2018 Six Nations Preview: Ireland or Scotland to stop England’s reign?

135 years of history goes on the line once again this weekend as the 124th edition (no tournament took place for the eleven year duration of both world wars) of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious rugby competition gets underway. The four ‘home’ nations of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are joined once again by France and Italy, all six with their own differing desires of success, whether that simply be to lift the Championship trophy itself, or to improve their generic standing as the journey towards next year’s Rugby World Cup continues. Here’s an in-depth look at the runners and riders, taken in the order of their 2016 ladder positions.

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ENGLAND

Some pundits are awarding England with the ever-so-slightest of favourites tag off the back of their two recent Six Nations triumphs in both 2016 and 2017, and given their run of 22 wins from 23 tests under the tutelage of the astute Eddie Jones. But if they are to pull off a record hat-trick of Six Nations titles in a row, they will certainly have earned their place in history.

No country has ever dominated any format of this tournament to the extent of three successive outright championships (some have been shared), such is the passion and intense rivalry that drives each nation to try and topple the other on an annual basis. But if they should escape unscathed from what should be a relatively genteel opening fortnight for Eddie Jones’ men against first Italy in Rome – innovative but controversial breakdown tactics notwithstanding – followed by an injury-plagued Wales at Twickenham, then successfully navigate the stormy waters they will encounter in the closing three rounds, they will seriously elevate their status as genuine challengers to New Zealand’s stranglehold on the world game.

Back-to-back trips in rounds three and four to play a rejuvenated Scotland in Edinburgh, and a French side in Paris still smarting from the downturn in fortunes that led to the axing of Guy Novès, will severely test their mettle, something that Jones will no doubt relish as he continues to mould a team that can cope with all challenges and situations thrown their way by the time Japan 2019 comes around. Should they arrive at the final weekend with four wins from four, the mouth-watering clash with Ireland at Twickenham may once again decide a potential Grand Slam only, with the Championship already in the bag. But given the fixture list, the smarter money would probably be on that game playing out as the ultimate title showdown.

Sam Simmonds_England v Samoa

Sam Simmonds on the charge against Samoa last November

The absence of human wrecking-ball Billy Vunipola will be most keenly felt, with Exeter’s Sam Simmonds given the chance to enhance his burgeoning reputation in the no.8 jersey with Nathan Hughes also out of action for the first three rounds. And British & Irish Lion Elliot Daly is another high-profile casualty, the utility back with the monster boot is out for the entire tournament after sustaining an ankle injury playing for Wasps in the Champions Cup.

With Eddie Jones still fine-tuning his first XV, many critical eyes will be studying the performance levels of the previously untouchable Mike Brown at fullback, with Bath’s Anthony Watson putting in the kind of efforts for club side Bath in the 15 jersey that may well see him shifted from his usual wing spot in the test side, should Brown fail to return to the heights of old. While the ongoing debate over skipper Dylan Hartley’s value to the run-on side will again be scrutinised with starting Lions hooker Jamie George likely to illuminate with every injection into the fray off the bench.

Ones to Watch:

Sam Simmonds’ electric ball-running should be a feature; impressive openside Sam Underhill will continue his graduation to the senior ranks from the bench, and keep an eye on Denny Solomona should he get his chance to shine. The former Melbourne Storm junior has racked up 18 tries in just 23 appearances for club side Sale Sharks, and scored on his England debut against Argentina last June.

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IRELAND

The only side to have defeated Eddie Jones-era England, Ireland have also done enough in their recent outings to suggest they are more than capable of reclaiming the crown they held in both 2014 and 2015, and their three home matches compared to England’s two may well put them in the box seat.

Blessed with arguably the best halves pairing in the Northern Hemisphere in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland can also boast the intellectual property brought to the table by one of the shrewdest coaches in the game in Joe Schmidt. Under his guiding hand, the Irish have blossomed into another team that the Rugby Championship nations will be acutely wary of at next year’s World Cup, if they have designs on filling the four semi-final spots they achieved in 2015 once again in Japan.

All four have been beaten by the ‘green machine’ in the last 15 months, the only blip on Ireland’s rise was the relatively poor performance in last year’s Six Nations, when losses to Scotland and Wales put them out of the frame before that impressive taking down of the previously unvanquished England on the final day in Dublin.

They start with a trip to Paris this time out, and a bit of an unknown challenge against a French side trying to re-invent themselves once again under new man Jacques Brunel. Win there and they have three home games in a row against Italy, Wales and Scotland to overcome, before potentially heading to Twickenham for a Championship decider.

Schmidt’s pragmatism has been the only negative press thrown around since his arrival, but in a nation that is becoming a production line for young backline talent, the prodigious wares of players such as Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale should help to fast-track any transition to more expansive fayre. The introduction of former Chiefs centre Bundee Aki into the national fold should also add some extra punch and mobility to the midfield.

Bundee Aki_Ireland v South Africa_2017

Bundee Aki could be a key man for Ireland in the midfield battle

On the injury front, Ireland are set to be without Ringrose and Lions star Sean O’Brien for at least the opening fortnight, while Jared Payne and Jamie Heaslip are long-term absentees that will miss out completely.

Ones to Watch:

20-year-old Jordan Larmour has been a revelation for Leinster this season and should light up the occasion if Schmidt gives the winger any time in the spotlight; Joey Carbery continues his role as heir apparent to Sexton at flyhalf, but showed in November that he is more than capable of running the show from no.15 with his off-the-cuff plays and unpredictability; lock James Ryan is another Leinsterman making waves and looks set to nail down a starting berth in the second row.

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FRANCE

Where to start here? Blessed with a bevy of big ball-running forwards and backs, Les Bleus have persisted with their ‘muscle-man’ approach for far too long at the expense of their natural flair game. The trouble is, that historical ‘joie de vivre’ is becoming increasingly suppressed in the Top 14 as teams continue to bludgeon their way to ascendancy, and the traditional élan shown by the Serge Blanco’s and Phillipe Sella’s of the past is fast becoming a rare treasure.

Guy Novès was supposed to be the man to restore those traditional qualities, to oversee a much needed injection of the Gallic ideals that he successfully utilised in his dominant Toulouse sides of the 1990’s and 2000’s. But while last year saw some noticeable improvement in terms of ball handling, offloads and the playing of what was in front of them, we still saw a French team with no clear game plan, and one that didn’t seem to have the fitness levels required to repeatedly execute the increased amount of ball-carries and run metres needed for such a transition. It was exciting, but it was largely unsustainable, and hugely erratic.

He did steer them to a third-place finish in the Six Nations – their highest in six years, but they still flattered to deceive, and a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of an equally unimpressive South Africa last June set the tone for what was coming. Despite getting the backing of the French Federation in the aftermath, a winless November that included the relative ignominy of a 23-all draw at home to Japan was the final straw, and Novès became the first French national coach to be dismissed.

Taken at face value, the new man at the helm appears to be a bit of a desperate choice from a governing body unprepared to hand the reins over to any of the promising younger coaches currently plying their trade in France. Jacques Brunel is a year older than Novès; has no domestic trophy success to his name by comparison to his predecessor’s overflowing cabinet of French Championships and Heineken Cups; and in his previous stint on the international scene with an admittedly much-less talented Italian side, his winning ratio was just 22% from his 50 tests in charge.

Anthony Belleau_France v Japan_U20RWC_2016

Toulon flyhalf Anthony Belleau is one of two young flyhalves picked by Jacques Brunel

What he has already shown with his squad selection for this tournament though, is a willingness to promote youth, and in Anthony Belleau (21) and Matthieu Jalibert (19), he has the most inexperienced flyhalves in the competition. That of course could go one of two ways, and the pendulum swing between masterstroke and lunacy will go a long way to deciding France’s fate – and indeed Brunel’s – in this competition. But even if his faith in young talent could, and hopefully will, see an improvement, it is hard to see them progressing to the consistent tune of the four wins they would likely need to be seriously involved in the big dance come the tournament’s denouement.

Ones to watch:

The aforementioned greenhorn no.10’s will be an obvious fixation, whichever is handed the starting berth, and with Camille Lopez sidelined with a broken ankle, both have a chance to lay claim to the jersey on a long-term basis; Sékou Macalou is a 22-year-old flanker that has been pulling up trees for club side Stade Francais, and may just be France’s answer to the dynamism and athleticism of Maro Itoje; wing Teddy Thomas burst onto the test scene with a scintillating hat-trick of tries on debut against Fiji back in 2014, only for injuries and a loss of form to curtail his international appearances in the years since. But the 24-year-old looks to be back to his best and could be a potent threat alongside the lethal Virimi Vakatawa.

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SCOTLAND

If France are likely to be too inconsistent to trouble both England and Ireland over the course of five matches, the wolf at the door for both the leading contenders appears to be Scotland. The steady progress overseen by previous head coach Vern Cotter has been picked up and run with in some style by the incoming Gregor Townsend since he took the reins last May, and home and away wins over Australia and a narrow loss to the All Blacks in his brief tenure have given plenty of reason for optimism ahead of the resumption of this season’s international hostilities.

Confidence is high within the Scottish camp. Their last outing was that 53-24 demolition of the Wallabies in Edinburgh; club side Glasgow are sitting pretty at the top of their Pro 14 conference ladder with just one defeat; while captain John Barclay is playing a leading role with a Scarlets side that are reigning Pro 14 champions, and have just reached the Champions Cup Quarter-Finals for the first time in over 10 years.

They also come into this year’s Championship off the back of last season’s progress, when wins over Ireland, Wales and Italy gave them their best return in the Six Nations since 2006. But they will need to fix their troubles on the road if that progress is to get them within sight of a first title since 1999, and trips to Cardiff, Dublin and Rome will go a long way to deciding their ultimate fate.

Townsend’s trademark style of exciting, high-octane rugby has been successfully transplanted from Glasgow – where he was head coach prior to taking the national role, and oversaw the development of most of the 17 Warriors that make up his initial 40 man squad – into the test arena, and the promotion of snappy scrumhalf Ali Price to a starting role ahead of the more pragmatic ex-skipper Greig Laidlaw, is a prime example of his desire to speed up the game and ask more questions of the opposition defence.

Price’s combination with the maverick Finn Russell will be the catalyst for Scotland’s attacking thrusts, with Stuart Hogg – Player of the Tournament in both 2016 and 2017 – and fellow British & Irish Lion Tommy Seymour adding plenty on counter-attack. Indeed, the backline weapons now at their disposal should ensure another healthy return of points (they are averaging 32 per game under Townsend), but it is up front where they may just come unstuck.

Ali Price_Scotland v Australia_2017

Ali Price has assumed the starting no.9 role from former captain Greig Laidlaw

The broken arm sustained by tighthead prop WP Nel in December was a hammer blow for the Scots. The imposing South African-born no.3 has made a marked difference to their set-piece since he qualified for test selection in 2015, and his reputation was such that he was a likely shoe-in for squad selection for the Lions tour of New Zealand last year, had he not missed all of last year’s Six Nations as well with a neck injury. The added absence of promising hooker Fraser Brown and his usual back-up Ross Ford, will also test the front-row stocks. Expect it to be an area other teams try to expose.

Ones to Watch:

Hamish Watson was arguably the standout openside in last year’s competition, and the Edinburgh man was unfortunate to miss out on a Lions spot, and to be plying his trade in the same era as Messrs Warburton, O’Brien and Tipuric; Australian-born lock Ben Toolis’ international career has been a slow burn with just eight appearances since he first pulled on a test jersey in 2015. But he has featured heavily since Townsend took charge, and has begun to realise the potential first identified when he ran around with GPS Old Boys in Brisbane’s Premier League; in December, Jonny Gray’s overall tackling stats for club and country since he made his professional debut were released, and they offer another reason as to why the 6ft 6in lock is one of Scotland’s key men. He has missed just 30 of 1433 attempted tackles, a success rate of 97.9%!

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WALES

It seems odd that a coach as decorated as Warren Gatland, with three English Premierships, a Heineken Cup, three Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams, a World Cup semi-final and a won and drawn Lions series to his name, is still seemingly in a position where the jury is out on his legacy in the game. But for all his undeniable achievements, the rumblings of dissatisfaction around his team’s historical style of play; the fall-out from dropping the ‘untouchable’ Brian O’Driscoll for the final Lions test against Australia in 2013; and the criticism from within the supposed sanctity of the dressing room when Irish flanker Sean O’Brien suggested the Lions would have won the series 3-0 against New Zealand if they had had better coaching, have sullied the waters somewhat in terms of his reputation.

His contract with Wales ends after next year’s World Cup, meaning he has three tournaments remaining to cement his standing as one of the game’s leading coaching lights. And while he comes into this Six Nations with a revamped squad due to a savage injury list, it may well prove to be a blessing in disguise as he looks to harness some of the runaway success of club side Scarlets into the test arena. The gradual fading of influence on proceedings from crash-ball expert Jamie Roberts has opened the door for the Welsh to utilise the bevy of young attacking weapons they had waiting in the wings, and to promote a more expansive ball-in-hand approach that many pundits, ex-players and supporters in the land of the valleys have been calling out for.

That transition started in earnest last year under interim head coach Rob Howley while Gatland was on Lions duty. But while the green shoots of positivity were just about poking their head above the soil, two wins and a fifth place finish were not the expected result, and whether Gatland was overtly keen to continue the style overhaul or not, circumstances have dictated he has precious little choice given the long list of his absent totems.

Lions captain Sam Warburton is still recovering from a knee operation; Lions Man of the Series Jonathan Davies is out with a foot injury; fullback/wing Liam Williams is facing a possible operation with an abdominal strain; scrumhalf Rhys Webb and flanker Dan Lydiate are ruled out with knee injuries; second row Jake Ball dislocated his shoulder against the All Blacks last November; Rhys Priestland is another long-term absentee, while Dan Biggar and Taulupe Faletau are likely to miss the opening three rounds, and George North has been pulled from the round one squad at least, after an injury-plagued season that has seen him make just two appearances since October for Northampton Saints.

Steff Evans_Wales v South Africa_2017

Young winger Steff Evans needs no second invitation to run at the opposing defence

But while one door closes and another one opens, the ascension to the international stage of Rhys Patchell, Steff Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Josh Navidi, Owen Williams and James Davies has breathed new life into the Welsh dragon, and there is an air of excitement and expectation around the national sport again. Dampening that enthusiasm is whether such a swathe of fresh, young faces is quite ready for the seven week gruel of test match rugby just yet. Watch this space.

Ones to Watch:

With Rhys Webb out of action, the opportunity for Gareth Davies to shine in the starting no.9 jersey is one that the current form of the Scarlets scrumhalf suggests is unlikely to be wasted; fellow Scarlet Steff Evans made his Welsh debut last season as he finished as the leading try-scorer in the then Pro 12, and the 23-year-old speedster is definitely one to keep your eyes on with ball in hand; Ross Moriarty’s form in last year’s tournament was so good it fast-tracked him onto the plane with Gatland’s Lions, and he may well have featured in the test team had injury not prematurely curtailed his trip. The Bath loose forward is a one-man wrecking ball.

 

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ITALY

Perennial underachievers Italy are on a rebuilding mission under their enthusiastic head honcho Conor O’Shea. And given the Azzurri haven’t tasted any success in this competition since a victory over Scotland back on February 28th 2015, just a win would be a massive step in the right direction. But as they showed last year against England, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog, and there appears to be plenty of fire in the belly as they look to turn around their fortunes, by hook or by crook.

O’Shea is taking a holistic approach to his task, putting all his efforts into the creation of the academies and building blocks at youth level that will ensure a longer term improvement in Italian rugby, working closely with the coaches and players at the country’s two club sides to lift performances in the Pro 14, as well as trying to improve matters at the top of the pyramid with the national side. And progress is already taking place with Benetton and Zebre racking up nine wins from their 26 matches so far this season, one more than they managed together in the whole of 2016/17.

Matteo Minozzi_Italy v Australia_U20RWC_2016

Young fullback Matteo Minozzi is small but quick, elusive and knows where the line is

One of O’Shea’s primary objectives must be to unearth a few more high-quality players to take the load off their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse. The star no.8 will begin his 14th Six Nations campaign as a 34-year-old with 129 caps to his name, but he can’t go on forever, and there’s no promising signs at this stage of another Italian player coming anywhere near to the lofty standards he has set in his fine career.

But what you can’t immediately compensate for in natural ability, you can draw closer to a better opponent by matching fitness and game smarts. Italy’s achilles heel for far too long has been their tendency to drift out of games on the hour mark, a factor that has turned many a lead into a loss, and many a narrow deficit into an outright thumping. If O’Shea takes a group into battle that are able to stay the course, it might just be enough for them to sneak that sought-after victory. Their ultimate destination lies way beyond the confines of this tournament, but woe betide anybody who takes them lightly.

Ones to Watch:

Zimbabwe-born Sebastian Negri is in line to make his Six Nations debut against England at the age of 23, having graduated from the rugby production line that is Hartpury College in England, and qualifying for the Azzurri through his Italian father. The 6ft 4in, 110kgs lock/backrower is powerful, agile, and can offload at will off either side; completely at the other end of the size spectrum, Matteo Minozzi is a 5ft 9in, 77kgs fullback with searing pace, elusive footwork and good running lines, whose two-try Man of the Match Performance in the Italian club championship final for Calvisano last season, earned him a contract with Zebre; he may be very much on the fringes of this Italian squad and likely to only see game time if one or two ahead of him in the pecking order go down with injuries, but should Ian McKinley get the nod from O’Shea, it would be the feel-good story of the tournament. The Irish born flyhalf lost the sight in one eye after an accidental stamp at a ruck from a clumsy team mate at the age of just 19, but incredibly returned to the game in 2013 after a coaching stint in Italy, donning specially designed protective goggles. Five years later, the naturalised Italian has three test caps to his name. Nothing I could write here can ever do justice to that achievement.

FIXTURES:

Saturday 3rd February
Wales v Scotland
France v Ireland

Sunday 4th February
Italy v England

Saturday 10th February
Ireland v Italy
England v Wales

Sunday 11th February
Scotland v France

Friday 23rd February
France v Italy

Saturday 24th February
Ireland v Wales
Scotland v England

Saturday 10th March
Ireland v Scotland
France v England

Sunday 11th March
Wales v Italy

Saturday 17th March
Italy v Scotland
England v Ireland
Wales v France

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