High tackle sanctions, bonus points the talk of Six Nations launch

The annual Six Nations launch sees the captains and coaches stick to a partyline of modesty. They are reluctant to label their own side favourites or offer predictions; instead they focus on their first match and talk of their opponent's threats. It is an understandable position.

But as the press descended on a small corner of south west London, there was a feeling of slight change in the freezing air with World Rugby's new high tackle sanctions and the introduction of bonus points drawing different perspectives as players and coaches predicted how big an impact those two factors will have on the forthcoming championship.

First to be asked about the new high tackle sanctions was Ireland captain Rory Best, who welcomed any question which didn't concern him being one of the favourites to captain the British & Irish Lions next summer.

"With the tackle, as long as I've played you've never been able to tackle someone around the head," Best said. "It's something they're putting a lot of emphasis on so we'll take a long hard look at it."

For England coach Eddie Jones, he predicts there will be a flurry of red and yellow cards as referees, coaches and players come to terms with the harsher sanctions on contact with the head.

"You put speed cameras in and what happens, you get hundreds of people getting a fine, 12 months later those fines have decreased," Jones said. "It will be the same with this tackle situation.

"In the next three months there's going to be a proliferation of yellow and red cards until players learn to drive safely and be within the speed limit. We'll get there and when that happens, like most of the roads, then it becomes a safer place to play rugby and that's what we want."

Wales will draw on referee Nigel Owens' interpretation of the new sanctions with him presenting to the squad on Saturday following a meeting on Thursday with other top level officials. Wales' interim coach Rob Howley also predicts we will see an increase in offloading as the low, chopping tackles will give the attacking player greater room to manoeuvre a one-handed pass but there is still that fear of having personnel removed if they fall foul of the referee's ire.

"We don't want Six Nations games turned on red cards and it's the empathy of interpretation in the contacts which will be a key determining factor in whether they are yellow or red," Howley said. "When laws change there will be a period of time -- I wouldn't like to think red cards will be a determinant of who is going to win the Six Nations championship."

While the sanctions may see teams tone back actions of game-changing physicality, there was a split in opinions over just how big an impact bonus points will have on the championship as they are introduced for the first time in the tournament's history.

Jones, for example, sees bonus points having "no impact" on the championship but Howley was more optimistic that they will inspire an increase in attacking rugby. Howley did, though, agree with Best who said thoughts of bonus points will only come into play as a result of good performance rather than driving it.

"We hope it'll have an impact," Howley said. "Sides may have more of an intent to play in the last 20 or so minutes of the game but listening to Rory Best, he's spot on that you go into a high pressure game and you want to win the game first and foremost. There may be a mindset shift in the last 20 minutes if you find yourself in a bonus point opportunity."

Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw agreed with Best, but said the introduction will pray on captain's minds.

"I think it's good that we can score tries for sure but first and foremost you need to have the mindset that we have to win games and bonus points only come into the reckoning later in games, depending on how tight the score is," Laidlaw said. "That's where the captaincy comes in where you look at whether to take three points, and then bringing in the score difference.

"I think it will be good for the championship and will open it up and it can play into our hands potentially."

The two areas are the great unknowns as the championship ticks ever closer. Just how influential a role they have will only be clear once the dust has settled on what promises to be one of the most hotly-contested Six Nations in recent memory, though do not expect any of the coaches or captains to predict who will win.