STAR PREVIEW: Six Nations Outright

We’re nearly there! We’ve nearly reached the end of January and that means one thing – no, not Brexit, but the return of the Six Nations! Memories are still very fresh from the incredible World Cup in Japan, and the fight to be ready for the next tournament, which France will host in 2023, is already on. Without further ado, here’s a look at the prospects for each side over the next few weeks.

6 Nations Championship 2020
1 February – 14 March 2020
Live on BBC & ITV TV in UK, RTE in Ireland

Past Six Nations Winners
2019: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2018: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2017: England
2016: England (Grand Slam winners)
2015: Ireland
2014: Ireland
2013: Wales
2012: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2011: England
2010: France (Grand Slam winners)
2009: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2008: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2007: France (Ireland win Triple Crown)


England

There was a crushing sense of disappointment when the full time whistle blew in Japan, but England’s World Cup campaign was a brilliant one apart from that and – based on that form at least – they were the best side in Europe. Now that form can’t be taken literally, but Eddie Jones’ plan to bring England to a peak in Japan worked brilliantly and on the basis of their knockout performances against Australia and their incredible semi-final against New Zealand was a performance for the ages.

For one reason or another England didn’t match those performances in the final itself – although credit has to be given to the South Africans, who stopped them in their tracks – but it showed that Jones’ side at full pelt can probably be considered the best side in Europe.

There have been changes since then – and some big ones – but there are players who remain from the group that took part in the Rugby World Cup and the eight uncapped players who have gotten the callups are deserving of their places.

Jones’ gameplans have always been most effective with big ball-carriers on the front foot, so another broken arm for Billy Vunipola is a blow, but Ben Earl had been filling in brilliantly at Saracens (more on them later) and in Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam and Sale’s Tom Curry there’s variety at least in the options for his replacement.

Bar that, most of the big names are fit and raring to go. If Jones wishes he can start the same XV that took to the field for their World Cup semi-final victory against New Zealand – Vunipola apart – with Sam Underhill and Tom Curry rampaging in the back-row, Courtney Lawes & Maro Itoje at lock, and a front row of Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George & Mako Vunipola or Joe Marler.

The dual playmaker axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell worked brilliantly in Japan, having a fit Manu Tuilagi makes a huge amount of difference, and in Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and Jonny May they have one of the best back threes in the tournament.

The salary cap debacle at Saracens could be a potential upsetting factor in the squad but only seven of the 33 players are affected and all the Saracens members should come there fit and ready.

The fixture list also favours England too, with Wales and Ireland having to come to Twickenham, and they look to be entirely worthy favourites.

Fixtures:
Sunday, February 2 v France (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 8 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, February 23 v Ireland (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 7 v Wales (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 14 v Italy (Rome)


France

Since their 2010 Grand Slam, the French have fallen off the top tier of contenders as far the Six Nations goes, but there are many reasons for extended failure and things could be about to change very soon in this new decade for them.

Last season was yet another frustrating campaign which started in the worst possible fashion – the French had 16-0 lead against Wales in Paris and preceded to collapse in the second half with a series of errors that meant the visitors came away with victory in the end. They were then turned inside out by England’s high intensity kicking game at Twickenham, and then they were thoroughly overpowered by Ireland in Dublin, when they put in a lamentable first half display.

Overall there was nothing much to take on from their campaign but there were bright spots in a young side and they were much improved at the World Cup when they showed guts to edge Argentina after letting a 17-point lead slip, and after some comprehensive wins in the rest of the pool, they put up a titanic effort against Wales in their quarter-final.

France should have faced South Africa in the semis of the World Cup, and would have done if it wasn’t for Sebastien Vahaamahina’s brazen elbow on Wales flanker Aaron Wainwright which saw him sent off with France leading 19-10 after 48 minutes, or for a multitude of missed chances in Oita. The French ran 498 meters to Wales’s 333, had 56% of the territory to 44% for the Welsh, mad 16 clean breaks to 6 for the Welsh and made 11 offloads to 3.

That was a one-off game which shouldn’t be the only way the French team is measured, but there have been clear signs of improvement from much of the side. Much of Fabien Galthie’s squad comes from the Toulouse side which made it to the semi-finals of last season’s Champions Cup before reaching this season’s quarter-finals with a 100% record in the group stages, and Racing 92’s success in recent seasons also bodes well.

The half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack has been hugely successful for Toulouse in Europe and if they can find Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas on regular occasions then France possess an incredibly destructive backline – and don’t forget, Clermont’s Damien Penaud was one of the breakout players at the World Cup.

France have a young squad – and it is one that can keep on improving in time – but we saw huge potential from Charles Ollivon in the World Cup, and it would be unwise to underrate a pack with Grégory Alldritt, François Cros, Paul Willemse, Bernard Le Roux, Mohamed Haouas, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille.

Many will worry about France’s mentality – a key concern – but the arrival of Shaun Edwards, part of a Wales coaching team that won four Six Nations titles and three Grand Slams, should have a positive impact and Fabien Galthie, whose coaching career has included stints at Stade Francais, Montpellier, Toulon & Argentina, seems a popular choice as head coach.

France could find World Cup finalists England too strong on the opening weekend but facing England and Ireland at home gives them the best schedule possible and the money for France over the past few weeks could be well placed.

Fixtures
Sunday, February 2 v England (Stade de France)
Sunday, February 9 v Italy (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 22 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Sunday, March 8 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 14 v Ireland (Stade de France)


Wales

The recent years have been a golden age for Wales, and 2019’s Grand Slam – finished with a thumping of Ireland – was as fine a performance as we’ve seen from the men in red. The adaptability, intelligence and sheer heart of Warren Gatland’s men was on display, especially in their 21-13 success against England.

The pinpoint kicking game, combined with a set piece that could match the Red Rose, allowed them to turn the second half squeeze on England like few teams can, and from then they never looked back. Wales had to fight doggedly through their World Cup campaign, with the omnipresent Alun Wyn Jones and the razor-sharp Josh Adams taking them to the semi-final, when a titanic battle with South Africa sadly ended in defeat. That was an undeserved end to the Warren Gatland era, which has seen Wales rise to the upper echelons of the game.

Wales return to the fray without two of the lynchpins of their success over the past decade with Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards no longer at the helm. New coach Wayne Pivac has had much success with the Scarlets over the past few seasons, including a Pro 14 title and a run to the semi-finals of the Champions Cup, and Gatland has been replaced before with success – Wales won the 2013 6 Nations with a 30-3 win when Rob Howley was at the helm.

The issue for Wales could be injuries. Wales have major concerns at outside centre with Jonathan Davies out long-term and Owen Watkin struggling to be fit for Italy following knee cartilage surgery that could leave him short of his best for much of the Championship. Fullback Liam Williams is out for the championship. Wales will also miss Ellis Jenkins, Owen Watkin, Thomas Francis, Gareth Anscombe and James Davies to boot

Of course, Wales will go into battle with plenty of talent, not least with Josh Adams, Hadleigh Parkes, Dan Biggar, James Ball, Alun Wyn Jones, and a dynamic back-row of Aaron Shingler, Justin Tipuric, Talupe Faletau (nor forgetting their front row) and they will always take a power of beating.

Having to go to Twickenham and then to Dublin makes the fixture list very difficult for the Welsh, who will face a French side that is much improved – on all evidence – on the outfit that surrendered a 16-0 lead in the opener between the two last season.

As said before, Wales have replaced Gatland and done so without much of an issue in the past, but his presence was integral and the additional loss of Shaun Edwards – and to a rival no less – leaves them short of two lynchpins in the side, and at this level their absences could leave a big mark with two tricky away tests too.

Fixtures:
Saturday, February 1 v Italy (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 8 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 22 v France (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 7 v England (Twickenham Stadium)
Saturday, March 14 v Scotland (Principality Stadium)


Ireland

This time last year Ireland went into the 6 Nations as Grand Slam Champions, but the Joe Schmidt era ended with disappointment, as Ireland lost their Six Nations crown and were swept aside by New Zealand in the World Cup, eventually ending up fifth in the world rankings. It was a sad way for Schmidt’s time to end, and the focus now moves towards the 2023 World Cup, and bringing through some of the young talent that Ireland produces so effectively.

The new man at the helm is Andy Farrell, who was a key part of England at their very best, and the addition of Mike Catt in attack should mean that we see Ireland spread their wings in attack more. That transition will take time, however – especially given that many of the players in the squad – and there are 17 from Leinster – won’t have known a different system of rugby, some since the start of their careers.

That said, Ireland don’t lack for quality in any area and Farrell has plenty to work with. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are world-class halfbacks and in Jacob Stockdale Ireland have one of the tournament’s best wingers. Jordan Larmour should be well rounded for his rapid rise through the ranks and Andrew Conway has impressed for Munster on the wings this season.

The Leinster core of Lamour, Ringrose (Garry) Sexton, van der Flier, Ryan, Furlong and Healy is a very solid one, and Leinster’s success in the Champions Cup so far this season, along with Ulster’s efforts in reaching the quarter-finals, shows that there are plenty of in-form players for Ireland to go to war with.

It would be foolish to write off Ireland based on their World Cup efforts, but Farrell must cope with the fact that Ireland’s gameplan and signature strengths have now been worked out to a certain extent by Wales and England at least. Going to Twickenham this year is a mighty task, and a trip to the Stade de France promises to be difficult for an Ireland side that has to be respected despite what looks like a difficult year ahead.

Fixtures
Saturday, February 1 v Scotland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 8 v Wales (Aviva Stadium)
Sunday, February 23 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 7 v Italy, (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 14 France (Stade de France)


Scotland

If Ireland’s year was considered disappointing, then Scotland’s truly was a let-down. When one takes into account the considerable amount of individual talent north of the border – and the fact Scotland has two extremely well-coached clubs of its own – then one has to consider their 2019 a huge underachievement.

They started reasonably well with a 33-20 win over Italy which flattered the visitors but Ireland managed to battle back from going down early to take victory from Murrayfield and they didn’t land a blow against France in Paris. Wales were just too strong for them at Murrayfield again and their remarkable comeback against England put some sheen on what had been a disappointing campaign.

The World Cup was even worse, with Ireland simply proving too physical for them in the early stages of the tournament before they couldn’t cope with the intensity and speed of Japan, seeing them knocked out at the pool stage for only the second time.

There was no shame in their defeat to Japan considering how well the Brave Blossoms played on their home turf – but they were at sea against an Ireland side that did not pull up any trees relative to their other European counterparts and they must show big improvement to match up to the rest of the Six Nations.

Scotland are taking steps to move on this year – their starting XV against Ireland shows 10 changes from the one that faced Japan in Scotland’s final match of the Rugby World Cup.

The absence of Finn Russell – whose late night drinking session and bust up with Gregor Townsend sees him absent from the squad to face Ireland – is mitigated by the excellent form of Adam Hastings at fly-half, whilst full-back Stuart Hogg (now captain) Glasgow centre Sam Johnson are the only players retained in the back division, with Warriors scrum-half Ali Price and Saracens wing Sean Maitland having replaced Greig Laidlaw and Tommy Seymour (both now retired). The return to form of Huw Jones, who was outstanding for Scotland in 2018, is another boost.

There’s an all-Edinburgh back-row of Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, and Nick Haining which should encourage fans given that Edinburgh lead Conference B of the Pro14, and there’s absolutely enough talent for Gregor Townsend to refresh the team and have a good campaign.

There’s the talent there to win individual games for sure, but Scotland’s dire record on the road means they can’t be seriously considered for a title bid. Scotland have won just seven of 50 away matches in the Six Nations, and five of those came in Italy – until that changes, it’s impossible to see a title bid.

Fixtures:
Sunday, February 2 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 8 v England (Murrayfield)
Saturday, February 22 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Sunday, March 8 v France (Murrayfield)
Saturday, March 14 v Wales (Principality Stadium)


Italy

The Azzuri are on a 22 match losing streak in the tournament, which is doubly frustrating for Italian fans given that under the now departed Conor O’Shea, significant improvements have been made at the Azzuri.

Both club sides Treviso and Zebre have made significant strides in the past few years which has given Italy a better talent pool and there’s no doubt that performances improved a great deal under O’Shea, even if there was nothing to show for it in terms of results. The influence of Mike Catt – now departed to Ireland – has created an attacking identity which the Azzuri have used effectively – they scored 10 and 12 tries in the last two tournaments.

New head coach Franco Smith, who was the Springboks’ assistant coach as they triumphed in Japan, has plenty of talent to pick from, with Italy’s MVP probably Jake Polledri, the towering lock who is one of the most exciting players in the game at the moment. In Tommaso Allan, Italy have found a fly-half who is not only a reliable kicker but also able to break the gainline and play the high tempo modern game that has come to be the norm in the Six Nations. His pairing with Carlo Canna, the inside centre who is being used as a second playmaker against Wales tomorrow, will be vital for Italy’s success.

Matteo Minozzi missed the 2019 tournament with a major knee injury but he was sensational in 2018 when he scored tries in four successive matches and was named in the Team of the Championship that year. His return to the fold is a titanic boost for the Azzuri, who also have another livewire in Matteo Minozzi.

Sergio Parisse will play his last Six Nations tournament if he recovers from injury concerns (he’s sure to miss the first two games) but Abraham Steyn has shown a huge amount of talent and looks to be a neutral replacement at Number 8 in the long term, and Italy’s opponents should also be wary of Sebastian Negri, and Alessandro Zanni two of the limelights there.

Italy were tough to beat in Rome last year, going down just 26-15 and 26-16 to Wales and Ireland whilst pushing France hard in a 25-14 defeat, but they were flattered to finish within 12 points of Scotland at Murrayfield and England routed them at Twickenham. The Azzuri are improving, and clearly so, but getting over the winning line has proven to be too much for them and a side on a 22 game losing streak isn’t going to be challenging at any point in the tournament. That does not mean that Italy are to be dismissed, however, and they are worth watching closely on the individual handicaps.

Fixtures:
Saturday, February 1 v Wales (Principality Stadium)
Sunday, February 8 v France (Stade de France)
Saturday, February 22 v Scotland (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 7 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, March 14 v England (Stadio Olimpico)


VERDICT: England will have been gutted to lose the World Cup final in the manner they did, but their quarter and semi-final performances were outstanding and with Eddie Jones still in place, they will take a huge amount of beating if they can reach that level over the next few weeks. Facing Wales and Ireland, both of whom may need time to adjust to new personnel changes, at home is a massive advantage and they look to be the right favourites even if there’s no appeal for a Grand Slam bet. France have been backed heavily since the World Cup but could still offer value with England and Ireland at home for a young side that has shown plenty of potential since last year.

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