Six big storylines to watch as Six Nations set for return with COVID rampant and Eddie under pressure
The 2022 Six Nations looms in four weeks time. Six storylines are apparent. Five are about the rugby. Take your pick.
How England, and Eddie Jones, approach this year’s huge three-Test rugby tour Down Under will be shaped by their performances in the Six Nations tournament next month, says former Wallabies player Morgan Turinui.
Turinui, who will be part of the live and exclusive Stan Sport coverage of the Six Nations announced on Wednesday, believes England’s style and squad make up will depend on Jones’ results in the northern hemisphere showpiece as they aim to bounce back from a dismal performance last year – and build towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Jones came under serious pressure after guiding the team to fifth in last year’s tournament, but decent Autumn Series results – including an eighth successive win over Australia – calmed the situation.
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE SIX NATIONS DATES IN AUSTRALIAN TIMES
EVERY match live and ad-free with on-demand replays! ????????
— Stan Sport Rugby (@StanSportRugby) January 11, 2022
“Eddie eats pressure for breakfast these days and I would have thought that they probably won’t make a change now,” Turinui told The Roar about Jones’ job security leading into the RWC.
“If they were going to pull a trigger it would have been last year. It’s not too late but they probably haven’t got enough reason to pull the trigger there.
“They know he’s an excellent coach. He’s just got to find what he wants from this England. It will be important, and there will be pressure and there will be expectation, but that’s just usual when you’re the England coach.
“If they have a really good Six Nations, it takes a lot of the external pressure off.”
While Turinui expects either France or Ireland to emerge triumphant this year – with the result riding on their round two meeting in Paris – a good tournament from England would allow Jones to be more experimental, and relaxed, when he brings the team to Australia mid year.
“He might bring four, five or six younger guys that are on the edges that he might not otherwise have done,” Turinui said.
“If they have a poor Six Nations, then perhaps there’s more expectations around needing some results out here in Australia.
“And then you mix that in with Eddie’s own personal pride and his connection with us. He just wants to beat Australia because he’s a competitor and it means more because it’s home.
“As always there’s pressure on Eddie, no matter if they go well or poorly. There is more pressure after where they finished last time.
“Ewen McKenzie talked about the pressure valve. A good Six Nations releases the pressure valve while a poor one puts more pressure on to perform in Australia. So we’ll learn a lot about the mindset of an England team coming out here from what they do in Six Nations.”
Turinui said he expected Jones to lean into young flyhalf Marcus Smith for the entire Six Nations, and believes he can make a big impact on the Australian tour.
“He’s lived up to the hype,” Turinui said. “He was one of the guys who was identified quite early. He’s probably their Quade Cooper – the new, young tyro with an amazing skillset but looking to play at the line, looking to play all the time.
“Now we’re looking at consistency. Can he continue to improve? It’s hard to have the maturity that early to be consistent in your performance, consistent in your training, continue to learn and deal with peaks and troughs in form.
“You blaze into people’s awareness. And then it’s how you cope with all that sort of thing. Playing week-in, week-out in a competition as good as it is over there for Quins will be good for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eddie just picks and sticks.”
Smith was “the kind of player Eddie would love.”
“Eddie knows there’s the England mindset around playing,” said Turinui.
“He knows the menu required to win Test match rugby, which is set piece, kicking game and pressure and discipline and accumulating points.
“But at his heart he wants to play rugby as well. So if he’s got the base game, he still wants to be innovative and adventurous when he can.
“It might sound like a contradiction, but he likes to do it in a pragmatic, clinical way. And so a Smith, who’s a bit more well rounded, could be that sort of X-factor player within all of their systems that he says, ‘you just do what you do and we’ll just build around you’.”
England, he said, need to continue to develop their game and take the next step from what they offered in 2019, where they fell just short in the RWC final.
“And without putting too much pressure on him, Smith’s a guy that can really spark that for them,” Turinui said.
“He’ll be key in the Six Nations and we’ll learn a lot about what they’re going to do with the World Cup in 2023. And definitely what they’re going to do when they come out here mid year.
“We’re going to learn a lot about what England are going to be about in the next couple of years from this Six Nations.”
England aside, Turinui sees a lot to like in France and Ireland, especially after both teams beat the All Blacks late last year.
“They both get the three home games which are important,” he said.
“France is so different at home to away and how they can manage that whole tournament? Can they be consistent enough?
“Aussie fans have learned who Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are and we saw how much depth they had when they came out here.
“It’s a mix of things that they’re getting right. They’ve probably got nearly 40 professional teams, so they’ve just got lots of players who have been playing consistent, hard rugby against polished, professional veteran players week-in, week-out.
“They’re playing 26 rounds a year, as opposed to the amount of rugby that our younger guys are playing. So they’re battle hardened and have matured a lot quicker than our kids have. They’ve got this perfect storm of talent coming through and they’re using them the right way.
“The Toulouse crew that can run the game and play week in week out together is a huge advantage.”
He added that France’s volatility would always mean there are question marks.
“That’s going to be the big challenge,” he said. “They’ve come second in Six Nations two years in a row – fell at the final hurdle trying to beat Scotland last year but beat Wales after the bell to deny them the Grand Slam. It’s bit of Jekyll and Hyde with France but they’re just a very good team with a great system of players coming through.”
Ireland’s advantage over the French was the country’s holistic approach to the national team, and Turinui said their rugby program should be the model for Australia.
“We talk about pathways and model – when we compare ourselves to other nations instead of comparing ourselves to New Zealand or South Africa or England or France, we probably should compare ourselves to the Irish model,” Turinui said.
“They haven’t had that World Cup validation yet but year-in year-out in Europe, with Leinster and Munster, Connaught etc, the mix of their provinces is always really strong.
“Leinster probably have the best provincial front row in the world. They play a lot of rugby together which gives coach Andy Farrell that opportunity just put a really good game plan in place.
“When Joe Schmidt was coach, that was probably when they were the best team I’ve seen in executing a really clear concise game plan.
“We talk about cohesion now it’s a punch line in rugby but you know they’ve played lots of rugby together.
“They’ve got good consistent players across the park and a mix of experience and youth coming through at all times and they just control their playing group really well. If Johnny Sexton needs a week off at provincial level he’s going to get a week off. That’s huge.
“It’s one thing France doesn’t have – there’s still an arm wrestle with their private owners. And there’s a volatility everywhere there. Ireland have a really good model that suits them.”
Turinui, who fell in love with the Six Nations while based in France, said he was thrilled rugby fans would be able to access the game through Stan this season, which is currently showing the Japanese Rugby League.
“Hopefully people will get to see some Six Nations who haven’t before,” he said. “You can watch it at your leisure, you’ve got the mini matches and highlights.
“I didn’t really appreciate until I lived in France and played there was how big the Six Nations is.
“It was on a Sunday afternoon in France, the only rugby on free to air and no matter whether you were a European handball fan, or a football fan over there, everyone watched those games. It’s just the one tournament where the non huge rugby fan always watches these games and so it will be good for to show people how big it is.”