It is less than a month until the Six Nations begins, and there is a sense of uncertainty surrounding this years tournament that I cannot remember previously. A changing of the guard appears to be taking place.
Two of the totemic figures in European rugby in the last decade, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, in charge of Wales and Ireland since 2007 and 2013 respectively, are now gone. Sergio Parisse, who won the first of his 142 caps in 2002, is retiring. Both France and Italy are also heading into the tournament with new coaches, Fabien Galthie and the interim Franco Smith. Inexplicably, Gregor Townsend has been trusted to continue as Scotland coach.
World Cup finalists England can quite naturally expect the most consistency in selection, although it will be interesting to see whether Jones treats this as any normal tournament or rather an opportunity to build and rejuvenate the squad.
For Ireland particularly, this feels like a new start. There is a sense of a younger squad emerging from perhaps a slight culture of fear, and it will be interesting to see how bold Farrell is with his selection. The senior leadership group of the Joe Schmidt era needs breaking up: Murray, Sexton, Best and O’Mahony. Complacency is no longer the order of the day.
In their place come a raft of talented but raw and inexperienced players. In John Cooney Ireland possess the form halfback in Europe, Ross Byrne, given the injuries to Sexton and the ever-unfortunate Carbery (who has started just four games in a year) looks set to have a prominent role, while Caelen Dorris, Jack O’Donoghue and Jordan Larmour should all be trusted to transfer their club form to the elite stage. Stuart McCluskey and Will Addison will be knocking on the door too.
James Ryan is the natural vanguard of his generation and should be made captain. Such a move would be an assertion of Farrell’s authority, a clear demarcation from the Schmidt era and a statement of intent for the future. Ryan is a player in Andy Farrell’s image: younger, clearly psychologically tough and trusted to perform. Following Ireland’s fortunes this spring will be interesting indeed.
It’s all change in France too, where Toulon’s Charles Ollivon, who has just 11 caps, has been named captain, replacing the retired Guilhem Guirado. Yoann Huget, Maxime Medard and Camille Lopez have all been omitted. They have a new coach in Fabien Galthie, Shaun Edwards has arrived in the back room staff and there are nineteen uncapped players in the squad.
Finally, there is a sense that perhaps, just perhaps, France too might be turning a corner. They have won the last two world U-20 Championships, and much of those squads are beginning to come of age, with a number of exciting talents emerging. They are building towards 2023, so expect Damien Penaud, Romain Ntamack, Artur Vincent and Antoine Dupont all to feature heavily. It’s possible Edwards might be able to instill a bit of defensive discipline and organisation too.
A series of new, dynamic and youthful squads, building for the next World Cup cycle, could invigorate the tournament. One can only hope.
Written by Joe Ronan.