Image: England’s Head Coach Eddie Jones (L) with Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, James Haskell and George Kruis (R) during training. England Training – Pennyhill Park Hotel – 4/2/16. Action Images via Reuters / Paul Childs Livepic
By Justin Palmer
LONDON(Reuters) – English rugby’s shot at redemption under new Australian coach Eddie Jones and fiery captain Dylan Hartley begins against Scotland in the cauldron of Murrayfield on Saturday in a Six Nations melting pot of teams looking to erase memories of World Cup disappointment.
Though England’s memories of last year’s global showpiece are arguably the most bitter, having become the first hosts to be eliminated at the pool stage, the quarter-finals were as good as it got for Ireland, Wales, France and Scotland in a tournament dominated by southern hemisphere teams.
England are not the only team to signal a changing of the guard, with Ireland handing the captaincy to Rory Best after the retirement of talisman Paul O’Connell, while France emerge under a new coach, Guy Noves, and a new captain in Guilhem Guirado.
Bookmakers have made England favourit’s, ahead of Wales and Ireland, despite winning only one Six Nations title since 2003.
Straight-talking Jones takes the English reins with a reputation as a ruthless and demanding coach, who fullback Mike Brown says will want England “to play quick, never let the opposition defence settle, get the ball to space and go at teams”.
Jones’s attention to detail is meticulous, evidenced by the way his well-drilled Japan side ruffled more than a few feathers at the World Cup.
After calling up seven uncapped players in his initial squad, Jones has played it’safe by naming a relatively conservative team for his first match, with all eyes on recalled hooker Hartley, whose career has been plagued by disciplinary problems.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have their own demons to exorcise despite having won the past two Six Nations championships.
Fancied to reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time, the Irish were crushed by Argentina in the last eight and are now hampered by a number of injuries, though flyhalf Jonny Sexton has been passed fit after concussion concerns.
Coach Schmidt believes his side face a huge test on Sunday against a hugely experienced Wales line-up.
“They comfortably have 300 caps more than any other country in the competition; and on top of that, we know how physically combative they are,” Schmidt said.
“The stats from the World Cup show that they are, literally, the biggest team in world rugby, averaging 106 kilos a man. For us, that’s always a massive challenge.”
Wales emerged from the World Cup with huge credit after their injury-ravaged squad beat England en route to the quarter-finals, where they succumbed to a late South African try at Twickenham.
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny and scrumhalf Rhys Webb have not recovered from the injuries that ruled them out of the entire tournament, but Wales’s strength in depth should not be underestimated.
France, like England, begin a new era under veteran coach Noves, who has replaced Phillipe St Andre and is charged with restoring some panache to the French game after a dreary run of shapeless performances.
An opening win over Italy at home on Saturday will be a must for Noves, who guided French club side Toulouse to four European Cup triumphs.
For Scotland, hope springs eternal.
With only one win in their past dozen Six Nations matches, they begin again with renewed optimism after coming desperately close to reaching the World Cup semi-finals, denied by a controversial last-gasp Australian penalty.
(Editing by David Goodman)
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