With the Six Nations starting this weekend, fans of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy are gearing up for one of the most competitive years in the tournament’s history. Neil Back MBE, who won the championship three times, is well placed to offer his opinions on all the issues surrounding the Six Nations.
With England going into the competition on the back of a record equalling 14 consecutive wins, as well as Ireland and Scotland impressing in last year’s Autumn internationals, this year’s Six Nations is set to be one of the best in recent history.
In an exclusive interview with Champions Celebrity, Neil expects the tournament to go the distance with England and Ireland facing off in Dublin in the final match on St Patrick’s day.
“I hope it goes to the last game, with both Ireland and England unbeaten. If England beat France first up they’ll claim an English record of 15 wins on the bounce. The French denied England that record, game 15, by a point away from home on the run-in to the World Cup in 2003. Anyway, if England can get to the last game unbeaten, they’ll be going for a world record of 19 wins on the bounce, something Ireland stopped New Zealand from doing in Chicago in the summer. But it’s far from being a two-horse race. The competition is going to be exciting, intriguing and I don’t think there will be any easy games. It’s going to be tough. Hopefully it’ll go down to the wire, and all the other teams will be hoping they can knock England off their stride and ask some, thus far, unanswered questions - what happens, for instance, when this England side loses?”
As much as they’re on a wonderful run of victories, England’s preparations haven’t all been plain sailing for Eddie Jones. With a mounting injury list, the Australian coach is forced into changes. For Neil, though, that comes with the territory.
“There are always injuries, so get over it. This is rugby. You’ve just got to get on with it with the players you have available. Thankfully, we have a strong 12 team Premiership clubs competition providing players for the England team. They give us a lot of strength in depth. Stuart Lancaster began to develop that pathway through the youth set-up and Eddie Jones has picked up the baton. Some of those players are now flourishing in the full England side. When you pull on the shirt, you‘re representing your country. I think, whoever plays, everyone will take on that responsibility and deal with the pressure, as we’ve shown over the last 14 games. The team will be right on it and know they’re in for five enormous battles. They’ll have to be brave and show enormous resilience.”
Despite England and Ireland going into the competition as the favourites, this year every nation is capable of producing big performances. Neil was quick to point out it won’t be straightforward for anybody.
“If you look at how I’d rank the teams from the bottom of the pile, the change in coaching staff, bringing in Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt will make Italy difficult to play against. But, no disrespect to them, those changes in the short term will not be enough. They have tremendous players, who can cause upsets if they have the belief, so there might just be surprise in the opening game versus Wales at the Stadio Olimpico. Scotland could be the dark horse. Under Vern Cotter they’ve made fantastic strides and are playing a good brand of rugby. If the ball sticks early on, their confidence will grow.”
Wales have a new captain for this campaign with Alun Wyn-Jones taking the armband from Sam Warburton. Neil said this change could see Warburton’s form improve.
“Wales have given Alun Wyn-Jones the captaincy, a world class player who will lead with emotion from the front. Sam Warburton losing the armband will take a bit of pressure off him and he could be a different player, al la Robshaw. They have a fantastically abrasive, skilful and pacey backrow. The captaincy is a huge honour but modern day teams need have four or five leaders. If you have to keep looking at your captain to know what to do, then your leadership is all wrong and you’re in the wrong team. Alun Wyn-Jones will wear it with pride. He’s respected by his teammates and the opposition around the world, but on the field it’s about the team as a whole, not just one man. I’m sure Sam Warburton and all the other players will stand 100% alongside him will support him.
The 2017 Six Nations sees two new rule changes, with bonus points being incorporated for the first time. Neil said “Time will tell if it’s a good idea. I’m indifferent towards it from a former player’s perspective. I only ever went on the pitch to win. The tournament is about winning the Grand Slam, and anything else is second best. Teams that are chasing a game might tactically change but it’s all about winning. No one remembers the game, they just remember who wins.”
New tackling laws are also being introduced. Players will be penalised with at least a yellow card for tackles that make contact with the head, if they are considered to be ‘reckless tackles.’ If head contact is deemed accidental, for example if a ball carrier slips into a challenge, then a penalty will be awarded.
Neil offered his insight into this change, saying, “I hope we aren’t talking about the new law’s interpretation at the end of the tournament. I hope the officials show a certain amount of empathy for tacklers as a lot happens in the heat of the moment. They need to understand the nature of the game. I don’t think high tackles should necessarily be put up on the stadium screens. Slow motion can distort a tackler’s intent and you could end up with 60,000 angry fans. Just take it to the fourth official and then back to the referee. I understand why the new rules have been brought in, as safety is paramount. But I think players can tell the difference between when they’re being a bit naughty and when it’s an accident. I hope that’s how things will be judged.”
Teams’ final positions in the Six Nations will also affect their positions in the World rankings and, with these fixtures the last chance to make a difference to their positon before the World Cup pool allocation in May, it could have a significant impact. However, Neil doesn’t think this will be at the forefront of the coaches’ minds.
“They’ll be concentrating on winning games full stop. They’ll be dealing with each game as it comes and all the problems that come along with that. They’ll be dealing with each game as it comes and all the problems that come along with that. They won’t be worrying about it too much but concentrating on winning. That’s what gets teams there in the rankings anyway. It won’t change teams’ preparation. Eddie Jones and England won’t be thinking beyond the opening match against France until the final whistle.”
Neil Back MBE is an accomplished after dinner rugby speaker who is extremely well respected in the sport. To enquire about booking Neil for a speaking event or conference simply call Amelia Neate at Champions Celebrity on 08453 31 30 31 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.