So here is a question: does history have any bearing on the outcome of a modern Six Nations championship? Eddie Jones is unconvinced and wants his England players to jettison any preconceptions before the 2018 edition. Doing so, he argues, will dynamite the annual mountain of psychological baggage and remove one of the bigger obstacles between his squad and an unprecedented third successive outright title.
It is a nice idea. The events of the last decade or the last century should, in theory, not make a jot of difference over the next seven weeks. The matches will still take place on similarly sized grass rectangles containing familiar-shaped posts. History is something to be made, not fretted about. It does not inevitably follow that Ireland, France and Wales will thrive simply because they have three home fixtures this season rather than two.
However attempting to strip away more than 130 years of rugby heritage as if it were fading wallpaper is an awkward game to play at times like this. Listen to the anthems in Cardiff and then try to argue the Six Nations is just another mundane tournament with history barely on its curriculum. Its claustrophobic geography is primarily to blame: for the neighbours the pleasure of beating England never loses its sweetness. No amount of historical airbrushing can erase ancient cross-border rivalries; the collective desire to topple the two-time champions from their lofty perch, if anything, is intensifying.
One Irish newspaper even referred this week to “Eddie Jones’s evil empire” which is one way of describing the Surrey stockbroker belt where England continue to have their training base. It is almost like being back in the turn-of-the-century Woodward era when Twickenham was regularly twinned with Millwall: no one likes us, we don’t care. For many, if not everyone, taking deliberate aim at the “white Orcs” rates high among the tournament’s main attractions.
All of which makes the latest edition – sorry Eddie – as dog-eat-dog as ever, enriched by its past and all the more fascinating for it. The mathematics are equally compelling: in every post-Lions season since 1980 England have failed to win the Five or Six Nations on each occasion. There have been only six outright English title successes in even-numbered years (admittedly a harder task before champions were crowned on points difference) since France rejoined in 1947. Of those only three involved a grand slam. The 2016 clean sweep under Jones was exceptional in every sense.
Jones’s would-be ghostbusters will find it even harder this time. Venues alone should not sway outcomes but last season, Rome aside, there was only one away win – England’s in Cardiff. This week’s wonderful pre-tournament photo of Italy’s squad gathered in the Colosseum was clearly designed to promote the same theme. England may be playing at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday but anyone imagining the Azzurri will trot meekly out for a routine slaughter does not know Conor O’Shea very well.
If this year’s tournament does kick off with an unprecedented hat-trick of opening weekend away wins, then, it will be more because of its perennial perversity than any major psychological shift. France, under new management for the third time in the last four Six Nations seasons, beat Ireland in Paris two years ago with Guy Novès in charge but the visitors are now a much more ominous proposition. A win at the Stade de France on Saturday with a try bonus point followed by three commanding home victories over Italy, Wales and Scotland (very few conquer Dublin these days) would be no huge surprise. What price, by then, a predictable English parade at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, particularly if Jones’s men have taken the low road out of Scotland?