2017 Six Nations provides six-week trial for Lions
The coaches are doing all they can to deny it, and in France’s case they have a strong argument, but for rugby aficionados around the world the Six Nations championship will double up as a high-octane trial for the British and Irish Lions.
The Lions tour to New Zealand in June and July is the high point of the 2017 rugby calendar and coach Warren Gatland and his assistants will make the decisions about the bulk of the touring party based on performances over the next six weeks.
The competition kicks off tomorrow, when Scotland host Ireland and England begin the defence of their title against France at Twickenham.
Italy play Wales on Sunday.
Eddie Jones said last week he had been a little surprised by the intensity of the tournament, having taken over as England coach at the start of 2016, but he adapted to it well enough by leading the team to their first grand slam since 2003.
If they repeat the feat this year, finishing off with a tough trip to Dublin on March 18, it would take England’s winning run to 19 games, surpassing the tier one world record of 18 set by New Zealand, and ended by Ireland last year.
Jones, of course, is refusing to look beyond his first fixture but accepted that the Lions shadow will be a constant backdrop to the championship.
“If you read the media, players are talking about the Lions, about the tour, how they want to be a Lion. It’s a massive attraction but can be a massive distraction,” Jones said when announcing his Six Nations squad.
The Australian will demand full focus on France, who showed signs of stirring under Guy Noves in November, despite defeats by Australia and New Zealand, as they seek a first title since 2010.
England will have a different look to the side that swept through their autumn internationals with four wins to complete a perfect year of 13 wins.
They are missing key players such as Chris Robshaw and Billy and Mako Vunipola through injury, but welcome back the likes of Maro Itoje, James Haskell and Jack Nowell.
England are the slight bookmakers’ favourites for the title but Ireland, riding high after taking the scalp of the All Blacks for the first time, are not far behind despite having three away games.
Ireland are a relatively settled side with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton – who misses their opening game – a high-class halfback pairing and favourites for the Lions nine and 10 jerseys.
Ireland will need to hit the ground running at Murrayfield as Scotland are also enjoying something of a resurgence under Vern Cotter, who is being replaced by Gregor Townsend in June.
They certainly need it as they look to improve a dismal record in the competition they last won in 1999 in the final year of its five-team format.
In the 17 seasons since, they have finished in the bottom two 11 times.
An encouraging autumn, however, has lifted confidence and for Lions representation too, as no Scot has been in a starting Lions test team since prop Tom Smith in 2001.
The victorious Lions in Australia four years ago were virtually Wales in different red shirts but the current side, still boasting the heart of that team, are somewhat in limbo, despite victories over South Africa, Argentina and Japan in November that came after a five-match losing streak.
Rob Howley has taken on coaching responsibilities while Gatland is on Lions duty and his first major decision has been to relieve Sam Warburton of the captaincy for Alun Wyn Jones who also replaced him for the final Lions test in 2013.
He will expect to get off to a winning start in Rome, having won the last 10 meetings with Italy, but certainly will not be expecting a cruise.
Italy secured what they will hope was a breakthrough victory against South Africa in the autumn, their first against any of the southern hemisphere big three as new coach Conor O’Shea stamped his mark.
Scotland vs Ireland - 15.30
England vs France - 17.50
Italy vs Wales - 15.00