Why the Six Nations requires a poker face

It’s all about talking a good game, writes Simon Barnes

England v Wales - RBS Six Nations (Getty, EH)

England have no chance in the Six Nations rugby championship. None whatsoever. Don’t take my word for it: that comes from England head coach Eddie Jones. Though it’s juuust possible Eddie is teasing.

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“If you read the papers, then we might as well not turn up,” he said at the media launch. “I don’t know why we’re having this press conference.” You’ll gather that Jones enjoys a spot of verbal ping-pong. He likes to keep you on the hop: whether you’re in the media, the opposition, or the England team itself.

He is something of a Jose Mourinho figure in his self-regard, but with an Australian accent and a taste for such unMourinho-like things as irony, humour, self-deprecation and proportion. As we prepare for the Six Nations the coaches will dominate the agenda, until we have some actual rugby.

The thinking money is on Ireland. Their coach, Joe Schmidt, is a New Zealander – less fun than Jones in a press conference, and believes in straightforward, effective rugby. Ireland have always liked to play an uncomplicated game with passion and commitment.

Jones’s only defeat as England coach since he took on the job in 2015 was against Ireland, in Dublin last year. It meant that England failed to win a Grand Slam – five matches, five victories – but they still won the championship.

The problem with modern rugby is that the players are too good. Good in the sense that they are immensely effective at causing each other physical damage. Players are now bigger, fitter, faster and stronger: the collisions are inevitably more fearsome. And so are the injuries. England go into the championship with 13 players unavailable through injury or suspension, mostly as a result of playing for their clubs. Ireland have no such problems, because their core players are on central contracts.

Hence Jones’s spikiness: it followed questions about Schmidt and Ireland. “If I say they’ve got an advantage, I’m saying we’ve got an excuse,” Jones said. Meaning, the minute England get Irish-envy, they’ve as good as lost: it’s basic coaching psychology. That doesn’t mean Ireland don’t have an advantage. It just means that England are refusing to acknowledge it.

Wales coach Warren Gatland, another New Zealander, has managed to keep out of such banter. Gatland is coming to the end of his time with Wales, but he will see out his contract to the World Cup next year. His team were fifth in the Six Nations last year. “When people write you off, it’s a good position to be in,” he said.

Scotland’s new coach is Gregor Townsend. His team has got something – they had a great nearmiss against New Zealand in the autumn. But as Scotland know more than most, putting together five matches with limited playing resources is hard.

Away from the British Isles, Jacques Brunel is in his first Six Nations for France and has shown a lot of new-broom ambition by dumping three old favourites and bringing into the squad a 19-year-old fly-half, Matthieu Jalibert. Conor O’Shea, an Irishman coaching Italy, will be hoping to do better than last season and achieve a win, any win, no matter how scrappy.

On, then, to the action: a more reliable guide to form than coaches, whether they’re speaking in Australian riddles or Kiwi monosyllables. It’s a coach’s job to train for the loss of key personnel. We’ll soon know how well Jones has done that. Remember: England’s last match is against Ireland – and this year it’s at Twickenham.

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Six Nations Rugby is on Saturday 3rd February from 1.45pm on BBC1 and from 2pm on 5 Live Sports Extra