Gareth Dyer's rugby union column
The Six Nations. You just have to love it don’t you.
It’s a time when it matters not a jot if you are regular rugby watcher or a keen fan of the game.
For the next eight weeks your inner patriotism comes to the fore.
But whilst the fans will revel in the competition’s traditional rivalries and camaraderie, this is one of the most important Six Nations tournaments since the game went professional given the short period since the Northern Hemisphere sides underwhelmed us at the Rugby World Cup.
Only Wales and Scotland emerged with their reputations intact – but not enhanced. It has been too easily forgotten that Scotland conceded five tries in their World Cup quarter-final against an Australian side almost intent on squandering a series of winning positions.
In the bluntest terms Northern Hemisphere rugby failed. And on the global stage its stock has never been lower.
A safety first, attritional, low skill Six Nations tournament will be further evidence that the game up here is stuck in a rut.
Some will say the eventual winners and their fans won’t care how they win it – but they should.
To suggest that the “excitement” generated on the last day of last season’s tournament is the blueprint to future riches is misguided.
Ireland, England and Wales have been the tournaments dominant teams for several years and Super Saturday in 2015 just emphasized that point.
Heavy defeats for Italy, Scotland and France on that day were depressing when you put aside self interest and look at the health of the game as a whole.
The Six Nations has to start to deliver on the field if the Northern Hemisphere game is to not only catch up with the standard bearers in the South – but hopefully surpass them at future World Cups.
The Six Nations needs to be fully competitive with all six teams having a strong chance of winning the competition. Let’s be clear about this. In eight Rugby World Cups there has been only one Northern Hemisphere winner.
And before any England fans start a smug round of self congratulation, 2003 is starting to have the same hollow ring of 1966 about it.
This is year one in the four yearly World Cup cycle that now defines the game at international level.
The time is ripe for coaches to make bold selections and broaden their horizons in terms of playing styles.
After all, if they cannot start that process now – when we are four years from RWC 2019 – then you have to start asking the question: If not now, then when?
Yes I accept that international rugby is about winning but I think given what went on in the autumn coaches would be forgiven for starting to think a little more about building performance than short term results.
Narrow victories in penalty kicking competitions are not a blueprint for future success on the bigger stage.
Each of the teams needs to find a whole lot more to take the tournament on the field to that next level.
For England that means finding those players that can deliver a game plan that not only matches power and pace but most importantly can make clever decisions during games.
With Ireland it is not so much about finding a new “talisman” or two but developing a collective mental toughness that means they won’t fail if shorn of one or two influential players when the big moments arrive.
Wales will be looking to find that subtlety and creativity to score more tries.
For Scotland it will be about finding out if their renaissance is built on something more substantial than sand and France will be looking to find themselves after years of trying to be anything other than French.
As far Italy is concerned, it will be about finding something…anything!
The most intriguing game of the opening weekend is therefore the Calcutta Cup fixture at Murrayfield.
For England it is to be hoped that the uninspired selection of the same usual suspects is forgotten due to an improvement in playing style with the emphasis on heads up rugby that was never evident under Stuart Lancaster.
The omission of the likes of Daly, Kvesic, Cipriani and Itoje hint that England hope to evolve under Eddie Jones rather than revolutionise – their approach which is understandable if a little disappointing.
Without wanting to incur the wrath of my English supporting readers and friends, a Scottish win might be just what the tournament needs for it to regain some lost credibility.
For if England win comfortably by resorting to their previously orthodox approach whilst the Scots, once again, flatter to deceive then forget talk about the tournament being stuck in a rut.
No...a sink hole might be a better description.
Hoppers look to keep run going
Preston Grasshoppers make their first-ever visit to the South Leicester club tomorrow as they bid to continue into February the form which saw them unbeaten in December and January.
Those six games brought them four victories and two draws, but head coach Garth Dew warns: “South Leicester are a big side and will be a tough team at home. We need to improve our intensity but we are confident of keeping this run going.”
Dew himself is back among the replacements this weekend and there are a couple of changes in the starting XV. Scott Jordan returns on the wing and, with Alan Holmes unavailable, Christian Taylor hooks.
There’s a rearranged North One West fixture for Vale of Lune, who welcome Widnes in a game postponed on November 5.
Skipper Dan Baines returns at hooker, with Olly Cowey moving to prop. Fergus Owens switches to full-back for the unavailable Charlie Lomas, with Tom Crookall coming in on the wing.
With Adam Foxcroft also unavailable, Dan Rainford and Al Crookall are paired at lock.
With victories in their last two games, Vale are now seventh. They have won eight out of 15 overall, and five out of eight at home.
Old rivals Coventry travel to Fylde in National One, with the clubs sitting side by side in the table. Tenth-placed Fylde, with a game in hand of their Midlands visitors, are three points behind them.
Winger Anthony Bingham, who suffered a calf injury during last week’s warm-up and missed the game, is still out, so the only change in the starting line-up sees Ralph Dowds replace Scott Rawlings at centre. Rawlings and Evan Stewart join the replacements.
Neither side has fared too well lately, Fylde losing their last three home games, while Coventry have lost their last four away fixtures.
All tomorrow’s club games should be over in good time for the televised start of England’s 6Nations campaign at Murrayfield, which kicks off at 4.50pm.
Fylde fly-half Chris Johnson has been named in the England Counties squad for games against a Scotland Club XV on February 26 and France Federale on March 11.