TTT managed to swing a cheeky invite this week to the launch of the RBS 6 Nations 2014 at the swanky Hurlingham Club in Putney. And with free Guinness available from 8am, you’re actually pretty lucky this even got written. But it did, and here it is …
Chairman of the 6 Nations Council, Bill Beaumont, introduced proceedings. The former England 2nd row and captain credited rugby’s “greatest championship” as the “envy of rugby world”. Staggeringly this year’s tournament will be seen live in over 160 countries across the globe, with coverage available as far apart as the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa.
And understandably. Who can forget notable moments of last year’s tournament including Ireland and Italy’s thrilling victories in the first weekend and the heroics of Wales on the closing Saturday? Not the English anytime soon, that’s for sure.
Speaking to the captains at the introductory press conference, the mood was fairly unanimously one of anticipation.
Even though he’s still unsure whether he’ll face Italy in the first round of the Championship (due to nerve damage of a shoulder sustained in November’s defeat to Australia), Sam Warburton is “looking forward to the 6 Nations – it’s the one you always look forward to. It’s in fantastic stadiums, with great players and a great atmosphere. It’s what you’re measured on. It’s been a great experience, particularly in the last two years and two weeks prior to the tournament it’s very exciting.”
Warburton also reminisced about the aftermath of that night in November: “Sean [Edwards] spoke to us in the changing room after the disappointment and had something positive to say in that we’d all set ourselves such high expectations across the course of the campaign. But he told us to pick ourselves up, go back to our clubs, work hard and make sure we were giving ourselves that opportunity to come back to the 6 Nations 2014 for the chance for three in a row.”
The first step in making history by becoming the first side to record three back-to-back Championships is hosting Italy at the Millennium Stadium and Warbs is naturally conscious of their threat: “Warren has created an environment that all the players love. We got together on Monday and the focus is purely on trying to win the RBS 6 Nations but Italy had some great results last year. They had two great wins and that could easily happen again.”
Warburton’s Italian counterpart Sergio Parisse, now with over 100caps to his name, goes into his 11th 6 Nations. “The 6 Nations is huge and if we get the wins we get credibility,” Parisse said. “For us as a team this is a very difficult competition but we try every year to improve. Three matches away and only two in Rome mean of course it will be difficult but rugby is growing year by year and if you get good results you draw more people into the game. Hopefully this year we will get more good results.”
Runners-up to Wales on both the previous two occasions and most recently on the receiving end of a thumping in Cardiff, England will be hoping to go one better this year. Chris Robshaw spoke of that extra motivation: “Of course the memory of the defeat in Wales is a driving factor – it was very disappointing to go down there and fall at the final hurdle. In fact it’s been disappointing on the last two occasions [against Wales]. But every game is a massive occasion. We’ve got a tough start in France and we know exactly how hard that is. In fact two away games to start is going to be very challenging but Stuart and the coaches have it under control. We know that we need to hit the ground running.”
France will also have a point to prove in that first weekend after a dismal Championship last year, finishing at the bottom of the table with only one win (against Scotland). Standing in for injured captain Thierry Dusautoir will be Parisse’s Stade Francais teammate Pascal Papé.
When questioned on France’s ‘lamentable’ 2013 showing the Lyon-born 2nd row said: “France v England is a mythical game for us – it’s part of our history – and we will be very motivated as last season was not very good but it maybe a little excessive to say completely lamentable as in defeat you can always learn lessons. We have a young team with not much experience as yet but we hope that they will be able to take things away from this year’s tournament.”
And with Dusautoir out for the Championship, Papé has no doubt Philippe Saint-Andre’s young guns will rise to the occasion: “Of course Dusautoir being injured is very hard for us, especially for the young players of the team who would have gained experience playing alongside him but we have those young players with potential who we trust with this tournament. We expect 2014 will be much better.”
The last game of the opening round sees Ireland host Scotland in Dublin and Paul O’Connell, who missed last year’s tournament, is glad to be back on form for the 2014 instalment: “In terms of tradition and history, there’s no bigger tournament than the 6 Nations. Obviously I missed last year’s 6 Nations through injury so really looking forward to this year’s competition. The body feels good and we’re well looked after so hopefully I’ll have a couple more as well.”
Ireland’s last outing was an agonising defeat to New Zealand in the autumn and O’Connell credited the side’s performance: “We achieved a lot of the things we’d been working on as a team since Joe [Schmidt] came in. After a few weeks in camp things start becoming second nature so it’s a shame we didn’t close off that game against New Zealand but it will definitely give us confidence heading into the 6 Nations.”
Though Scotland will be confident following a third place finish last year, including a defeat of Ireland, captain Kelly Brown is wary, “It’s going to be a very, very tough challenge first up and it’s only a six-day turn-around after that, so there’s no doubt we need to start well. But that’s the challenge that’s been set and we’re looking forward to it.”
Brown continued, “There’s no doubt that we need to work on scoring tries but, saying that, I think it’s more than that: we need to work on our game management. If we can improve that I’m sure the tries will come.”
Coach Scott Johnson will oversee his second 6 Nations before the incoming Vern Cotter takes over in the summer and Brown believes the transition will be an easy one: “Scott and Vern have been speaking about things and making a lot of plans, so when Vern starts in the summer I think things will be very smooth.”