Six Nations may lack spice as British Lions tour hangs in balance
LONDON - That reigning champions England are the team to beat heading into a Six Nations is not unusual but that the entire 2021 tournament is set to be played without spectators makes it different even before it has started.
Rugby Union became used to the concept of behind closed doors internationals when the coronavirus pandemic first took hold last year.
Nevertheless, there will still be something unnerving about the eerie quiet that will greet the players during this weekend's opening round of matches at what would normally be a trio of sold-out venues, be they the Stadio Olimpico (Italy v France), Twickenham (England v Scotland) or the Principality Stadium (Wales v Ireland).
A year when a British and Irish Lions tour follows the Six Nations would usually add an extra edge, but the impact of Covid-19 means the future of the 2021 series in South Africa remains in doubt.
And there were concerns that even a fan-free Six Nations might be scuppered when the French government questioned the tournament's health protocols.
Sports minister Roxana Maracineanu, however, gave tournament officials some welcome news when she cleared France's participation by saying teams would be "in a bio-secure bubble, like the Tour de France".
And the need for continued vigilance was emphasised when Wales announced Wednesday they had banned winger Josh Adams for the opening two games of the Six Nations following a breach of health protocols.
As for the rugby itself, those expecting England to play a more expansive game may be disappointed.
There was a feeling that England, whose only loss last year came in their tournament opener against France, were not making the most of their resources in playing a forward-dominated, kicking game.
But unapologetic coach Eddie Jones clearly said he wanted England to "dominate" in whatever way they could.
"Some games it might be through the set piece, some through the breakdown, some ruck and run, some ruck and kick," the Australian explained.
Inevitably, France's win over England and the way a largely second-string Les Bleus pushed Jones' men close before a sudden death extra-time defeat in the Autumn Nations Cup final, has led to speculation that their fourth-round clash at Twickenham on March 13 could be a title decider.
Certainly a France side who are developing impressive strength in depth ahead of staging the 2023 World Cup have a formidable attack led by scrum-half Antoine Dupont, while having also tightened up their defence under the guidance of English assistant coach Shaun Edwards.
Yet one of the features of the Six Nations is a capacity for upsets.
Scotland, for example, have not defeated England at Twickenham since 1983, although they came desperately close in a 38-38 draw two years ago after rallying from 31-0 down.
And the fact the likes of England captain Owen Farrell and other Saracens players have not played a competitive match since the Autumn Nations Cup will probably help their cause, as will the lack of spectators.
Wales finished a lowly fifth last year as coach Wayne Pivac had a tough initiation following Warren Gatland's successful spell in charge and he may revert to some more familiar personnel this season.
Ireland coach Andy Farrell also seems caught between the need to build for the 2023 World Cup and the demands of the present as he tries to keep his veteran half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton going.
Italy, meanwhile, are on a desperate, six-year run of 27 successive Six Nations defeats and their cause has not been made any easier by an injury to flanker Jake Polledri.