6N: Gatland tips Scots as contenders but Jones questions their mentality

England head coach Eddie Jones at the NatWest 6 Nations launch. Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

WARREN Gatland believes Scotland could be “serious contenders” for this year’s Six Nations Championship, but Eddie Jones has again questioned the ability of Gregor Townsend’s team to cope with the increased burden of expectation. Both men were speaking at the launch of the tournament in London, where the coaches and captains of all six countries gathered for a series of media conferences.

England coach Jones suggested weeks ago that the Scots had a tendency to do well  in the autumn only to disappoint after the turn of the year. Yesterday he expounded further on that theme, waxing sarcastic about their attractive style of play, which he proclaimed would be harder to maintain under increased pressure.

“They’re big darlings, aren’t they?,” the Australian began when asked if Scotland could have a tilt at the title. “How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland? Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people. But to play that under the pressure of expectation is a different question put to the team.

“They’ve got a great young coach. Bright guy Gregor, eh? Makes me feel like it might be time to retire when you’ve got a good young coach like that coming through, and he’s got them playing well. But, again, it’s different when you go in as underdogs than when you go in expected to win, and play with that panache.”

Having questioned the credentials of opponents whom he clearly sees as a growing threat, Jones somewhat impishly tried to paint his own team as no-hopers, an opinion not shared by the bookmakers, who see England as favourites for the title again. “Well, if you read the press, which I do, Ireland have got a centrally contracted system, their players are in great nick, three of their provinces have done well in the European competition. England have all these injuries, we don’t have a central contract system, we’re lucky to have one side in the European [Champions Cup quarter-finals]. How can we compete?”

When told that Wales had said they would win the tournament, the Australian added: “They’ve got a good side. But I’d expect every side to think they can win the title.”

Jones was also asked if Gary Graham, the Stirling-born back-row forward who has been called into the squad, was close to a cap and if Townsend had been in touch about the Newcastle player, son of former Scotland prop and assistant coach George Graham. “Not sure about the second question, because he’s English qualified, so my job as the England coach is to pick the best players who are English qualified,” he replied. “It’s not my job to play politics between countries.

“What’s impressed me about him is he’s a tough bugger. He’s hard and that’s the sort of players we want. He’s not afraid to put his head over the ball, he’s a good defensive player and he’s a player I think that can keep improving.”

Wales coach Gatland, by contrast, was happy to praise Scotland, who are his team’s first opponents a week on Saturday. The Lions boss knows that their recent improvement could make life more difficult for his own team, but he believes it will be beneficial to the championship as a whole.

“They’re playing with high tempo, and they’ve done really well in the last couple of seasons,” he said. “It’s a great game to get first up. It’s at home and I think Scotland’s win against Wales [last year] was the first time in 10 years.

“They’re going to play with high tempo. We’re going to have to be prepared for the unexpected – quick throw-ins, quick taps, moving the ball from behind their own goal line. They have serious running threats in players like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. We have to look after them.

“They’re a team that’s prepared to take risks. It’s been pleasing to see Scotland improve in the last couple of seasons. Potentially, they are serious contenders in the Six Nations. Prior to last season they haven’t been that, filling the lower positions in the table.

“But I think they are now a serious threat for all the teams. That makes the tournament unpredictable, and incredibly exciting as well.”

Gatland confirmed that stand-off Dan Biggar will miss the first three games of the championship because of a shoulder injury. Full-back Liam Williams is undergoing two weeks of rehabilitation on an abdominal injury that may turn out to need surgery. The coach, however, has not ruled him out of the Scotland game entirely, saying only that he was “likely” to miss it.

Meanwhile, although Scotland’s injury concerns remain particularly acute in the front row, and lock Richie Gray and centre Alex Dunbar are still doubts, elsewhere in the team the picture is brightening. Back-row forward Ryan Wilson has taken a full part in training this week so now appears sure to be available to play against Wales, while Greig Laidlaw is due to continue his return from injury by turning out for Clermont.

“For him to get six minutes meant he’d trained fully with Clermont,” head coach Gregor Townsend said of the scrum-half’s brief appearance as a substitute for his club last Saturday. “He got the all-clear on the Friday, so that’s probably unexpected news that he was then on the bench the next day, but that showed that not only was the specialist happy with his ankle, but the club were happy to put him on the bench. We believe he will play this weekend on Sunday against Montpellier.”

About Stuart Bathgate 1412 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.