England coach Eddie Jones has warned his side’s Six Nations rivals that the champions are not merely planning to retain their crown this year — they want to do so in dominant fashion.
Jones, who acknowledged his team has a responsibility to perform while playing on during a national lockdown, is confident England can secure a fourth Championship success of his reign.
In October, England wrapped up the Six Nations 2020 title on points difference from France and subsequently cemented their standing in the northern hemisphere by winning the Autumn Nations Cup.
“The one thing we were disappointed about in the autumn was that we never played as well as we could,” said Jones, speaking at the official Six Nations 2021 virtual launch.
“We want to find a way to be a side who can dominate opposition through every bit of the game
“Some games it might be through the set-piece, some games it might be through the breakdown, some games it might be ruck and run, some games it might be ruck and kick.
“[It’s about] finding the right spot for that game, playing it well and dominating the opposition.”
Several players have withdrawn from England’s initial 28-man squad for this year’s Championship, but Jones insisted what most perceive as a setback actually represented a “great opportunity”.
“As weird as it may seem as a coach, it [players withdrawing] excites me,” he added.
England open their title defence at Twickenham against Scotland on 6 February in the tournament’s first round, having last suffered a home defeat to their old rivals in 1983.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend admitted the Calcutta Cup remained the most important fixture in Scotland’s calendar, and his side head into the Championship on the back of an encouraging 2020 on the pitch.
“It’s a tough one for the opener isn’t it? The team that won last year’s Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup on their own patch, but it focuses our minds,” he said.
“We know we’ll have to be at our best to be in a position to win that game and we’ve also got to look at how we can improve from our last campaign, the last Six Nations and the autumn.
“It’s the biggest game every year for us, for our players and especially for our people, our nation. It’s a game we’ve played most regularly, 150 years this year from the first time we played them.
“And we also play for a trophy so it is the biggest game wherever it comes in the calendar. Coming first means that the focus going into the next week will be really sharp.”
Exciting France among favourites again
France, who boast Six Nations 2020 Player of the Championship Antoine Dupont in their ranks, ran England close in finishing as runners-up in both the Championship and Autumn Nations Cup last year.
In a bid to improve his team’s chances of Six Nations success, coach Fabien Galthié has brought Rugby World Cup 2019 final referee Jérôme Garcès into camp to help with his players’ discipline.
Captain Charles Ollivon has been a fixture in Galthié’s improving France team, and was full of praise for the work ethic that has underpinned their upturn in results.
“I believe in this team we all have the same responsibility, we all carry the project. We’re here to give the best that we have,” he said.
“What is close to my heart is that commitment of everyone, and the behaviour of all the players. And honestly, since the beginning of 2020 I am very happy with everybody’s attitude. Everybody’s very enthusiastic and generous, and we need to foster this desire to grow and to move forward.
“Because [that’s] what we need to reach excellence because of the level that we are playing today, particularly in a tournament such as the Six Nations.
“So, it’s really up to us to keep this going and to keep asking for more work and more improvement. It is absolutely necessary for the level that we’re playing, particularly as we’re representing our country and our supporters.”
Les Bleus open their campaign against Italy in Rome on 6 February, with their hosts still looking to record a first win under coach Franco Smith.
The Azzurri have lost each of their eight matches under the South African, who urged his players to “concentrate on the process, not the outcome” ahead of this year’s Championship.
“There’s a big expectation around winning the first game but we don’t want to win just one,” Smith said.
“We want to win consistently, we want to be sustainable and significant in our approach. We don’t want to have a one-off where we play well, this is a new start for Italy rugby.
“In the next 10 to 20 years we want to be progressing, we want to bring through more quality international athletes. It’s not a one-year process, it’s not a one-game process. We want to set the standards and encourage the young guys.”
Alun Wyn Jones gives Wales boost
The final match of the opening weekend pits Wales against Ireland in Cardiff on 7 February. The hosts endured a difficult transition from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac in 2020, winning only one Six Nations match.
However, Wales received a boost ahead of the virtual launch as captain Alun Wyn Jones returned to training following injury, and he is confident results will improve in 2021.
“I’ve progressed really well, so I will await [news on] selection,” Jones said.
“Over the last 12 months, there has been a change in regime and we’ve experienced a bit of everything. We had a lot of new caps in the [Autumn] Nations Cup campaign and, in parts, performances were pleasing but we were disappointed with the results.
“We come into this campaign with a strong squad and another layer of players who can be called upon to strengthen us if required.
“Any captain will say they want the Championship but performances come first and we have to build on those to get the results.”
Ireland, meanwhile, finished third in both the Six Nations 2020 and Autumn Nations Cup.
Although coach Andy Farrell suggested England and France would again be favourites for this year’s Championship, he is confident the building blocks are being put in place for future Irish success.
“There’s a pecking order at this moment in time where two teams are going in as favourites and we aspire to be that. I suppose that comes from hard work and performing under pressure,” he said.
“We are not far at all. We made a couple of comments at the end of the autumn, about [the fact] we know where we are going and we know how far we are from being there.
“We are nearly where we want to be but this is it now, this is the Six Nations. It is a fantastic competition and it is there to be won by a number of teams, but to do that there are a number of things we need to be better at.
“I suppose the big question over the last while has been about dealing with the big games. But, we have got to get through our first game and assess where we are at before we talk about the last game.
“We want to compete to win the competition and we are a side that has developed in lots of ways but it is all about putting the pieces together to produce a performance we are proud of.”