The Six Nations organisers are still awaiting approval from the French government for Les Bleus to travel to Dublin for their round-two game against Ireland on Valentine’s Day and their ensuing matches against Scotland (home), England (away) and Wales (home).
Ben Morel, the Six Nations CEO, said they had “reinforced our testing protocols”, with double testing each match week and in the week prior to entering camps, in light of the reservations expressed by French minister of sport, Roxana Maracineanu, when only sanctioning Les Bleus’s first-round trip to Rome over a fortnight ago.
The Six Nations are in constant dialogue through the French Rugby Federation in seeking clarification on quarantine exemptions for elite sports. “We are confident we will get the right authorisation. We are waiting for the final confirmation.”
According to French sources, a pronouncement from their government is expected on Thursday.
You talk about France and England being favourites, we’ve got to try and earn the right to get back in that bracket
Morel confirmed that the Six Nations are “in the final stages of the negotiations” with the private equity firm CVC to complete its purchase of 14.5 per cent of the commercial rights for the Six Nations as part of a five-year deal worth €409 million which seems sure to see some games move to pay-per-view from 2022 onwards, with the IRFU set to receive in the region of €45-50 million.
As with his first campaign last year, Andy Farrell wants Ireland to still be in the title mix when England come calling to the Aviva Stadium on the final Saturday, on March 20th.
“We want to be in the last week with something to play for, definitely,” said the Ireland head coach.
“The bigger picture stuff is for us to get back up to the standard that we aspire to be at. That standard, at the minute, is being hit by a couple of teams and rightly so. You talk about France and England being favourites, we’ve got to try and earn the right to get back in that bracket.”
To that end, Farrell is seeking improvements in all areas of Ireland’s game.
Yeah, they always worry you, Wales, especially over there in Cardiff. Look, it’s a new start for them as it is for us
“From a defensive point of view we have to be strong, we have to have proper intent in that. From a set-piece point of view we know how the game can function unless that is of the highest order. That’s a given, not just in an international team but in any team.
“And then the breakdown, both sides of the ball are absolutely crucial to be able to give yourself chances to get down the other end and score points. On top of that, a good work-on for us is that if all those are functioning at the highest that we want them to function, is being clinical enough when the opportunities arise.”
After a run of one win in eight games, Wales looked like they were turning a corner when beating Italy in their final Autumn Nations Cup game.
“Yeah, they always worry you, Wales, especially over there in Cardiff. Look, it’s a new start for them as it is for us, they’ll have a few older heads back that will give them good experience. I’m sure [Josh] Navidi and Ken Owens coming back in is going to strengthen them, remarkably so. We expected them to be firing on all cylinders, as we expect of us as well.”
A la Sexton, the Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones has also recovered from a knee injury to resume training. Wales have lost both meetings against Ireland under Wayne Pivac.
“We understand the importance of the game,” said the Wales coach. “We know Ireland’s strengths, it’s about negating that. It’s about bringing a lot of physicality to the game and making sure that we’re able to do that over 80 minutes. It’s a game we’ll be well prepared for, having had two weeks as opposed to a few days between games. In that respect, it’s probably a good game to have first.”
Unsurprisingly, there were a few technical hitches in bringing together a cast of coaches and captains from six different locations in what was a comparatively low-key launch.
Whereas Fabien Galthie admitted winning the target is “a permanent goal”, Eddie Jones was in strictly “we’re only looking at our first game [against Scotland] mate” in a grenade free briefing.
He probably needs the jousting that comes with eye-to-eye combat.