Six Nations perfect place to bury Rugby World Cup woes
The Six Nations kicks off next weekend with Europe's elite rugby union-playing countries eager to put their disappointing World Cup campaigns behind them.
England and Italy both failed to make it out of their pools, while France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales all bombed out at the quarter-final stage, leaving an all-southern hemisphere semi-final line-up. New Zealand went on to beat Australia in the final.
The Six Nations will offer up an immediate way to move on from those woes.
According to the bookmakers, England are favourites, followed closely by Wales and Ireland. France are next, with Scotland and Italy slated to be battling to avoid the wooden spoon.
That England head the odds is remarkable in that they have a new coach in Eddie Jones, the Australian who led Japan at the World Cup to three pool victories, including a famous one over South Africa, and a relatively inexperienced squad.
Jones has also stripped flanker Chris Robshaw of the captaincy, instead controversially handing it to New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley, whose terrible disciplinary record has seen him miss with more than a year of his career because of bans.
And France, humiliated 62-13 in their World Cup quarter-final by the All Blacks, have turned to Toulouse veteran Guy Noves, who takes over from Philippe Saint-Andre.
Erstwhile skipper Thierry Dusautoir has retired from international rugby and it is another hooker who takes over the captain's armband in Toulon's Guilhem Guirado.
There is less change for Ireland, Scotland and Wales, still headed up by a trio of New Zealand coaches in Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter and Warren Gatland respectively.
The February 6-March 19 tournament starts with France hosting Italy on Saturday before England later travel to Edinburgh to take on Scotland. Wales head to Ireland on Sunday.
There was a frenzied finale to last year's Six Nations.
- Thrilling climax -
Ireland defended their title on an unprecedented day of 27 tries in three games.
Ireland, England and Wales were pegged level atop the table and playing for points in a thrilling climax to a tournament which also brought out the worst in Italy and wooden spoon winners Scotland, and finally some French flair.
Former Wales skipper Eddie Butler, writing in the Observer, tipped Wales for Six Nations victory, but warned that England and Scotland would be threats.
Italy will be left propping up the table, there are doubts over Ireland -- with no province reaching the European Cup quarter-finals -- and France were "in a grim place", Butler said.
"Guy Noves has gone from being the servant of 35 years at Toulouse (13 as a player and 22 as the coach under whom they won 10 French championships and four European Cups) to the position of national coach, but there is not much expectation in his country that he will be able to light a fire immediately."
After the two previous World Cups, Gatland's Wales marched to Grand Slams, in 2008 and 2012.
Like the Irish, there are no Welsh regions in the European Cup quarters, but Wales skipper Sam Warburton had faith in what many call the "fifth" region -- the national side.
"What Wales do have is a club feel about us, compared to a few other nations. We are all close and we know each other so well. We are as close as a national team as I've felt with any team I've been part of in my years at Cardiff Blues," Warburton said.
Despite a tricky away game in Dublin on Sunday, Wales have home games against Scotland, France and Italy, with the match away to England shaping up to be pivotal in the penultimate round.
"If Wales beat Ireland they have the best chance of winning the Six Nations," ex-England fly-half and respected broadcaster Stuart Barnes said in the Sunday Times.
Former England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio urged "that the lessons of the World Cup are learnt and teams embrace the attacking intent that yielded success last autumn".
But Gatland warned that the Six Nations was "all about winning rather than the way that you play".
"Conversely, on the final weekend last year, we saw when the shackles came off and teams had to go out and play, we saw what we are capable of doing," he said.
"We saw some brilliant rugby. If we were able to produce that on a more consistent basis, then I think we would compete more with the southern hemisphere."
Eddie Jones, who seems sure to galvanise the massive potential England have, warned: "The Six Nations is about contest. It's a contest at the set piece and a contest at the breakdown.
"It's never been a tournament known for its continuity, until the last day of last year when everyone decided to throw the toys out."
© 2016 AFP