The closest Six Nations for some time. That is what we can expect from the grand old tournament this year according to many pundits.
It’s hard to argue with that epithet too, as even England, going from strength to strength and without doubt the flagship northern hemisphere side since their dismal 2015 World Cup performance, are without several key personnel. Few tournaments in any sport evoke the same emotions of excitement and passion as does the Six Nations in rugby fans. Indeed, this year all fans except those of Italy could make semi-decent claims on their team’s chances of winning.
However, by looking a little further we can see that the likely winners will come from one of three nations. By looking at squad make-up, domestic form and scheduling England, Ireland and Scotland emerge as the front runners for this year’s championship. Yea, I said Scotland. No, I’m not drunk. You’re drunk.
Despite England’s injury and disciplinary issues, Eddie Jones’ men will still head in to this year’s tournament as favourites. And rightly so. They have an established axis with George Ford and Owen Farrell. Although Ford is not everyone’s cup of tea at 10, he’s an excellent player with front foot ball and he gets an absolute ton of it from England’s pack.
The most obvious gap for the men in white this year comes with two enormous absences, quite literally. Billy Vunipola, in some people’s books the best player in the world, and Nathan Hughes are both absent through injury. This will surely impact on their ability to create consistent front-foot ball. Fortunately for Jones he has an abundance of talent to call on in reserve. Sam Simmons looks to have played himself in to the vacant number 8 shirt in recent weeks. Eddie Jones has also removed Zack Mercer’s apprentice status – nothing less than his recent performances have deserved – and is unlucky to miss out due to a chest infection. Jones even has the luxury of overlooking the likes of Don Armand, such is the strength in depth of English Rugby at the moment.
Looking at England’s fixtures you would expect them to beat Italy and Wales comfortably at home, with the Irish offering a more stern test in front of the Twickenham faithful. The tricky part of the tournament for the English will be back to back (rounds 3 and 4) trips to Scotland and France. The Scots are looking very strong this year and will provide a sterner test than during last year’s Calcutta Calamity. The French? Well who knows. The French are typically a totally different prospect at home in comparison to on the road, so England will have to be at their best in Paris.
Ireland, despite three home games, have got a slightly tougher run of games with trips to south-west London and Paris. However, Joe Schmidt will be buoyed by the form of the Irish provinces in both domestic and European competition. Leinster were the first team to qualify for the knock-out rounds of the Champions Cup and are seeded first and in doing so have been imperious. With comparatively few injuries and a side with a wonderful blend of experience and youthful exuberance, the men in green are a decent bet to win. Odds are that all eyes will be on Twickenham on that final weekend for what could be a Grand Slam decider.
Which brings us to Scotland. Admittedly, with three matches on the road, Scotland’s is a tall order. However, with a (mostly) fit squad, Glasgow flying high in the Pro 14 and off the back of some
impressive performances and results last autumn, Scotland will be quietly confident of having a successful Six Nations. On balance, the full championship may be beyond them this year, but be assured that we could well see Scotland’s highest place finish in quite some time. With Gregor Townsend in charge they will certainly be entertaining to watch and will be targeting Wales in Cardiff and France at home to put down an early marker. Watch out for Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, both showing great form coming in to the championship.
For the rest, although Wales and France could spring a surprise, it remains unlikely. France seemed in disarray during the autumn – a new coaching team may breath fresh impetus in to the team, but there has been no consistency in the French squad for years. No salary cap and a plethora of foreign talent in the Top 14 means that French talent has been stifled and as a result cannot match the strength in depth of the likes of England and Ireland.
Wales on the other hand, have a serious injury problem and are without some key players. In truth, Wales have not been able to kick on from the glory years of 2012 and 2013 and are probably in need of a shake up in the backroom. On their day they have the skill and determination to beat all five of their opponents, but four or five wins seem unlikely.
Although Italy played some ingenious rugby at times last year under the new stewardship of O’Shea, Catt and Venter, they appear to have gone backwards rather than forward. Their ageing talisman Sergio Parisse is still head and shoulders above the rest of the squad and that is worrying. One win from their set of fixtures should probably regarded as a successful campaign, given the strength of their opponents.
Regardless of the final standings the 2018 Six Nations, it promises to be one hell of a tournament. Fans from all six countries and, indeed, around the world are drooling in anticipation of what should be a fabulous competition.
by Tom Rees-Davies