England urged to 'dominate' Six Nations

London (AFP) –


Reigning champions England have been urged to produce a "dominant" defence of their Six Nations title with coach Eddie Jones "grateful" the championship is going ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A shadow was cast over whether the 2021 Championship would be held as scheduled in February and March when this month's final two pool rounds of European club competition were cancelled.

They were lost after the French government said it was unsafe for French clubs to travel when a new Covid-19 variant was becoming increasingly widespread in Britain and Ireland.

But with Six Nations teams set to be holed up in even more stringent bio-secure bubbles than club sides, Jones, speaking at Wednesday's virtual launch of the tournament, said: "We are grateful for this opportunity. We are lucky enough, Owen (Farrell, the England captain) and myself, and the rest of the team, to actually make a living out of something we love doing.

"You've just got to look at the news today, 100,000 people have died in the UK (from the coronavirus), one of the highest death rates in the world.

"It's a tough time. Elite sport has been given an opportunity to do something to help society get through this," added Jones, currently self-isolating after England forwards coach Matt Proudfoot's positive test.

Although England, the losing 2019 World Cup finalists, won last year's Six Nations, they were beaten by France and then only saw off an under-strength French side in sudden death extra time in the final of the subsequent Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham.

Their relatively conservative game-plan contrasted with the bold approach of a youthful French side.

England, who begin the Championship at home to oldest rivals Scotland on February 6, are not due to play France until a Twickenham clash on March 13.

"The great thing for us is that we know you guys (the media) love France so keep loving them, keep telling them how good they are," said a grinning Jones.

- 'Disappointed' -

But Jones, on a more serious note, added: "The one thing we were disappointed about in the autumn was that we never played as well as we could and that's what we are always striving to do, dominate the opposition.

"Some games it might be through the set piece, some through the breakdown, some ruck and run, some ruck and kick."

England head into the Six Nations missing several forwards, with Sam Underhill, Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola all injured, while Joe Marler had withdrawn to spend more time with his family.

"As weird as it seems for a head coach to say, it excites me," insisted Jones. "We're going to have to work a little bit harder."

Meanwhile, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton played down his latest injury ahead of the team's Six Nations opener away to Wales on February 7.

The fly-half, who suffered hamstring problems late last year, limped off during Leinster's PRO14 win over Munster on Saturday.

"It's not major and hopefully I will be back training by the end of the week and hopefully be fit for the Wales game," he said.

- 'Pecking order' -

Ireland finished third in last season's Six Nations, behind England and France.

"There's a pecking order at this moment in time where two teams are going in as favourites," said Ireland coach Andy Farrell, the father of Owen.

"We want to be back up there in that type of light come the end of this tournament."

Scotland have a tough opening day assignment given they haven't beaten arch-rivals England at Twickenham since 1983.

But they did win three matches during last year's Six Nations, including a first victory on Welsh soil in 18 years.

"We are playing one of the best teams in the world, a team that won last year's Six Nations," said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. There is no bigger (challenge) than England away."

Italy have spent most of their history as the 'sixth' nation finishing bottom of the table, including in each of the last five seasons.

But defiant coach Franco Smith said: "We want to win consistently, we want to be sustainable. We don't want to have one-off games -- this is a new start for Italian rugby."