So just over three months after the curtain came down on the greatest Rugby World Cup in the history of the game, the very best that the northern hemisphere has to offer, once again go head-to-head to be crowned champions of Europe. In arguably the most open and unpredictable tournament for many years, who will come out on top? Will the new coaches of France and England re-energise the players and inspire them to glory? Will Scotland and Wales build upon their solid showings at the World Cup? Or will Joe Schmidt’s Ireland make it a hat-trick of titles by successfully defending their crown yet again?
Following on from their disastrous showing at a home World Cup, much soul-searching has been done over the last few months within English rugby to try and rebuild the fortunes of the former world champions. Changes in coaches, captaincy and some of the playing personnel mean that England go into this year’s tournament in a state of uncertainty not seen for a long time. Under the guidance of new coach Eddie Jones, changes have been made with some of the old guard (Wood, Parling, Barrett) being replaced by young fresh talent (Clifford, Itoje, Daly) while the controversial character that is Dylan Hartley replaces the less fiery presence of Chris Robshaw as skipper. On paper, a campaign which includes three away trips looks a daunting start for England’s new coach. However the experienced Aussie has been round long enough to know there are no easy games in test rugby. However with home games against the two sides who have been their closest rivals over the last few years (Ireland and Wales), Jones may be quietly satisfied with the fixture list. Although the core of the squad that played at the World Cup remains, new faces such as Jack Clifford, Paul Hill and Ollie Devoto will add some spark to a side that badly needs it given their unimaginative and ill-disciplined performances at the World Cup. Despite that though, England remain a threat and arguably start the tournament as one of the favourites with a forward pack that when on form can outmuscle the very best, while behind the forwards skilful footballers such as Danny Care, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph can cause havoc for opposing defences. With Robshaw moving to blindside flanker as expected, along with Owen Farrell moving along to the centre to play alongside Ford, England’s new coaches are keen to develop a game-plan that they hope will bring success. With a Calcutta Cup clash against a resurgent Scotland first up, the English will be keen to leave Edinburgh with a win whatever the circumstances. Always a difficult place to go first up, if England are to leave Edinburgh with the points, the likes of Hartley, Robshaw and Vunipola are going to need to be ready for an almighty scrap. Another tough trip to Paris awaits at the end of the tournament, although given the recent Six Nations form of France and their neighbours Italy, England’s toughest challenges may lie closer to home.
After another strong World Cup showing – despite a crippling injury list – Warren Gatland’s Wales come into this year’s tournament with every chance of repeating a sequence which has seen them win the last two Six Nations that directly follow a World Cup year. With a settled squad full of British and Irish Lions, Gatland will hope that his side’s experience will prove crucial in a year when two of their rivals begin the campaign with new coaches. Although unlike others they possess a settled squad, injuries continue to hamper the Welsh, with talismanic figures such as Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb crocked along with centre Scott Williams. Despite that there are returns for World Cup absentees such as Jonathan Davies and Cory Allen, whilst prop Samson Lee is back to full fitness after struggling during last year’s tournament. A defence that conceded just three tries in five matches at the World Cup, the Welsh coaches will look to maintain that resilience whilst trying to show a bit more imagination in the backs. Despite possessing a backline including dangerous strike-runners such as George North, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams, Wales have struggled over the years to cut loose and play a more expansive attacking game, with a classic example of this being against Australia last year when despite spending eight minutes camped on the Australian try-line with two Aussies in the sin-bin, they failed to make their two-man advantage count and lost the game 15-6. With three home games this year, captain Sam Warburton will expect his side to be in the mix once again but with trips to Dublin and Twickenham this year, some big performances will be needed if Wales are to maintain their post-World Cup glory.
The defending champions and in some peoples’ eyes the favourites for this year’s title. Two Six Nations, two titles for Joe Schmidt and you wouldn’t count against his team making it a hat-trick of titles this year. With a structured game-plan that has become second-nature to this Irish side, Schmidt has built a winning formula for this team that has made them the best in Europe over the last two seasons. However, off the back of an underwhelming World Cup campaign and with injuries ripping through the heart of this Irish squad, the defending champions look more vulnerable than usual this year. Without key figures such as Iain Henderson, Peter O’ Mahony and Tommy Bowe through injury along with the retirement of former captain Paul O’ Connell, Ireland look stretched to the limit this year and it will take a big effort from the remaining players to hold on to their title. With tricky-looking away games in Paris and London as well, Schmidt’s side will have to do it the hard way this year, but may be encouraged by the uncertainty surrounding both France and England due to new coaching staff. Despite their injury list, Ireland still possess world class talent in a number of positions with Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the back-row as well as Connor Murray and Jonny Sexton at half-back. Much may depend on how effective Sexton and Murray’s kicking from hand will be, with the tactic proving vital in home victories over Wales (2014) and England (2015) in recent times. New captain Rory Best steps into the hot seat knowing that his side will have to smash out of the blocks straight up with a determined Welsh side travelling to Dublin first up, looking to avenge their heavy defeat in 2014. If Ireland can get off to a good start against Wales, they will most likely be in the title reckoning come the final weekend of the championship, but with key men missing it will be a big challenge.
Still reeling from that last-minute penalty that cost them a first World Cup semi-final in 24 years, Scottish coach Vern Cotter will look to his players to use their anger to motivate them ahead of the Six Nations. 2015 proved a mixed year for the Scots with a dismal Six Nations campaign seeing them end up with the Wooden Spoon, before an encouraging World Cup where they came agonisingly close to being the only northern hemisphere side to make the last four. Those performances showed that Cotter is beginning to gel this team together and with some exciting youngsters coming through, the future looks bright for Scottish international rugby. Three away games will put this fresh Scottish belief to the test, but the signs are there to suggest they won’t be taking home the Wooden Spoon this year. The experience that the likes of Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Mark Bennett gained last year will be crucial and with all three starting to emerge as worthy internationals, Scotland go into the tournament with arguably the best squad they have had in years. With experience provided by the likes of captain Greig Laidlaw and the British and Irish Lions trio of Hogg, Maitland and Gray (Richie), Cotter’s side have the foundations to possibly mount a challenge for the title this year. With a game against old rivals England on the first weekend of the championship, expect the entire Scottish team to come out all guns blazing. For the first time in many years, Scotland will head into the game probably as marginal favourites against an English side who will be finding their feet under new coach Eddie Jones, as Scotland look to secure their first Calcutta Cup since 2008. A trip to Cardiff awaits a week later and despite not having won in the Welsh capital for 14 years, an opening-day victory over England coupled with an Irish victory over Wales on the same weekend, may make that match a lot more interesting than some people envisage.
The start of a new era for Les Bleus as they look to summon that old French spark which has been missing for so long. With Phillipe Saint-Andre’s disastrous reign coming to an equally disastrous end against the All Blacks at the World Cup, the reality is that it can’t get much worse for France. Four frustrating years where the French occasionally flourished but more often than not flattered to deceive have come to an end with the appointment of former Toulouse coach Guy Noves. Having enjoyed 22 glorious years at the French club – where he secured 9 league titles and four European Cups – the veteran coach now takes charge of the national team with the challenge of resurrecting the team amidst a situation where young home-grown talent are ignored at club level in favour of big-name foreigners. Add to that the retirement of their talismanic skipper Thierry Dusautoir, and it all has the makings for a severe baptism of fire for the new man, with the national team seemingly on their knees. Despite all this, three home games this year offers some hope to Noves and new captain Guilhem Guirado, and with home matches against both England and Ireland, a tilt at the title may not be out of the question. If the French can overcome their travel sickness and beat Wales in Cardiff and Scotland in Edinburgh, they would expect themselves to be right in the mix come the final weekend. With the likes of Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard still going strong and the likes of Gael Fickou and Jules Plisson emerging along with other young talent, this year may prove France’s best opportunity of landing that elusive championship title.
Jacques Brunel’s side once again come into the Six Nations with very few people giving them a chance, and having seen Scotland begin to settle under coach Vern Cotter, there chances this year look very slim. With just two games at home this year against England and Scotland respectively, the omens do not look good for the Azzurri who have never won away against France, Ireland or Wales in the Six Nations, with just a solitary draw in Cardiff in 2006 to show for their efforts. As usual, the Italians will look to Sergio Parisse to lead them to glory but given the Italian captain’s age, Brunel has the unenviable task of looking for a successor to the inspirational No.8. Perhaps ironically seeing as every year they are written off, only one year out of the four where Brunel has been head coach during the Six Nations have Italy finished bottom (2014), with Brunel guiding Italy to fifth-place finishes in 2012 and 2015, as well as equalling Italy’s best finishing position of fourth in 2013, where they secured two victories – with their final-day win over Ireland being their first triumph over the Irish in the Six Nations. A mixed World Cup saw poor showings against France and Canada, with improvements seen in performances against Ireland and Romania. So amidst all the doom and gloom it seems Italy have the right man in charge, and with a home game against England on the second weekend of the championship, Brunel’s side will be looking to take advantage of the unpredictability of the English and secure their first ever victory over them. Almost certainly Italy will look at Scotland as their most likely chance of victory this year, as they will look to take advantage of their home games once again.