It’s time. The time where Rugby fans across Europe get more engaged with the sport than at any other time of the year, where fans debate who the favourites for the title are and where the wooden spoon will end up.
Defending champions England enter this tournament as overwhelming favourites, a cursory look at any bookmakers odds tells you as much, but there is a lot more clamour about this tournament than the previous few. Under the stewardship of Joe Schmidt Ireland can never be counted out, and notably remain the only side to have beaten England under Eddie Jones, whilst Scotland are the team to watch. Gregor Townsend has built upon the excellent foundations laid down by Vern Cotter and they scored the most tries of any Northern Hemisphere side in 2017, a stunning statistic when you consider the Scottish teams of most of the last decade plus.
People always look towards ‘storylines’ and things to follow across the tournament, more big-picture stuff, and for this year’s tournament the overwhelming story has been injuries. Scotland have eight front row players ruled out, whilst Wales are on the verge of fielding fourth-choice players in certain positions due to a lack of depth. Although fans always want to see full-strength sides, these injuries can often promote teams to take more risks with young players and can promote better quality rugby, something that should never be sneered at.
In this preview I aim to break down each of the six teams, detailing their key stories coming in, players to keep an eye on and finally my full predicted table for the end of the tournament.
As usual, England have a target on their back. With just one loss in 23 under Eddie Jones, they are the team to beat and have the strongest squad. Likewise, they’ve been relatively lucky with injuries, only losing Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola to significant injuries.
They weren’t all that convincing in the Autumn internationals and there is a chance that teams that go at them with physicality, i.e. Ireland last year, or teams with a lot of pace, i.e. Scotland this year, could knock them off their perch. It’s unlikely, but not beyond the realm of comprehension.
Eight uncapped players in the 35-man squad is high for Jones but he has successfully managed thus far to weave more and more new players into the team and keep the squad on their toes. The likes of Sam Simmonds from Exeter have a real chance to break through into the starting XV, whilst the exceptionally talented Zach Mercer and Marcus Smith both deserve minutes and are stars of the future.
As always, Ireland can’t be discounted. In Conor Murray they have the best scrum-half in the world, whilst the resurgent Cian Healy and the powerhouse Tadhg Furlong probably make the best prop line-up in the entire tournament. The issue for Schmidt is going to be getting everything together and ensuring the same performance level across all five games, something they struggled with last year, perhaps no better encapsulated than by their performances against Scotland and England.
Jonathan Sexton’s kicking game and the physicality of Iain Henderson will be critical but it is hard to see them having enough to see off the likes of England at Twickenham and score enough points to win on points difference if it comes down to that.
As for players to watch Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour have big futures ahead of them, but Jacob Stockdale is most likely to make a big splash in the starting XV during this tournament.
France are in a rut. Initially they were able to hide behind the 62-13 World Cup defeat to New Zealand but it’s persisted. Guy Noves won just 1/3 of his games in charge, leading the French to fire him and bring in Jacques Brunel. The same Jacques Brunel who won 16% of his Six Nations games with Italy and has possibly only got the job as he is friends with Bernard Laporte, the French Rugby President.
The realisation has to be that these French players are not as good as previous generations that boasted talents such as Aurelien Rougerie, Clement Poitrenaud, Fredi Michalak, Vincent Clerc, Serge Betsen and countless others. This French side lacks an identity, and more to the point, lacks star quality. Captain Guilhem Guirado is the shining light in an increasingly weak and immobile pack, especially now that it is shorn of its biggest star, Louis Picamoles.
Brunel will have to try and make the most of his limited resources, and perhaps that means dipping into the younger generation where there is promise. The likes of Anthony Belleau, Matthieu Jalibert, Geoffrey Palis and Sekou Macalou are all immensely gifted and this is their first exposure to international level, exposure that will be vital as they will form the spine of next year’s World Cup team. Wins will be few and far between, but this tournament isn’t about results, it’s about a learning curve.
1999. That was the last time Scotland lifted the Five Nations trophy and since then the best they’ve done is third. Gregor Townsend has long been seen as the future of Scottish rugby management and the signs so far have been very encouraging – two excellent wins over the Aussies and a gripping encounter where they pushed New Zealand to their absolute limit. Many Scotland fans will be hoping this year is their year, and it very well may be.
Their downfall may be the scrum. The number of injuries they’ve suffered to the front row beggars belief and any further injuries will leave the cupboard exceptionally bare. Jamie Bhatti is an unknown commodity and could well break through, whilst Stuart McInally has continually added to his powerful running game and is morphing into a fantastic hooker. But 46 caps across six props isn’t encouraging.
That said, there’s the core of something special. Jonny Gray is becoming a leader, whilst Hamish Watson has been extraordinary thus far in the Pro14. Ali Price is a brilliant sniping little scrummie whilst Huw Jones, Lee Jones and interestingly Byron McGuigan are all very exciting backline talents. They’ve got the quality there, and the belief that for so long was lacking is back, but it remains to be seen if they’ve got enough.
One major injury is manageable, two or three is an issue but the number Wales have suffered is alarming and you can only feel for Warren Gatland’s side. Scarlets have been a revelation in the past 18 months, but if everyone was fit would 10 of the starting XV for the opening game come from them?
There are some big names still there, namely Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty and Leigh Halfpenny, but it’s far from ideal. Especially when you look at their performances from November, which were an awkward blend of Warrenball and expansive backplay.
This tournament will be rough on Wales. They’ve not got the depth or strength off the bench to turn games around, and it firmly looks like they’ll be in a battle with France and Italy down the bottom. Potential lights in the darkness for Wales are James Davies, a superbly gifted flanker from Scarlets, and young winger Josh Adams, the Aviva Premiership’s top try-scorer despite playing for relegation-threatened Worcester.
It’s not easy being Conor O’Shea in this position. Every year the question of Italy’s membership in the Six Nations rears its head. If they do well, it disappears quietly, if they do badly, every ‘pundit’ seems to be calling for them to be ditched in favour of Georgia. My opinion is that they properly organise the Tier 2 Six Nations and have a promotion and relegation every year. That gives teams like Romania and Georgia exposure and gives Italy a run where they can actually win games and build an identity. Anyway, that’s a discussion for a different time and place.
O’Shea has won just four out of 17 games as Italy coach and had just a solitary 19-10 win over Fiji to show for their efforts in 2017. There is the talent there, Carlo Canna in particular is a player that has to start if they want to pick up a win this year, but it’s scoring tries that has been their problem. There’s so little pace in their backline and they’ve not got the creativity to mask those deficiencies.
One upside for Italy is the form of Benetton and Zebre in the expanded Pro14. They already have 9 wins between them, compared to the 7 they managed between them last season. O’Shea will be hoping that more Italian players perform well with them and gives him more depth to choose from. They’ll be scrapping to not finish last again, and being away to Wales and France doesn’t help.
Sinclair’s Predicted Table