby fans everywhere, we must wait until the end of 2018 for this latest England incarnation to take on New Zealand due to a frustrating Test calendar but Jones’ side could still deliver a key psychological blow in their quest to topple the No.1 side in the world.
England will break New Zealand’s world record of 18 consecutive victories if they maintain their winning ways and claim back-to-back Grand Slams. Don’t expect Jones to give it too much air time unless his side reach a mouth-watering final showdown with Ireland on St Patrick’s Day weekend still unbeaten.
Ireland – Joe Schmidt
As impressive England’s turnaround under Jones, it could be argued that no side took a greater step in their development last year than Ireland who produced surely the best performance from any side to finally beat New Zealand in their historic clash in Chicago.
The impact, in terms of belief, of a victory 111 years in the making cannot be underestimated and it will be a powerful point of reference for the players and Schmidt himself moving forward.
Victory over South Africa in Cape Town in the summer hinted that this squad was ready to take the next step and may well have prompted the Irish Rugby Football Union to re-sign Schmidt to a new deal stretching to 2019 ahead of their end of year campaign.
Backing up that long-awaited victory over New Zealand when the sides met again in Dublin was always going to be key and although an incredibly physical All Blacks side claimed the win, there was yet further evidence of Ireland’s ability to compete with the very best.
If you still needed convincing then victory over Australia in their final clash of the year saw Schmidt’s side became the first northern hemisphere side to beat the southern hemisphere’s ‘big three’ in the same year since England back in 2003.
Now the bar has been set so high, the challenge facing Schmidt, like Jones, is to ensure his squad maintain that level of performance both individually and collectively with the outstanding form of the Irish provinces this season a perfect springboard.
Unsurprisingly, the exciting, crowd-pleasing and productive manner in which Ireland have gone about their business has many tipping a large Irish contingent within the Lions squad but it will not include Schmidt who ruled himself out of a coaching role in favour of taking what will no doubt be a depleted Ireland side to the USA and Japan.
Italy – Conor O’Shea
From one coach with nothing to prove to one with plenty to prove.
Entering the coaching battle for the first time is Italy’s Conor O’Shea who took over from Jacques Brunel last summer. The former Ireland international is of course no stranger to the Six Nations stage or coaching pressure, having delivered a Premiership title and European Challenge Cup glory during his time at Harlequins, but the Six Nations represents a significant step up in intensity.
Brunel made headlines with his bold claim that Italy would challenge the best in the world under his charge but it was O’Shea who oversaw their first ever victory over one of the southern hemisphere giants. The Azzurri’s victory over South Africa in November was rightly lauded but their disappointing defeat to Tier 2 Tonga the following weekend earned just as many headlines.
Present for the historic win against a poor Springboks side but absent for the disheartening loss to Tonga was Sergio Parisse which highlights the team’s continued reliance on the talismanic No.8. Key to O’Shea’s success in the Six Nations and beyond will be his ability to bring out the inspirational best from Parisse while identifying and nurturing the players who will eventually fill the 33-year-old’s sizeable boots.
Scotland – Vern Cotter
As one new coach enters, another is set to bow out with Scotland coach Vern Cotter poised to hand the reins to Gregor Townsend following this year’s Championship. The Scottish Rugby Union waited a year for Cotter’s eventual arrival in 2014 due to contractual wrangles but announced last summer, with a year of his deal remaining, that they would not be renewing his contract.
It was arguably a little harsh on Cotter with the Scots having clearly improved under his guidance. Memorably, they came within a whisker of claiming a place in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-finals only to be denied in a controversial finale to their quarter-final clash with Australia.
For a side that has struggled to compete with their European rivals of late, a fourth place finish in last year’s Six Nations and narrow losses to England, Wales and Ireland represented real reason for hope but Cotter will make way as Scottish Rugby pursue a policy of promoting Scottish coaches.
With Cotter’s coaching future also decided with the Kiwi lined up to take charge of French side Montpellier it will be interesting to see if he is prepared to roll the dice in terms of selection and approach.
His players also find themselves in an interesting scenario with Cotter’s departure on the horizon. They are unlikely to want for commitment but Townsend’s imminent arrival may cast a shadow, especially for those players not currently under his charge at Glasgow.
In a fitting epitaph for Cotter’s time at the helm, several of his players will also be pushing for selection for the Lions tour led by the likes of Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray,
Wales – Rob Howley
Another coach in temporary charge is Wales’ Rob Howley who has once again stepped up from his assistant role to the top job with Gatland on his latest sabbatical.
Howley has long been part of the Wales management set-up having been one of Gatland’s first appointments back in 2008 and he takes charge having done the same back in 2013.
That job swap proved quite fruitful for both Howley and his side with Wales claiming the Six Nations glory with the seal set on the Championship title with a stunning 30-3 victory over fierce rivals England in Cardiff.
In a change from four years ago, Howley assumed control for the November internationals that included victories over Argentina and South Africa. However, a big defeat to Australia and a narrow escape against Japan prompted widespread criticism and specific question marks about his man-management.
As a result he has plenty to prove to some outsiders while his leading players will be hoping to impress their stand-in coach who also happens to be one of the key figures in the Lions selection committee.
The Wales coaching merry-go-round will continue for the remainder of the squad later this year with Howley set for another Lions tour as part of Gatland’s coaching set-up and forwards coach Robin McBryde scheduled to take control of the national side for their tour of the Pacific Islands.
France – Guy Noves
Another key figure out to impress is France coach Guy Noves who will be desperate to prove to his new boss – recently-elected French Rugby Union president Bernard Laporte – that he remains the right man to lead Les Bleus.
Noves’ future in the role appeared to be in doubt with Laporte’s victory over Pierre Camou, who appointed the former Toulouse coach, in December’s election. Noves’ pledge of support for Camou will have done little for his prospects but it appears there will be no knee jerk reaction despite reports linking Fabien Galthie with the post.
A disappointing fourth place finish in the Six Nations did little to boost Noves’ stock but his side did claim a share of the spoils in a Test series against Argentina in the summer. Further credit was due with narrow defeats to both Australia and New Zealand in the autumn but such results count for little when your European rivals are beating that same highly-rated opposition.
If other reports are to be believed then Laporte expects a more attractive end product to lift the sport out of the doldrums so don’t be too surprised of Noves relies heavily on Clermont Auvergne’s talent-heavy squad that has propelled the Top 14 side into contention once again for the Champions Cup. Only time will tell if the likes of Noa Nakaitaci, Wesley Fofana and Camille Lopez can buy Noves more time.