Kaushik Rai considers each team’s chances ahead of the 2019 Six Nations Championship.
The Six Nations Championship is here. With the World Cup around the corner, the tournament will be even more of a spectacle. The teams will be desperate for success, the players hungry to prove themselves invaluable and the coaches keen to show the rugby world that their squad has every chance of winning the World Cup later this year. Although Ireland may be favourites, certainties are a rare thing in international sport, and the 2019 Championship should be a competition full of the rugby that all fans love to see.
England: The Challengers
With Eddie Jones declaring this the best squad he has ever selected, England will be confident that they have the right balance of poise and power required to win this year’s competition, but will be without some of their more experienced players. Chris Robshaw will miss the tournament, and Dylan Hartley’s questionable fitness means that he will not feature in at least the first two games. However, the return of the much missed Vunipola brothers and Joe Launchbury will be welcomed, and the inclusion of exciting talents such as winger Joe Cokanasiga and prop Ellis Genge will inspire hope and expectation in the England camp.
England begin the Six Nations after an unremarkable 12 months. Losing three games in last year’s competition and twice against South Africa in the summer has called into question the strength of a previously impressive side. In the Autumn, England recorded an ugly win over South Africa and despite a convincing scoreline the first half performance against Australia highlighted the nervousness of a team struggling to live up to their own high expectations. A one-point defeat to New Zealand may have brought some hope, but this was dampened by Ireland’s triumph over the All Blacks soon after.
England have the natural talent and ability to win the Six Nations, and they will never go into the tournament without being serious contenders for the title. However, they must overcome inconsistencies that have hampered them over the last 12 months. Hartley’s injury problems may be a blessing in disguise; although his leadership will be missed in the camp, the talented Jamie George will gain some experience starting, and the infectious ambition and passion of Owen Farrell will lift team spirits.
France: The Team with Nothing to Lose
France were unlucky not to fare better in last year’s Six Nations, with their only defeats a one-point loss to Wales and a close defeat to Ireland due to a last-minute Johnny Sexton drop goal. However, their form of late has seen them lose 5 of their last 6 tests, although three of these losses were away against New Zealand. Jacques Brunel will be hoping that the return of the experienced Wesley Fofana and Morgan Parra from injury and the inclusion of new young players, such as Romaine Ntamack and South African born Paul Willemese, give Les Bleus the burst they will need to overcome the formidable opposition they will face in this year’s competition.
Ireland: The Favourites
Ireland are without a doubt the favourites to win this year’s championship. Eddie Jones labelled them the best team in the world at the moment, and although this is in part to remind the All Blacks of their own mortality, it is also a recognition of the strength of Irish rugby. Joe Schmidt will be looking for a repeat of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam and he will be further encouraged by the lack of injuries in his squad at the moment. Ireland fans will be relieved at the last-minute return to the squad of Sexton, 2018’s World Player of the Year. The rest of the team looks fairly settled. With Ireland’s ever reliable forwards fit, and with exciting talent in the backs in the form of Gary Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale, Ireland hope to continue playing the dynamic rugby that saw them overturn the All Blacks in November. This is also Ireland’s chance to put their own marker down for the World Cup later this year and convince doubters that they are the best team in the world at the moment. The All Blacks have dominated World Rugby for the last decade now because of their ability to win from seemingly any position, and Ireland now also have the opportunity to make winning a habit rather than an occasion.
Italy: The Wooden Spooners
With 13 of their 19 Six Nations resulting in a Wooden Spoon, Italy will be hoping to break their poor run of form in the competition. They have had a 2018 to forget, with heavy defeats across the year, and the loss of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri and full-back Matteo Minozzi to injury will not help their cause. As always, they will hope that captain Sergio Parisse can inspire them, and they will no doubt come out of the blocks fighting in their first game against Scotland.
Scotland: The Hopefuls
In recent years Scotland have shown that, on their day, they are a match for any team. No longer are they the wooden spoon contenders in this competition, and every team in this year’s tournament should be wary of Scotland’s exciting dynamism. They managed to equal their best Six Nations result last year with a third-placed finish, but since then have performed inconsistently. In the Autumn Internationals, the team suffered disappointing defeats to the USA, Wales and South Africa, while fellow northern hemisphere teams battled to valuable wins against their southern counterparts. Scotland will not be helped by their extensive injury list; they are missing key figures such as John Barclay and Richie Gray. However, senior figures such as captain Greig Laidlaw and the always exciting Stuart Hogg will hope to add a bit of composure to a team that can at times let nerves get the better of them. With the World Cup approaching, Scotland will hope to show the world, and themselves, that they can consistently perform at a high level. Watching a Scotland team play with confidence and composure is exciting, and a strong Scotland side is good for the Six Nations. Hopefully 2019 will see them show what they are capable of.
Wales: The Underdogs
In a country where rugby permeates all aspects of life, Wales will always be in contention for the title, and they should be seen as title challengers, especially given their recent record. They came second in last year’s competition, and with the spotlight on Ireland and England over the autumn they have quietly won their last 9 fixtures, beating Australia and South Africa in the process. They will hope that this momentum continues and although they are without the impressive Taulupe Faletau, the presence of calming influences such as Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar and the ever-present Alun Wyn Jones will make Wales a team that others fear, particularly in the fortress of the Principality Stadium.