Bruno Reynell gives a team-by-team preview in the build up to the Six Nations.
The international teams of the Northern Hemisphere have long been in the shadow of the Southern Hemisphere giants, but 2017 marked a turning of the tide. One could now easily argue that three of the current top four teams in the world are from the North, with Australia and South Africa hardly the forces of years past. Given the improvement in quality across the board, this year’s Six Nations promises to be a real spectacle.
The reigning champions are clearly a powerful side, but coming into this year’s tournament, they are not without problems. They weren’t entirely convincing in the Autumn Internationals, and the last time they put in a complete performance was probably against Scotland, almost a year ago. Head coach Eddie Jones’ job is made no easier by a lengthy injury list, including Billy Vunipola, whose absence is a particularly disappointing blow. His squad for the first match against Italy is more experimental than expected, and the likes of Bath’s Zach Mercer and Exeter’s Sam Simmonds will have opportunities to shine. Despite their troubles, England still have an outstanding record under Jones, and their much vaunted squad depth should help them to put up a serious challenge.
After a bleak autumn, you would think that France’s prospects for the Six Nations are pretty dim. France are France, however, and that means that anything can happen. Already in the run-up to the tournament they have sprung a surprise, with Guy Novès becoming the first French coach in history to be sacked. One of new coach Jacques Brunel’s first moves has been to recall Clermont’s Morgan Parra, and he will hope that the scrum-half will be able to organise France into a more focused outfit than they have been in the last few years. Regardless of form however, France can, on their day, still beat any side in the world. The Stade de France is always a tricky place to travel to, and while they are unlikely to win the tournament, they will surely have a big say in who does eventually lift the trophy.
Ireland will come into the championship in fantastic form after an autumn where they slaughtered South Africa before easing to wins over Fiji and Argentina. In Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, they have a half-back partnership, rivalled only by that of the All Blacks, who will exert a stranglehold grip on games and dominate territory. The players will come together as a squad full of confidence given the recent superlative form of Munster, and particularly Leinster, who look favourites for the European Champions Cup. After a couple of stuttering performances in last year’s Six Nations, they ended on a high, beating England to finish second. This year, they will know that if they can best England at Twickenham, the trophy will be theirs for the taking.
Italy had some bright moments in 2017, including an important win against Fiji in November. Despite this, you feel that this year’s Six Nations will be as tough as ever for the Azzurri. They remain a limited side and, as ever, remain overly reliant on the individual magic of inspirational captain Sergio Parisse. Last year, they caused a bit of a splash against England with ‘ruckgate’, and Conor O’Shea will most likely need to be similarly inventive if Italy are to be competitive. Barring a string of disastrous performances from France or Wales, they will finish last, doing little to quieten those calling for the inclusion of the ever-improving Georgia.
Scotland were surely the most improved international side of 2017, and come off the back of a fantastic autumn. They gave New Zealand a real scare before slapping fifty points on Australia, making a mockery of the original decision to select only two Scots for the Lions tour. Head coach Gregor Townsend has built on the strong foundations laid by Vern Cotter, and in Stuart Hogg they have perhaps the most exciting player in the world right now. Add into the equation the continued improvement of the likes of the exciting Ali Price and Huw Jones, and you have a very dangerous team. Having to travel to Wales for the first match of the tournament will be tough, but win that, and they could be on track for a special tournament.
Wales had an interesting autumn where they ground out wins against Georgia and South Africa, but were outclassed by Australia and New Zealand. However, there was cause for optimism, particularly with coach Warren Gatland seemingly prepared to make changes to make Wales’ attack less one-dimensional. It seems that he saw the benefits of a backline with two playmakers during the Lions tour, and it will be interesting to see if he will persist with Owen Williams in that second playmaker role at inside centre. Domestically, Scarlets have become a real force, winning last year’s Pro12, and recently becoming the first Welsh side in six years to reach the European Champions Cup quarter-finals. However, this year they have to travel to both Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium, meaning a top-half finish will be difficult to attain.
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