Six Nations 2018 Preview

England

Defending champions from the past two seasons, Eddie Jones’ men will be in no mood to relinquish their stranglehold on the competition as they look to do what rivals Wales and Ireland have failed to do in recent years and complete a hat-trick of titles. Yet with a squad hindered by injures to a number of players, Australian coach Jones is likely to have to put his faith in some young inexperienced players to get the job done this year. On the face of it three away matches in this year’s tournament for the English looks a challenging prospect given the long list of absentees, but given the poor form of Italy and France over the last few years Jones will back his side to get the job done in Rome and Paris respectively, although a trip to face a rejuvenated Scotland in Edinburgh may prove to be the toughest of the lot. In keeping Dylan Hartley as his captain, Jones has resisted the calls from supporters to promote Lions star Jamie George and once again displayed his faith in the Northampton hooker despite his struggles this season. With 22 wins from 23 test matches you can understand why Jones is unwilling to tamper too much with his squad and it is likely to be more of the same structure-wise with George Ford and Owen Farrell likely to resume their 10-12 partnership whilst in Sam Underhill they may have unearthed a more natural openside flanker who could provide the balance to the back-row that is needed going into next year’s World Cup.

Fixtures

Italy (a), Wales (h), Scotland (a), France (a), Ireland (h)

Key Player – Owen Farrell

The man who seems to make this England side tick, Farrell has grown into a natural leader under Jones and is without a doubt the Australian’s most trusted man in the playing ranks. Farrell has matured into one of the best players in the game, and has enjoyed great success over the last few years whether it be in a Saracens, England or Lions jersey. Mr Dependable, it was no coincidence that England struggled for shape and game management in his absence against Argentina in the autumn, and with him steering the ship from midfield or No.10 the champions shouldn’t be far off.

One to watch – Sam Simmonds

Having been dealt the double blow of losing both their first and second-choice Number Eight’s in Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes to injury, Chiefs flanker Simmonds is the man likely to have to step in to fill the void at the base of the scrum. Considerably lighter in weight than both Vunipola and Hughes, Simmonds will provide a more suttle and perhaps less destructive presence at No.8 but he has been one of the players of the season in the Aviva Premiership this season. A player who can fill in across the back-row, the 23-year-old has a serious engine on him and with seven tries to his name in the Premeirship already this campaign he could offer problems both in defence and attack for opposition teams.

Key Match – Scotland (a)

Always an intimidating atmosphere for a travelling English side, the trip to Murrayfield is going to be even more challenging this year with the Scots resurgent under new coach Gregor Townsend. Never lacking in motivation in the Calcutta Cup, the Scottish players will be desperate to avenge their record defeat last year and this one should be a feisty full-blooded affair.

Prediction – 2nd

 

Ireland

Given the injury problems of the other home nations, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side start the championship as slender favourites with a near full-strength squad to choose from to go with the impressive form of the provinces this season. With Leinster and Munster having recently secured home Champions Cup quarter-finals, Connacht doing likewise in the Challenge Cup and Ulster amongst the leaders in the Pro14, the Irish players arrive at this Six Nations in top form and in high spirits. After a perfect three-from-three in the autumn series including that memorable drubbing of the Springboks, Schmidt’s side are riding the crest of a wave and it will take a strong side to stop them this year. A favourable fixture list sees three back-to-back home games following their opening weekend trip to France, whilst most neutrals have already marked down their final match against England as a potential title decider. Experience throughout their team in the shape of many players who played a key role in the British and Irish Lions test series last summer, yet it is the youthful promise provided by players such as James Ryan, Joey Carbery and Jacob Stockdale that will have many Irish supporters excited. Throw in another star of the future in uncapped Jordan Larmour and New Zealander Schmidt has a wealth of options to choose from as he looks for a third title to go with those won back in 2014 and 2015. Sean O’Brien’s injury may have denied Schmidt the opportunity of putting together a back-row Lions triumvirate of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Stander but in Connor Murray and Jonny Sexton he has the best half-back pairing in the championship and a partnership capable of tactically outwitting any opposing side.

Fixtures

France (a), Italy (h), Wales (h), Scotland (h), England (a)

Key Player – Connor Murray

A guy who seems to be in ongoing fight with New Zealand’s Aaron Smith as the best 9 in the world, Munster-man Murray stands head and shoulders above his scrum-half rivals in the Northern Hemisphere when on top form. Tactically astute and with a highly-impressive kicking game, Murray has established himself as one of the leaders in this Irish side and it is his speed of thought which often undoes the opposition. When on song, possesses a near-telepathic connection with the equally intuitive Sexton and it is their running of the game which will be key to Irish hopes.

One to watch – Jacob Stockdale

A sizeable presence out on the wing, Ulster’s Stockdale has enjoyed a fine breakthrough season for club and country with his form rewarded with a first Six Nations start in Paris this weekend. Has looked impressive in big games this season none more so than when his try and assist proved the difference against Wasps in a Champions Cup match back in October. Has fought off the challenge of more experienced wingers to start in the No.11 jersey and with his potential could be there for some time.

Key Match – England (a)

A toss-up between the two away trips but whilst Paris may represent a tough start to the championship the real acid test will come at Twickenham. With Irish sides having had a miserable time of it in recent memory with just one win from their five previous Six Nations meetings at Rugby HQ, Schmidt’s men will have to break with tradition if they are to enjoy victory on English soil. With Eddie Jones’ sole defeat as coach having come against Ireland last season you can bet the Australian will fire up his side for a match which could be decisive in crowning this year’s champions.

Prediction – 1st

 

Wales

With an injury list on a par if not worse than that of England’s, Wales arrive at this championship in a sorry state of affairs that has incredibly robbed them of seven players who toured with the Lions last summer. With the likes of Lions captain Sam Warburton and 2017 Player of the Series Jonathan Davies ruled out for the duration of the tournament, and others such as Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar out for at least the first few rounds of competition, Warren Gatland starts this weekend hoping his patched-up squad comes through the opening fixture against Scotland relatively unscathed especially with trips to Twickenham and the Aviva to come. After an underwhelming 2017 expectations are as low as they’ve been for many a Six Nations campaign amongst Welsh fans with the team still adapting to a new style of play brought in last autumn. A record of two wins and two losses from four autumn games pretty much told the story of a Welsh team looking to play a more expansive passing game with some promising signs coupled with familiar errors. This year’s fixture scheduling hasn’t been the kindest as well with a tough opening match against a dangerous Scotland side followed up with away matches against two of the title favourites in England and Ireland. The form of the Scarlets in the last few weeks has been a welcome bright note and with as many as 10 players from the region starting against the Scots – including regional partnerships at half-back, midfield and in the front-row – Gatland will be hoping those playing can take their regional form on to the test arena.

Fixtures

Scotland (h), England (a), Ireland (a), Italy (h), France (h)

Key Player – Alun Wyn Jones

With so many first-choice players missing through injury the experience of the Welsh captain will be desperately needed throughout the championship. Lock forward Jones remains one of the first names on the team sheet even at 32 years of age and still one of the best around in world rugby, it will be his impact and influence that his team-mates will need to drive them on from up front. Answered his critics in emphatic style with some big performances for the Lions last year and Gatland will need more of the same from his talismanic leader.

One to watch – Rhys Patchell

Five years and five caps into his stop-start international career, Rhys Patchell finally has the keys to No.10. Injuries to fly-halves Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland have opened the door for the Scarlets fly-half to show his credentials in the most fabled of Welsh jerseys, with Patchell hoping to replicate his form of last year when he guided the Scarlets to the Pro12 title from No.10. More of a play-maker than his predecessor Biggar, Patchell is a risk-taker whose creative instincts in attack can come back to bite him at times but as seen last season he knows how to get a back-line firing. Finally given his big opportunity, the question remains as to whether he has the control and temperament to handle life as a test fly-half.

Key match – England (a)

With tough away trips sandwiched between home games a fast start is needed against Scotland, but the performance just as much as the result in London may be crucial to Welsh Six Nations hopes. Will look to end a run of four straight Six Nations defeats to the English in round two, but a trip to Twickenham remains as daunting as ever with Jones’ men going for a third title in a row. A tough ask to go and win especially with injuries, but will take heart from the last time they went to HQ with a depleted squad.

Prediction – 4th

 

Scotland

After a bright start as Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend will be hoping to maintain his side’s exciting form in his first Six Nations campaign. An autumn series that included a record win over Australia as well as an agonising near-miss against the All Blacks has left Scottish fans dreaming of a first ever Six Nations title – with their last European title coming 19 years ago in the final Five Nations tournament. As part of the Scotland side that helped secure that last tournament triumph, Townsend knows all about delivering success and will be hoping to build upon the solid foundations left behind by Vern Cotter’s good work last season. New Zealander Cotter bowed out as coach by delivering Scotland’s best Six Nations win return since 2006 as they recorded three wins from five matches – including a first win over Wales in ten years – and the challenge for Townsend now is to push Scotland on to become genuine title contenders. A spate of injuries amongst the pack – particularly in the front five – may leave the Scots slightly weaker than they would have hoped yet in Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and captain John Barclay they still have some of the best forwards in the competition, whilst a back-line containing the likes of Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg is sure to create problems for opposition defences. A side that have struggled away from home for many years, three away matches represents a tough baptism of fire for Townsend this year and if they are to stand any chance of title success they will likely need at least two wins from visits to Cardiff, Dublin and Rome.

Fixtures

Wales (a), France (h), England (h), Ireland (a), Italy (a)

Key Player – Finn Russell

A player who enjoyed great success with the head coach from his time in charge at Glasgow, Russell will once again be at the forefront of Townsend’s game-plan. A highly-skilful playmaker who creates plenty of chances in attack, Russell has emerged as one of the best attacking fly-halves in European rugby and it will be up to him to provide the ammunition for an exciting Scottish back-line to fire in attack. Question marks remain about his control of matches, yet when on the front-foot he is deadly.

One to watch – Ali Price

Injury to Greig Laidlaw opened the door for the young Glasgow scrum-half in last year’s tournament and he didn’t disappoint playing an influential role in victories over Wales and Italy. Another player familiar with Townsend from his time at Glasgow, the head coach has kept faith with the youngster for the start of this campaign with former Scotland skipper Laidlaw having to do with a place on the bench. More of a runner at scum-half than Laidlaw, Price provides a quick tempo with his passing from the ruck and with Scotland looking to play a quicker game he could be crucial to Townsend’s blueprint for success.

Key match – Wales (a)

The match against England at Murrayfield is sure to be an exciting occasion, but if Scotland are to improve upon last season’s finish they will need to take a few scalps on the road. With Wales stricken by injury the Scots’ opening match in Cardiff represents a great opportunity for a first win in the Welsh capital in sixteen years and would set them up well with two home games to follow immediately after.

Prediction – 3rd

 

France

The ongoing soap opera that is French rugby continued in the autumn with a disappointing 23-23 draw at home to Japan marking the end of yet another forgettable reign with head coach Guy Noves paying the price for Les Bleus’ latest flop. The man tasked with restoring French glory after years of underachievement is no stranger to the Six Nations with former Italy coach Jacques Brunel being chosen to replace Noves. A vastly experienced coach who guided Perpignan to the Top14 title in 2009, Brunel’s five-year reign as head coach of Italy saw him guide the Azzurri to their best finish of fourth in the 2013 championship including a first-ever Six Nations win over Ireland, however his final season in charge in 2016 saw the Italians finish bottom of the championship with five defeats leaving the Italians in a similar position from when he started the job in 2012. Finally given the opportunity to lead his country, Brunel must find a way of getting the best out of a misfiring back-line that has flattered to deceive in the last few years. Traditionally strong and hard to beat at home, Brunel will be happy to see his side have three matches in Paris this year but with two of those games coming against Ireland and England there will need to be a vast improvement from recent performances. Without the experienced duo of Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana the new head coach has named a young inexperienced side with just two players from the original 32-man squad possessing more than 50 international caps, in a squad which contains several uncapped players and two young fly-halves in the shape of Anthony Belleau and Matthieu Jalibert. Flanker Kevin Gourdon was one of the players of the tournament last season and alongside him in the forwards Sebastian Vahaamahina will be expected to bring the same old rugged physicality and power expected from a French pack.

Fixtures

Ireland (h), Scotland (a), Italy (h), England (h), Wales (a)

Key Player – Sebastien Vahaamahina

With 28 caps to his name the Clermont lock forward is one of the more experienced members of this French squad so will be expected to lead from the front in an unpredictable French side. At 6ft 7in and 19st, Vahaamahina is an old-fashioned uncompromising forward who will play a prominent role at line-out time, yet it is his powerful ball-carrying and defence which may be most needed for France.

One to watch – Matthieu Jalibert

Just 19 years of age but chosen to start against Ireland in what will be his first international cap, outside half Jalibert has enjoyed a rapid rise this season having only started his first Top 14 game in November last year. Given his chance by then-Bordeaux coach Jacques Brunel the youngster has not looked back with a number of strong displays both with ball-in-hand and from the kicking tee seeing him retain the No.10 jersey. After taking the national job in the new year, Brunel has put his faith in Jalibert once again and will hope that his fly-half shows the same coolness under pressure in a test jersey.

Key match – Ireland (h)

The first game of the championship marks a fresh start in many ways with first tests for Brunel and Jalibert in particular. Ireland are many people’s favourites for the championship although they have often struggled in Paris in the past, and facing them first up represents a great opportunity for this French side to put down an early marker, but they will need to front up against a team packed with experience.

Prediction 5th

 

Italy

It was a season to forget for the Azzurri last year as they finished bottom of the table once again without even a solitary bonus point to their name. Former Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea was brought in to revive the fortunes of the national side and whilst there was a maiden test win over South Africa in the autumn of 2016, so far there has been little if any improvement to show for the Italians. With just two of their 31-man squad – Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais) and Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse) – playing outside of Italy there is very little elite-level experience in this Italian squad and captain Parisse will shoulder much of the responsibility once again as he adds to his 133 international caps. Outside of Parisse the experience of the likes of Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni will be integral in guiding what is a fairly inexperienced side through a tough championship. With three away games this year, it is likely to be a chastening experience for this young side and given the strength of the other sides in this competition they will have to produce something pretty special if they are to muster a win this campaign. A side that are used to frustrating the opposition up front amongst the forwards, O’Shea will need more imagination from his backs this year if Italy are to cause an upset.

Fixtures

England (h), Ireland (a), France (a), Wales (a), Scotland (h)

Key Player – Alessandro Zanni

One cap short of reaching a century for his country, the Benetton flanker has been a mainstay of the Italian side ever since his test debut in 2005. An abrasive and agile loose forward, Zanni has been a consistent performer in the Six Nations for many years and his experience will be needed once more for this campaign.

One to watch – Ian McKinley

Not exactly a young gun at the age of 28, but a player with a phenomenal story none the less. A series of unfortunate events early in his career left Irish-born fly-half McKinley blind in one eye and as a consequence left specialists advising McKinley to retire. However wearing a set of protective goggles to protect his eyes, the fly-half has slowly risen through the lower ranks of the Italian leagues. After eventually progressing to playing for Benetton in the Pro12, McKinley’s bravery and determination were rewarded with a call-up to the Italian squad having qualified through residency. A first test cap against Fiji followed in November last year and he has since gone to add two further caps and be included alongside fly-half rivals Carlo Canna and Tomasso Allan in the Six Nations squad. An incredible story of perseverance under the most difficult of circumstances, McKinley is sure to get a warm reception from all supporters if he is to make his Six Nations bow this year.

Key Match – England (h)

The visit of the defending champions on the first weekend is as tough a start as it can get for Italy. Whilst a victory is highly unlikely, with three away games immediately following the match in Rome it is important that the hosts produce a competitive valiant effort against an England side missing players through injury to carry some form and hope into the rest of the competition.

Prediction – 6th

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