These are surreal times and the Six Nations has certainly never seen a tournament launch like the unique 2021 Gogglebox edition. Even before Ireland’s Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton started mouthing inaudibly from Dublin and the local IT staff began pulling their hair out, this year’s virtual babble-fest was always set to be a fraught enterprise and patience will be a virtue on every front in the next two months.
In the absence of live spectators to supply the surround sound, the passion and the off-field colour, the players will need to dig particularly deep as they seek to defeat bubble fatigue as well as the opposition. Already two players – Italy’s Matteo Minozzi and England’s Joe Marler – have chosen to opt out completely and, with lockdown protocols even tighter than in the autumn, the winning team will probably be the one whose players most enjoy each other’s company.
As Eddie Jones, possibly even glad to see the media on his final full day in isolation, observed from his hotel “cell”, there is no such thing as certainty in rugby just now. “I remember someone saying clarity is the new clever,” said England’s head coach. “Not too many people are clever at the moment and we don’t have too much clarity.”
With Covid-related disruption still a recurring fact of life, it is definitely a handy bonus for the defending champions to be kicking off with two home games. It is one less potential headache for Jones who cannot join up with his squad at St George’s Park until tea-time – “I break prison at 1pm” – and his forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, should also be back soon following a positive coronavirus test last week.
While the latter has sent Jones a text saying he has “turned a corner” it has clearly not been a straightforward period. “He has had a few ups and downs so it has not been easy for him,” Jones reported. “He should be in on Friday, though there may be a bit less of him. He had some weight to lose anyway, so he’ll be all right.”
Owen Farrell, who has spent his own spell in enforced isolation, is also now fine and with Jones having expanded his lockdown skill-set – “I have not seen the outside for nine days, I now know how to order food through Uber Eats” – England are adamant they will be good and ready for Scotland when Gregor Townsend’s squad arrive at Twickenham for next week’s 150th anniversary Calcutta Cup reunion.
They may need to be, with five leading forwards sidelined and with Townsend brushing aside any notion Scotland will be content to finish a carefree second in a free-flowing try-fest similar to the 38-38 draw two years ago.
“We understand the privileged position we’re in, getting to play the game we love, but we also understand the responsibility of giving the people of Scotland a lift,” said the former Scottish fly-half, talking from outside on the chilly Murrayfield pitch as part of his squad’s strengthened Covid precautions.
“The best way of that is by getting a win. I don’t think the style is that important to our people. I remember the game against England in 2000 and there wasn’t much rugby played. I hardly touched the ball but we won. The joy that brought shows what victories mean.”
He will be praying, nevertheless, that his captain Stuart Hogg and second-row Jonny Gray do not sustain untimely knocks this weekend, with the pair both set to feature for Exeter at Worcester on Saturday.
Whatever happens there is already a louder crackle of anticipation than before the hastily organised Autumn Nations Cup in November. The sight of the respective war horses of Wales and Ireland, Alun Wyn Jones and Sexton, all togged out and raring to go also underlined that, crowds or no crowds, the Guinness-sponsored championship will be as tasty as always. Both captains have had their recent injury niggles but their motivation appears undimmed. “It still means a great, great deal,” said Jones, who made his tournament debut in 2007.
Wales are glad to be welcoming back Ken Owens, with Andy Farrell hopeful both Jacob Stockdale and Tadhg Furlong will be available again later in the championship. Italy’s Franco Smith also sounds grimly determined to reverse the Azzurri’s failure to win a single Six Nations game since 2015 – “Our biggest challenge is to get rid of the monkey on our back” – but the pre-tournament body language winner was unquestionably France’s Fabien Galthié.
Even Jones was moved to admire Les Bleus’ improved fitness, stable selection and smart tactical approach, with Galthié also hailing the “vision, charisma, ambition and personality” of the former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards. Assuming Covid permits, the next edition of Le Crunch at Twickenham on 13 March is already shaping up to be this year’s pivotal rendezvous.