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Six Nations 2017: Big questions before the start of the tournament

Thursday 26th January 2017

Six Nations 2017: Big questions before the start of the tournament

The Six Nations championship is often described as the biggest annual rugby tournament in the world.

And its launch event could possibly be the biggest press conference.

It's the bun-fight at the Hurlington Club, London, as each of the six captains and coaches complete a round of at least eight different interviews and conferences.

Then there's the photo calls, a launch press conference, live television and general pressing of the flesh.

With less than two weeks to go before the kick-off there were a number of issues which dominated the questioning.

Bonus points

Bonus points will be awarded for the first time in the history of the tournament.

A team scoring four tries will get a bonus point, as will a losing team who get within seven points of the winners - with a special three-point bonus for a team winning all five of their matches.

Wales interim coach Rob Howley believes it could make for exciting rugby in the closing stages of games.

"The history and the legacy of the Six Nations is about winning the game," he said.

"There's no doubt there will be a mindset change in terms of the last 20 minutes of matches. If you find yourself near a bonus point you're more likely to go for it."

Meanwhile, England head coach Eddie Jones says he is unfazed by the change to the points system.

"I've grown up with bonus points. I was coaching Super Rugby when they first came in," he said.

"It's always been the fact that if you play well you win and if you play really well you win with a bonus point. It's as simple as that."

Tackle laws

New rules on high tackles have led to a number of yellow and red cards in domestic rugby and some fear the same could happen in the Six Nations.

Howley says Wales have taken special measures in their preparations as a result.

"I suppose it might open it up in terms of encouraging a more offloading game," he said.

"We've got referee Nigel Owens coming in to give us a presentation and feedback from a meeting between the referees which will be a great insight and I'm sure the high tackle will be mentioned.

"I'm sure players and supporters and coaches don't want Six Nations games turned on red card."

England captain Dylan Hartley has not played a game since being shown a red card while playing for Northampton for a head-high tackle on Leinster's Sean O'Brien in a Champions Cup in December.

"I've been working on the much-publicised tackle technique," he said.

"I've been working very hard on that. We always want to tackle low but there are times in the game when if you're the second man low isn't an option.

"The sanctions for a high tackle have changed to look after player safety. We're seeing a lot more cards and penalties and the players have to adapt."

Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones
Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones both captained the British and Irish Lions in Tests in 2013

Wales' captaincy

Wales go into the tournament with lock Alun Wyn Jones appointed as captainahead of Sam Warburton, and Howley says it's already had an impact on training.

"We've got a new captain and that changes dynamics," he said.

"I'm obviously delighted to have the presence of Alun Wyn - he has 105 caps, has captained Wales before and led the Lions and he'll lead us with actions and motivation and I'm looking forward to working with him.

"He's certainly put his footprint on his captaincy style over the past few days and Alun Wyn will flourish in the role.

"Hopefully him flourishing will allow Sam Warburton to be the best that he can be."

Jones says his appointment means having to deal with more news conferences, but did not change his prime motivation.

"I think I'm a player first. If I'm not playing well I'm hopefully available to be de-selected. If that's not the case I wouldn't have accepted the captaincy role," Jones said.

Who will win the tournament?

It's too tough to call if you believe Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt.

"If you asked anyone now to predict a one to six in two months' time I don't think too many people would get it right," said the New Zealander.

"We are aiming to get back into that top two again, but this is the most competitive Six Nations in the four years since I've been here.

"The past year England have been indomitable. To go to Australia and win a series 3-0 is an amazing achievement.

"And Wales are a sleeping giant. I think back to that England v Wales gamelast season and it was phenomenal.

"The way Wales fought back. Was there a foot in touch at the end? If there hadn't have been then Wales would have got over the top."

Warren Gatland
Wales head coach Warren Gatland will be in charge of the 2017 British and Irish Lions

The Lions influence

The British and Irish Lions travel to New Zealand in the summer and the "home nations" players' performances in the tournament will inevitably influence head coach Warren Gatland's selections.

Alun Wyn Jones captained the Lions in their third Test win over Australia in 2013, and believes it does have an effect on some players.

"The easy answer would be to say that from a player point of view nobody's thinking about it," he said.

"There are probably players with ambitions and that's a very good thing as long as they can bury that down and focus on the team they are in then we'll be in a good place."

Eddie Jones echoed that view.

"Players' focus does change; players get swayed worrying about their own performance. It something we've attempted to address," he added.

"As long as they focus on the here and now then they'll get picked for the Lions. A few might put their own performance ahead of others."

Asked how he'd combat that, Jones replied: "I won't pick 'em mate, it's that simple."

Southern hemisphere viewpoint

England's unbeaten 2016 and wins for Ireland, Wales and Italy against southern hemisphere teams in the autumn have changed the way the northern hemisphere's flagship tournament is viewed south of the equator, according to former South Africa and Italy coach Nick Mallett.

"People are far more interested in South Africa now after the Springboks were beaten in the autumn," he said.

"It's very difficult to pick a winner while in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship it's hard to look past New Zealand.

"England would be the favourites, but if they go into that final game in Dublin needing to win then I'd back Ireland to win that game just on passion and commitment.

"Joe Schmidt is a very cerebral coach, but I think passion would carry them through.

"Whether Ireland can get to that game unbeaten is the big question. France will be further up this year with Wales and Scotland pushing for third, fourth and fifth place."