The season hasn’t started, the Autumn internationals haven’t taken place, but already we can look forward to the Six Nations 2020-version with renewed anticipation, if not 20:20 vision.
Steep as this climb will be for all the participants, a yet more demanding peak lies on the horizon: the next Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2021.
So head coaches will be looking ever more closely at the player-strength they have on hand – and in particular at the talent that is only now emerging.
Annick Hayraud, manager of the French Rugby squad, probably speaks for all her five opposite numbers when she refers to rising standards. One contributory cause is the increased number of international matches. All the member unions of the 6N now fill their autumn programme with tests. These are a vital opportunity for players to expand their horizons and for selectors to widen the circle of potential inclusions in their final choice of squad for 2021.
It hardly needs saying that the need to overcome the Black Ferns on their own territory makes the task all the more compelling.
The Six Nations Programme
Once again, the fixture-list bravely overlooks the demands of the dramatic build-up. The key fixture, between the last two winners of the championship, comes on the very first day: France host England in Pau on 2 February.
It would be nice to think that the outcome of the whole series won’t be determined then and there.
But the facts stare us in the face: it’s four years since Ireland won their second trophy. They are the only nation to have prevented France and England from walking off with it since its inception in 2002. The nation most likely to provide a challenge to this two-horse race, Italy, meet England at home in Round 5.
Let’s hope there is plenty of drama left for that curtain-call.
How do England and France shape up?
England managed to scrape a win (20-18) in San Diego thanks to a final pressure kick by Emily Scarratt from a long way out. The Red Roses were some way below their best form in that Super Series; the fluency they had shown all through last year’s 6N was missing. They finished as the fourth most productive points scorers out of five.
Few could have predicted that stat, But even fewer could have guessed the result of the tussle between France and New Zealand. France had gone down to Canada 19-36 in the previous round, and the Black Ferns aren’t used to losing any game.
But les Bleues came away with a remarkable victory 25-16, their second in succession over the World Champions.
Back inside Europe the Anglo-French stats tell a worrying story.
2012 A 15-3 W
2013 H 20-30 L
2014 A 6-18 L
2015 H 15-21 L
2016 A 12-17 L
2017 H 26-13 W
2018 A 17-18 L
2019 H 41-26 W
In other words, when they meet in Pau it will be eight years since the Red Roses last won the fixture away.
It is a daunting prospect.
The three Quilter internationals coming up in November will be their opportunity to regain the form that brought them a Grand Slam and maximum points last March.
Much depends on who is available. When the large number of 35 contracts were announced at the start of the year, it seemed unfortunate that no fewer than twelve Red Roses per game would not be involved.
With the benefit of hindsight we now know that even those 35 were not sufficient to cover every requirement in the 6N and the Super Series. Several players had to be drafted in. How many names on that injury-list – a quick reminder: Jess Breach, Shaunagh Brown, Rachael Burford, Rowena Burnfield, Bryony Cleall, Amy Cokayne, Katy Daley-Mclean, Abby Dow, Vicky Fleetwood, Tatyana Heard, Justine Lucas and Lagi Tuima + Mo Hunt (injured on tour) – will be present at the first roll-call?
Some have already been spotted brushing the cobwebs off; let’s hope all will be able to play a full part in proceedings this winter.
But, as Hayraud said recently, the door is open for new talent to arrive and measure itself against the current levels of skill and fitness.
Coaches and Ambitions
The six nations are lucky in their choice of Head Coach. Four of them have long and distinguished CVs: Hayraud herself has been team manager in two spells since 2011. They may make occasional mistakes – a glaring example would be the XV they turned out against Italy in the last round of the 6N (12-31!). But set that a second successive win against the Black Ferns, and you can see an impressive input there.
Scotland and Wales both have experienced men at the helm. Rowland Phillips may have been in charge of Wales for only four years, but with his daughter as captain that probably adds a good decade of experience to his portfolio. Scotland have only recently acquired the services of Philip Doyle, but his CV is one of the most impressive in the Women’s Six Nations. As head coach of Ireland he helped them to two Championships wins, including a memorable Grand Slam, and then they beat New Zealand in the 2014 World Cup.
Scotland would dearly love to have him reproduce those heroics for them over the next season or two.
Andrea Di Giandomenico surpasses all his rivals in length of service. He has been in charge of the Azzurre ever since 2009. He must surely have seen more progress within the world of women’s rugby than any other coach. Italy still aren’t quite the finished article, but their second place last year was a great fillip for them.
One pressing need he has is to find adequate replacements for the outstanding players who have provided the cutting edge for much of the 2010s, such as Sara Barattin, Manuela Furlan, Sofia Stefan and Michela Sillari. If they want to establish their position near the top of the 6N tree, they will need competition from the next generation. One such is Giada Franco, who has signed on for Quins. A few more of her quality will help transform the championship into a three-horse race, at the very least.
Where does that leave Ireland? They are still feeling their way back after the twin disappointments of the last World Cup and a fifth position in the 2018 Six Nations. Adam Griggs was the least experienced of the six head coaches. Now that he has two years of combat behind him, he should be in a better position to select the most appropriate XV for each match.
Ireland start off against Doyle’s Scotland in the first round. The game has added significance, since the two nations will be fighting for a qualifying place at the World Cup along with Italy and the Rugby Europe champions (if not Spain, then who?)
The IRFU has announced an Integrated Plan for the coming thirteen months, to take them to that Qualifying Tournament in September next year. It comprises a national camp, inter-provincial matches, the All-Ireland League, two November internationals, the 6 Nations; then no fewer than nine national camps to be held next summer in the run-up to that September date with fate. It needs little imagination to see how crucial it will be for all four nations.
The introduction of an Under-18 Interprovincial Series is a significant step forward.
When we think of the imbalances of the 2017 World Cup (Hong Kong 0-98, 0-121, 15-39, 7-31, 5-44), it seems a great pity that the four nations cannot all be present.
Simon Middleton will want to ensure that his Red Roses return immediately to their form of last season, not the Super Series.
Ben Morel, the Chief Executive of the Six Nations, is hoping for even bigger audiences at the venues and in front of their television sets. But it would have helped if the matches didn’t clash so frequently.
Rather like the fixtures in the Irish World Cup two years ago, people won’t be able to be in two places at once or watching two screens at once. More forethought could have avoided these unnecessary collisions.
Round 1 France v England, Sunday 2 February, KO 1230 Stade du Hameau, Pau
Round 2 Scotland v England, Sunday 9 February, KO 1210 Scotstoun, Glasgow
Round 3 England v Ireland, Sunday 23 February, KO 1245 Castle Park, Doncaster
Round 4 England v Wales, Saturday 7 March, KO 1205 The Twickenham Stoop
Round 5 Italy v England, Sunday 15 March, KO 1330 Stadio Plebiscito, Padova