Guinness Six Nations – Focus very much on Ireland & England as Wales fly under the radar

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Six nations rugby captains (L-R) Scotland's Greig Laidlaw, Italy's Sergio Parisse, Ireland's Rory Best, Wales' Alun Wyn Jones, England's Owen Farrell and France's Guilhem Guirado pose with the trophy during the 6 Nations Launch event at The Hurlingham Club in west London on January 23, 2019. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

World Cup winners Will Greenwood and Danielle Waterman were the presenters at the Guinness Six Nations launch event on Wednesday at The Hurlingham Club in London.  As the great and the good gathered to kick off the 2019 edition of the traditional Northern Hemisphere blue riband competition, we saw the majority of the media focus very much on Ireland and England as last year’s runners up, Wales, flew somewhat under the radar.

Media & event organisers mingled with representatives from each nation’s men’s & women’s teams as Guinness hosted the event for the first time as headline sponsors.

Whilst the notable differences from the RBS era were the addition of a temporary bar in the orangery of the private members’ club and a feeling of a natural connection between the black stuff & the sport itself, it remains an event marked by excitement of what lies ahead in the next seven weeks.

Focus on Ireland and England

Whilst the usual talk was about ‘hitting the ground running’, preparing as much as possible’ for the opening games and ensuring ‘consistency of performance’, one thing was evident as the morning wore on – the focus was very much on Ireland and England.

There were constant signals that these were the two protagonists the majority of the gathered onlookers believed would contest the championship.  From the increased number of participants in each of the two coach and captain sessions to the questions about the other team during the respective individual interview calls.

Joe Schmidt seemed the more relaxed of the two coaches, commenting that he enjoyed the banter with Eddie Jones and took his frequent jibes and ‘hand grenades’ as a challenge reflecting on how strong strategically Jones is and that nothing he says can be either taken too seriously nor overlooked.

Jones on the other hand was his prickly best, shrugging off questions about favourites for the tournament with his customary “I’m not a bookie mate” responses and at one point, when mistakenly referred to as ‘Warren,’ stating: “I haven’t put on that much weight mate!”

Yet, he was reluctant to be drawn on any of England’s opponents and was focused solely on his own team and what they had to do to prepare for their opening fixture:

“The only thing we can do is prepare well, get the team together, be 100% committed to how we want to play and then we take it from there. Whether it’s the biggest game of the tournament it doesn’t really matter because our job is the same.  Our job is to prepare well and be the best we can be….and that’s what we will be.”

Little attention being paid to Wales

One thing that was noticeable whilst the questions were being fired at Schmidt, Jones and their respective captains – Rory Best and Owen Farrell – was the lack of attention being paid to Wales.  Indeed amongst all of the interview sessions, Wales excepted, very little was made of the men in red save for the odd comment from Conor O’Shea about Dan Biggar – in relation to the experience he, Owen Farrell & Johnny Sexton bring to bear – and the understandable wariness of French coach Jacques Brunel with France kicking off this year’s tournament against Warren Gatland’s men in Paris next Friday evening.

Gatland himself was typically guarded and whilst bemoaning the ‘unlikely’ availability of Gareth Davies, Scott Williams & Leigh Halfpenny, he was clear that the latter was not being pressured in any way to return to action ahead of time and that he would be available only once the medical staff had given him the all clear.

It was all very business-like with little attention being drawn to Wales’ championship chances other than the clear message that if the no.3 side in the world come away victorious next week, they are quietly confident that they have a very good chance of the title.

Ireland the team everyone wants to beat

It was also noticeable that today, for the first time that I’ve experienced, the buzz around this Ireland team was definitely that of a no.1 side in the world – even if the official world rankings say otherwise.  From the entourage following the official party, to the quiet confidence and subtle swagger that Schmidt and Best exuded, it all gave one the feeling that this is the team everyone wants to beat, be they listening in at the main group press call or watching from afar in New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.

The key fixtures in this year’s competition seem to bookend the tournament and whilst the results of the first weekend will not necessarily decide who takes home the trophy, it will give a clear indication as to whether that final ‘Super Saturday’ will live up to the organisers’ expectations.

Last Word on Rugby will be covering the tournament and providing insight into the games as we progress through the championship.  Check back regularly for updates.

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2019 Guinness Six Nations Tournament Schedule

 

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