It is that time of year once more for the attention of rugby fans and sports enthusiasts across the globe to be absorbed by the northern hemisphere’s greatest rugby competition; The Six Nations Championship.
In exactly a week’s time, France, Italy and the Home Nations will battle it out once again for the title of Europe’s Greatest. A tournament steeped with history, Ireland will kick off this year’s Six Nations at home to last year’s champions, Wales. Followed by England’s trip to Murrayfield later that afternoon, round 1 will culminate with France v Italy on Sunday.
Despite the residual air of doubt that Covid has imposed on all sporting events, the anticipation of full crowds returning means that this Six Nations has the potential to be one of the most fiercely contested yet.
Ireland v Wales (14:15pm KO)
WALES: Off the back of a very disappointing Autumn campaign, Wales head into the tournament with a surfeit of experienced players out due to injury. Last year’s Champions enter off the back of an Autumn campaign that leaves more questions unanswered as to the particular style of play Pivac wishes Wales to adopt.
A convincing defeat to the All Blacks was followed by an overpowering from the World Champions.
A narrative of the opposition’s ill-discipline being the cause of success in last year’s Six Nations, again materialised in their final two games of the Autumn. Wales were able to overcome a tough Fijian side that played large periods of the game with 13-men as well as scrape past 14-man Australia, with an 83rd-minute penalty from Priestland.
Since taking over from Warren Gatland in 2019, Pivac’s Wales side are yet to demonstrate the capability of replicating the heights and dominance achieved under Gatland; who won 4 Six Nations trophies with 3 Grand Slam during his tenure.
The main reason Wayne Pivac was appointed head coach to replace Gatland was largely down to his success at Scarlets. He led them to their first major trophy in 13 years by winning the Pro 12 in emphatic fashion against Munster in 2017.
However, as we are experiencing with Wales, his time did not start as positively as later realised. Pivac won just 5 of his first 16 games in charge with the Welsh region but attributes his eventual success to ‘trusting his instincts.
A squad that will not feature leading test cap holder, Alun Wyn Jones for the first time since 2006, Dan Biggar has been named captain of a very inexperienced 36-man squad. The absence of 680 test caps worth of international experience has left Pivac with no choice but to select a new batch of players.
The addition of uncapped youngster, Jac Morgan demonstrates the conveyor belt of world-class flankers that Wales are blessed with, whilst injury to veteran Taulupe Faletau has emphasised the fragility that Wales have with finding a suitable replacement at No.8.
However, a call-up to converted second-row, James Ratti seems a very promising talent at the back of the scrum. He’s athletic and powerful attributes displayed for Cardiff this season, indicate that Ratti has the potential to excel on the international stage.Embed from Getty Images
IRELAND: For Ireland, their Autumn Series was flawless. The impressive conquering of the All Blacks followed by a thrashing of Las Pumas extended Ireland’s unbeaten run to eight games. Previous criticisms surrounding Ireland’s predictability and not being able to evolve away from a structured game plan are slowly being dispelled.
The gentle inclusion of half-backs, Joey Carbery and Jamieson Gibson-park, have provided Ireland with more than one way to play. In Autumn, they demonstrated an ability to move the point of contact and manoeuvre opposition defences with conviction and ease. This transition has also been without loss to the disciplined and ferocious defence that Andy Farrell’s teams are renowned for.
The strength in depth, particularly in Ireland’s forward pack, is extremely frightening. Stalwarts such as Furlong, Healy, O’Mahony, Henderson and others, have been strengthened by the incumbent talents of Tadhg Beirne, Dave Kilcoyne, Ronan Kelleher and Ryan Baird to name a few. The combination of Caelen Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan is also one to rival that of any international back-row.
The blend of youth and experience in the backs is equally valuable. The ubiquitous stature of Connor Murray, Keith Earls and, captain, Jonny Sexton, are now surrounded by an elusive attacking flair in the form of Gary Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and Jordan Larmour.
With call-ups to in-form players such as Craig Casey, Michael Lowry and Mack Hansen, Ireland are emphasising a serious strength-in-depth, suggesting that their new game-style is here to stay.
PREDICTION: Wales have not won in Dublin in the 6 Nations since 2012, thanks to a last-minute penalty from full-back Leigh Halfpenny. This victory also commenced their subsequent Grand Slam-winning tournament.
An Irish victory is inevitable. Even with history heavily steeped against them, there also is very little evidence to suggest otherwise. The lack of continuity and performance from Wales in the Autumn makes it difficult to see how they could possibly overcome this current Irish outfit.
Executing a successful game-plan has too been made all the more difficult with such a depleted and inexperienced squad. Ireland’s statement victory against the All Blacks alone is enough to substantiate them as favourites, but playing at a packed Aviva Stadium is one obstacle too many for this Welsh side to surmount.
Scotland v England (16:45pm KO)
SCOTLAND: It has taken some time for the particular style of rugby Gregor Townsend wishes Scotland to adopt to come to fruition. We have witnessed glimpses of their attacking prowess in the past, but it had always been undone by their inconsistency.
The failure to back up impressive performances has halted their progression and prevented them from establishing themselves as true Six Nations contenders.
In the Autumn, however, Scotland demonstrated an ability to perform more consistently. Even against the top sides, they combined game-changing attacking nous, a combative forward pack and competent defence with great success. Such abilities meant they experienced more consistent performances and results, generating genuine confidence around their chances in challenging for this year’s trophy.Embed from Getty Images
ENGLAND: After what was their worst ever Six Nations performance last year, England and Eddie Jones have gone through another, much-anticipated squad refresh. Similar to the procedures of 2017, Eddie Jones has left out some big names in favour of younger and fresher faces to take this England team forward.
The likes of Billy and Mako Vunipola, Elliot Daly and George Ford, who have been the fulcrum for England in the past have been overlooked in the predilection of new, precocious talent, such as Alex Dombrandt, Bevan Rodd, Freddie Stewart and Marcus Smith.
Albeit, at the time of writing this, injury to captain, Owen Farrell and winger, Jonny May, has forced Eddie Jones to re-call George Ford and Elliot Daly to the squad.
It also appears that England has finally found a long-lasting replacement for the ever-present Ben Youngs. The promising talents of Raffi Quirke and Harry Randall seem to be the future for English rugby and facilitate the attacking flair that Marcus Smith’s presence commands at 10.
Despite the omission of the big-ball carrying Vunipola brothers, England has retained a competent power game. Rather than the attrition tactics of route one rugby, England demonstrated in the Autumn that they are also capable of adopting a more fluid forward play to get over the gain-line.
PREDICTION: The oldest ever fixture, England’s dominance over Scotland has more or less made the result a full gone conclusion since 1991; losing just five in 32 matches.
England had also not lost to Scotland for 10 years before an incredible display at the breakdown led Scotland to victory in 2018.
Ever since this game, however, Scotland has had the upper hand over England. An incredible second-half comeback at Twickenham in 2019, was salvaged by England in the 83rd minute to conclude in a 38-all draw. Then, in 2021 Scotland initiated England’s worst ever Six Nations by winning at Twickenham for the first time since 1983.
Scotland’s physical presence up front remains their biggest frailty, as emphasised in their Autumn defeat to South Africa. Albeit, expecting to beat the World Champions at the power game with which they are synonymous, is an unfeasible prospect; as England’s forward also discovered.
Both sides were suffocated by South Africa’s second-half power game and, if it wasn’t for a moment of attacking deftness from Henry Slade, England too would have succumbed to defeat.
This year, more than ever, there seems very little that separates the two sides. With captain Owen Farrell ruled out for the duration of the tournament and Marcus Smith taking reins at 10, England’s attack will inevitably transition from the structured, pragmatic approach that Farrell’s presence demands, to match that of the more positive, free-flowing attack from Scotland’s Finn Russell, Ali Price and Stuart Hogg.
Similarly, the destructive forward power England have always possessed can be equally rivalled by Scotland. The barraging figures of Kyle Sinclair, Courtney Lawes, Ellis Genge and Jonny Hill are met by the presence of Sam Skinner, Jamie Ritchie, Zander Ferguson and Jonny Gray.
Finally, with Nicola Sturgeon announcing the return of crowds to sporting fixtures, nothing other than a packed BT Murrayfield is to be expected. If the weather is sympathetic to the styles of rugby these two outfits wish to play, then we could well be treated to a classic; one that surpasses that of 2018.
The sense that England will remain too strong for Scotland is what makes them favourites, for not only this game but for the tournament. Although, the home advantage may well be the influencing factor for Scotland to achieve back-to-back victories for the first time since 1984.
France v Italy (15:00pm KO)
FRANCE: The appointment of head coach Fabian Galthié along with the introduction of defence coach, Sean Edwards, has revitalised French rugby. A perfect Autumn, which included an incredible dismantling of the All Blacks, has realised a resurgence from France that is long overdue.Embed from Getty Images
We have experienced incredible one-off performances like this from France in the past though, which was always spoiled by their unique ability to be unthinkably woeful the following game.
The old adage amongst pundits and fans of “which French team will turn up?” quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, under Galthié and Edwards, this old adage is certainly becoming just that. They have enforced a structure and consistency to France’s play style that has seen them become more successful on a regular occurrence.
The men’s national squad is reaming with a plethora of talented youngsters; a lot of whom featured in France’s back-to-back U20s World Championship titles. This deliberate preference towards such talent indicates that Galthié doesn’t want to completely eradicate the French flair we all know and adore.
The only difference now though is that the accompaniment of Sean Edward’s inspired discipline, structure and defensive ferocity is moulding France into a very formidable outfit.
The half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack provide an audacious combination, capable of producing moments of magic from nothing, yet possess maturity and pragmatism to control a game in a manner that far proceeds their experience.
These two are far from the only world-class talent in this French side. The pack is awash with exceptionally gifted athletes such as Gregory Aldritt, Yacouba Camara, Anthony Jelonch, Bernard Le Roux and Cameron Woki.
The backline also boasts an attacking deftness of Louis Carbanel, Melvyn Jaminet, Matthis Lebel, Damien Penaud and Thomas Ramos, to name just a few. Not least to mention the number of big names also missing due to injury.
France’s strength-in-depth is, arguably, their most compelling to date. Supplementing this with an invigorated desire and passion to play for the jersey, it is clear to see why France are very much a favourites heading into this year’s tournament.
With a home World Cup around the corner too, winning their first title since 2010 would send a statement of intent around the rugby world.Embed from Getty Images
ITALY: It has been touted that Italy’s talismanic leader and veteran, Sergio Parisse, may receive his much-deserved last hurrah in this year’s tournament. A man that has represented the Azzurri on 142 occasions with 94 of those as captain, Parisse has remained a principal presence in the Italian national side since 2002. Whether a final appearance is honoured or not, his departure marks the end of an epoch in Italian rugby and the start of a new one without him.
Since the 2019 World Cup, Italy have won just one game. A team whose presence in the competition is under more scrutiny than ever, this is arguably Italy’s most important year. The threat of Georgia taking their place, by way of introducing a relegation-style play-off game, looms large over the shoulders of Italian players and head coach, Kieran Crowley.
Crowley has named an encouragingly strong Italian side heading into this year’s tournament, however. Spending 5 years in charge at Benetton, Crowley led them to unforeseen heights in Italian club rugby by winning the Pro14 Rainbow Cup.
Subsequently, it is with no surprise to see that his national selection features a heavy dependence on the Italian franchise; with 23 of the 33-man squad playing for Benetton.
Crowley has also named six uncapped players to make up what is a very inexperienced 33-man selection. With just five players having represented Italy on 30 or more occasions, it is clear to see that Crowley’s focus with Italy is very much long-term. However, if they are to reach a stage where they can become a more competitive proposition then ‘tak[ing] each game as it comes, could not be more apt for their future participation in the competition.
PREDICTION: Attempting to avoid their seventh straight wooden spoon, Italy has not won a Six Nations game since 2015.
At home, Italy has always favoured their chances of obtaining a result. Ever since their Six Nations campaign of 2013 where they beat France and Ireland, travelling to Italy has not always been the full gone conclusion it once was. In addition, Italy’s performance at Twickenham that same year, losing just 18-11, provided fans and supporters with a glimpse of what an entirely competitive tournament feels like.
Unfortunately, though, Italy is travelling to France.
Their anomalous performance of 2013 was exactly that for Italy and their presence in the competition has never been the same. Italy have won just one Six Nations game in 40 attempts since 2013 and certainly do not look like improving on that in Round One either.
If their chances were any more challenging than facing the favourites, France, first up, then it is made all the more impossible knowing that they have never beaten France away from home.
A competition that is weighted so heavily on the result rather than performance, the barometer for Azzurri’s success going forward has to be based on the latter. A repeat of last year’s outcome and Italy’s future participation in the competition will be in serious jeopardy. Anything aside from five complete thrashings and it may well be a step in the right direction for Italy and confirming their place in the tournament for at least one more year.
Final Table Prediction
1st – France
2nd – England
3rd – Ireland
4th – Scotland
5th – Wales
6th – Italy
With national allegiances and bias aside, I don’t think many rugby fans would be surprised to see a table that looks like the one above come the last game of Super Saturday.
Entering the tournament as the top two favourite teams, the clash between France and England in the final game of the tournament is anticipated to be the ‘Grand Slam decider.
With three home games, and England travelling to the Stade de France on the final weekend, the home crowd and home advantage will most likely be the deciding factor to separate the two sides; confirming France as Six Nations Champions.
Although Ireland is listed to finish third, fourth-place Scotland could well take their place. The sole reason behind Ireland finishing above Scotland is that when these two teams meet, it will be at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland has, arguably, the two toughest fixtures in the competition against France and England away from Dublin. To contrast this, both of Scotland’s games will be at home against France and England.
It is most likely with how the fixtures have fallen that both sides will finish on the same number of points and thus points difference being the determining factor that will separate them. Although neither side have any issue in scoring a lot of points, as both Ireland’s Autumn and Scotland’s past confirms, Ireland’s ability to supplement their points differential with a more secure defence is the reason for their third-place finish.
To finish, this could well be a dismal campaign for Wales and, of course, Italy. Decimated by injury, Wales have to travel away to England and Ireland while Italy travels away to France, Ireland and Wales.
Although this means that three of Wales’ games will be played under the cacophonous closed roof of the Principality, it may not be the intimidating fortress it once was. As the Autumn compounded, Wales are not the proposition they once were under Gatland and could well struggle in the Six Nations to resurrect their journey in doing so.