The 6 Nations, Rugby’s Greatest Championship. For those who are familiar with the gladiatorial experience of test match rugby, it needs no explanation. For those who are unfamiliar – find a pub, or switch on a TV, turn the volume up, and prepare to feel the roar of atmospheres like no other.
It’s understandable that Ireland (4/5 with starsports.bet) are such short favourites for back to back titles. Last year’s Grand Slam winners were peerless from start to finish in a year that must go down as one of the greatest years in Irish rugby history, with the Grand Slam followed by victory in Australia and then an unbeaten Autumn with victory over the All Blacks.
Johnny Sexton is arguably the world’s best fly half – and certainly the most important one – whilst they also have a world class scrum half in the shape of Conor Murray, who missed the Autumn and is now back fit and firing. Add Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, and Garry Ringrose to the backline before the incredible pack (featuring Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander) and you have a side filled with world-class talent.
Putting one off Ireland is extremely hard, but Championships are decided by very fine margins – like the few inches that Johnny Sexton’s drop goal had at the Stade De France, or the yards that separated Gareth Anscombe’s Hail Mary pass from an onrushing Jacob Stockdale at the end of a thrilling encounter with Wales, and their opposition has certainly improved since the end of last year.
England managed to win three of their four Autumn Internationals and Wales have won their last nine games since that defeat in Dublin, suggesting that the gap between Irish rugby and the rest is shorter than the impression given by the Champions Cup. The fixtures are arguably harder for them despite three home games, as they will now have to travel to Murrayfield rather than hosting Scotland as well as a visit to the Principality Stadium to end the tournament, and whilst a squad of their depth and ability are rightful favourite, it’s likely this championship will be decided by margins that are so small it’s impossible to be excited about a price of 4/5.
We will talk about England (3/1 with starsports.bet) later in more detail but Wales have quietly and consistently become a red hot side on the international stage and it would be no surprise if they were in the hunt for the title until the last minute.
Warren Gatland has managed to change their game to be more flexible for both running and pack based rugby, and it’s worth remembering that they could have gotten an awful lot closer to Ireland with a small bit of luck last year. They started with a dominant win over Scotland before heading to Twickenham, when they lost 12-6 but they might well have had a different result had the TMO spotted Gareth Anscombe getting his hand to a rebound that bounced off Steff Evans’ shins, Wales then kept England scoreless for an hour and forced the hosts to concede five times as many penalties as their opponents, albeit to no avail.
Wales made more metres, more carries, beat more defenders and missed fewer tackles than England in that defeat and had clawed themselves back into the game against Ireland when they were working a big overlap before Jacob Stockdale’s interception. That was their last defeat, with impressive wins against Argentina in the summer and an unbeaten Autumn that included a first win against Australia in over 10 years and a comprehensive defeat of a South Africa side that was unlucky not to beat England earlier in the winter.
Their defensive efforts – thanks in no small part to Shaun Edwards’ work as defence coach – have been exemplary and they are recovering players just at the right time, too. Gareth Davies, so excellent last year, is in contention to start for their trip to France, Dragons’ back-row powerhouse Ross Moriarty is now in contention, so is lock Adam Beard and also winger Josh Adams.
Wales do have 10 players injured but they also have a big squad – they are perhaps the only side that can have a game of ‘probables v possibles’ – and if they can sneak a win against the French then they have a chance to build momentum with a trip to Italy before they face England and facing both England and Ireland gives them a fighting chance even if they must head to Scotland. Certainly, the 5/1 about them looks to be a low risk, high gain investment on a tournament that often goes down to the last minute of the last game.
England had won back to back titles before their huge slide under Eddie Jones last year, when defeats to Scotland, France and Ireland saw them finish fifth. A series defeat to South Africa saw Eddie Jones’ job on the line, but they were much improved in the Autumn when they won three of their four games – and were perhaps a tiny bit unlucky not to beat New Zealand.
Jones is also boosted by a positive injury report – Mako and Billy Vunipola as well as Ellis Genge and Joe Launchbury all missed out on the autumn internationals with injury but are now available, and Own Farrell should just about make their first trip.
When playing at their best they can challenge anyone, but their record on the road is still subject to much scrutiny. There is no shame in defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield but they were lucky to benefit from a host of changes after South Africa had won the test series and they’ve not played on the road since. Travelling to Dublin first up and then to Wales is an extremely difficult start to the Championship for them and arguably Ireland and Wales had better Autumn campaigns.
Scotland (14/1 with starsports.bet) are perhaps one of the most nightmarish trips in European rugby. Third last season, Gregor Townsend saw his side beat England comprehensively last year, extending a deeply impressive record that sees New Zealand and South Africa as the only sides to beat them in the last two years at Murrayfield – and even then those were one score games.
However, their record on the road does not match up to their record at home – this despite some taking wins against Argentina in the summer – and what’s more worrying is the relative injury crisis that has hit them at precisely the wrong time. Gregor Townsend is missing 20 players for their opening two games, and whilst it is helpful that they are at Murrayfield for the opening two games, in the long term those two factors could combine against them.
It is the away performances which also turn one against France (also 14/1 with starsports.bet), who have better news on the injury front with Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra now at Jacques’ Brunel’s disposal whilst he also can call upon seven of the Toulouse side that managed to beat Leinster in the Champions Cup. They include not only old hands Yohann Huget and Maxime Médard but new stars Thomas Ramos and Antoine Dupont, but that’s a whole load of new faces there to integrate into the starting XV and it could once again take time.
Playing Wales at home is a bonus but travelling to Twickenham and Dublin is most certainly not for a side that has lost eight of their last ten away games in the Six Nations and 16 of their last 19 away from Paris, with two of those wins coming against Italy.
Italy (1000/1 with starsports.bet) deserve more respect than their odds suggest, and the club game has improved inexorably despite the failure of both sides to make the reformed Champions Cup, and Benetton Treviso – who provide 18 of the players in Conor O’Shea’s squad – are actually second right now in Conference B with seven wins, but they had also been performing over expectations last year, when they ended up bottom of the table.
Zebre are rooted to the bottom of the table, and the Azzurri are also without Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri and Zebre full-back Matteo Minozzi, who scored four tries last season.
6 Nations Championship
1st February – 16th March
Live on BBC & ITV TV in UK, RTE in Ireland
Past Six Nations Winners
2018: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2016: England (Grand Slam winners)
2012: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2010: France (Grand Slam winners)
2009: Ireland (Grand Slam winners)
2008: Wales (Grand Slam winners)
2007: France (Ireland win Triple Crown)
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