Six Nations 2021 Preview

Another year and another Six Nations rolls around, but in these strange times this year’s tournament may look a lot different from previous championships. With that in mind here is a breakdown on each sides’ prospects this year…..

Wales

After a tumultuous first year in charge, Wayne Pivac will be hoping to steady the ship and restore some pride to the Welsh jersey following some woeful performances in 2020. Just a couple of months after narrowly losing to eventual winners South Africa in the World Cup semi-final, a Wales side containing largely the same number of players stumbled their way through the Six Nations looking a pale shadow of the side that had fared so well in Japan. Three defeats out of four was less than an ideal start before the Covid outbreak brought a halt to proceedings in March. When the tournament eventually resumed in October things got even worse as Scotland recorded a first win on Welsh soil since 2002, consigning Wales to a fifth place finish in the championship – their worst finish in over a decade. The newly-formed Autumn Nations Cup also brought little joy with unconvincing wins over Georgia and Italy sandwiched between comprehensive defeats to Ireland and England. Compound that with defence coach Byron Hayward departing after less than a year in the position, and it is fair to say that 2020 well and truly was a year to forget for Welsh rugby. Despite the disappointments, the Autumn Nations Cup did offer Pivac an opportunity to blood new talent with the emergence of the likes of Callum Sheedy, Johnny Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit offering hope for the future.

Given their current form it is hard to know whether the lack of supporters will be a benefit or hindrance to the team this year, although it will be a shock to the system for the players running out to a deserted Principality Stadium – especially with Ireland and England playing in Cardiff. Those matches along with with tough-looking trips to Paris and Edinburgh may be a frightening prospect for many Welsh fans, but Pivac will be boosted by the return to form of winger George North whilst the back-row looks more formidable with Josh Navidi back from injury and Taulupe Faletau and the recently recalled Dan Lydiate back to somewhere near their best form. With Ireland in Cardiff first up a strong start will be needed for Pivac to set the platform for an improved campaign as Wales look to kick-start some much-needed form.

Player to watch – Taulupe Faletau

The two-time Lions tourist has had a difficult few years with injury robbing him of the chance to take part in the 2019 Grand Slam and World Cup campaign. His long-awaited return last year proved to be even more challenging with the Number 8 struggling to recapture the form of old and looking decidedly rusty. However ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ and the former Dragons man has regained form at just the right time for Wales putting in some improved performances towards the end of the Autumn Nations Cup and carrying that form over to club level with Bath this season. At his best Faletau is a world-class operator who brings another dimension to Wales’ play in both attack and defence and Pivac will be mightily relieved to see him performing so well of late.

England 

The reigning champions are once again the side to beat this year, and at a time of great unpredictability for some of their rivals England look the most settled and confident side. Aside from a shocking performance against a rejuvenated France in Paris in round one last year, Eddie Jones’ side have been a model of consistency winning every game since – comfortably dispatching each of their opponents with the minimum of fuss. With world champions South Africa yet to play since their World Cup triumph due to Covid, and New Zealand’s stuttering start to life under new coach Ian Foster, England have been the most consistent and solid test side in world rugby over the last 12 months. Whilst England supporters will only be too pleased with such a response following their side’s World Cup final defeat in Japan, some will be hoping for Jones to adopt a more expansive style of play. England may well have looked the best test side since Japan, but they haven’t always been the easiest on the eye for watching punters. Eddie Jones will quite rightfully point to the fact that test rugby is more substance than style, and the results for England certainly don’t lie but if ever there was a time for the coach to evolve his side’s play is it not now? Rarely have England come into a Six Nations campaign as such heavy favourites, and with former title rivals Ireland and Wales still very much a work in progress under new coaches, Jones may finally have an opportunity to satisfy those England fans who hope to see their side play a more exciting brand of rugby with greater attacking intent. Under Jones England have been hugely successful playing a power-based game tailored towards a brutally strong pack and playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell marshalling proceedings with their tactical nous and a smart kicking game. At its best it has provided some mightily effective and impressive performances such as in 2019 when both Ireland (Six Nations) and New Zealand (World Cup semi-final) were overpowered. Yet England came undone in the 2019 World Cup final when they came up against a Springboks side who could match them for physicality and power, and to take that final step in 2023 there is a case to be made for England to adopt a different approach based on creativity and attacking rugby. Players like Harry Randall and Max Malins are very much part of England’s future moving towards 2023 and with the likes of Ollie Thorley and Joe Marchant also waiting in the wings to pick from, England have an array of skilful attackers to choose from and evolve an alternative style of play.

Under normal circumstances games in Dublin and Cardiff would be the real acid test for Farrell and Co’s title aspirations this year, but without external factors such as a passionate home support England emerge as favourites in both those games with both Ireland and Wales in something of a transitional phase. Always strong at Twickenham, Italy will be overpowered and Scotland whilst a threat are unlikely to inflict an opening round defeat, leaving a daring and exciting French side as the most tricky obstacle in England’s path to this year’s crown. 

Player to watch – Harry Randall 

The Bristol No.9 has been the form scrum-half in the Premiership this year helping his side surge to the top of the table. Jones has shown the youngster that form has not gone un-noticed and now is his chance to show he can translate that club form to the test arena. Veteran scrum-half Ben Youngs remains Jones’ main man in the nine jersey and will be hard to dislodge if his performances in the autumn are anything to go by, but Randall has shown enough promise to suggest he could offer England something different this year.

Ireland 

2020 proved to be a real mixed bag for Andy Farrell as Ireland Head coach. Like Wayne Pivac with Wales, Farrell was replacing a hugely successful coach in Joe Schmidt, but unlike his Wales counterpart Farrell came in after a year of great disappointment for Irish rugby after a dismal 2019 that yielded heavy defeats and an underwhelming World Cup performance. Hence the only way was up in terms of results for Farrell and overall a return of three wins from five Six Nations matches was not a bad return for a new coach taking over a team short on confidence. Couple that with a decent Autumn Nations Cup and 2020 represented a solid start to life in the top job for Farrell. However scratch underneath the surface and there is still work to be done to restore Ireland to some of the heady heights they scaled under Schmidt. Ireland may well have enjoyed more victories than defeats in 2019 but the manner of their defeats to both France and England (twice) – convincing – would suggest that there is a sizable gulf in class to be bridged to challenge for the Six Nations crown. Ireland are also still heavily reliant on ageing half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, and with talented fly-half Joey Carbery dogged by injury and scrum-half John Cooper blowing hot and cold there is very little competition for the Lions half-back duo. Despite this there are signs of hope with Leinster trio Will Connors, Hugo Keenan and New Zealand-born James Lowe impressing on test debut last year, while Caelen Doris’ performances suggest he will have a long test career. The appointment of legendary former captain Paul O’Connell to Farrell’s backroom staff should strengthen the Irish pack and aid the development of the fast-improving James Ryan.

A trip to Cardiff first up is a tough start but made all the less daunting by the absence of a partisan Welsh crowd. A trip to Edinburgh also represents a tough challenge whilst the Italians are often more threatening in Rome, but the big test of how far Farrell and his team have come will be when England and France roll into Dublin. After heavy defeats last year Ireland will be keen to show they have improved and put up a far more competitive challenge against the sides likely to be gunning for the title.  

Player to watch – James Ryan 

The Leinster lock forward can no longer go under the radar as he did a few years ago. After a whirlwind 2018 that saw the young forward play an integral part in a Grand Slam campaign, as well as a domestic and European double for Leinster, Ryan may have been forgiven for thinking test rugby wasn’t all that difficult to navigate. 2019 however proved to be a chastening experience after that early rise with Ryan experiencing the pain of defeat in a European Cup final with his province before a disappointing World Cup with Ireland left him contemplating the highs and lows of top-level rugby. Despite these recent troubles Ryan’s form has remained consistent enough for him to grow into a key player for an Ireland side still finding their way since the World Cup. Tipped by many as the long-term successor to Johnny Sexton as captain, Ryan’s influence in the green jersey continues to grow and with a potential Lions tour on the horizon he shouldn’t be lacking for motivation to hit his top form.

Scotland 

It wasn’t that long ago that everything seemed to be going wrong for Scotland and coach Gregor Townsend. After overseeing a disastrous 2019 that concluded with a pool-stage exit at the World Cup, 2020 began with the falling-out with and subsequent suspension of star player Finn Russell before opening round defeats to Ireland and England left Townsend desperately hanging on to his job. Yet a much-needed win over Italy in round three last year ultimately proved to be the catalyst for a resurgence in form that suggests finally Scotland have settled under Townsend’s leadership and are on the rise. During some challenging times last season Scotland matured as a side – with a first win on Welsh soil since 2002 and an impressive win over France evidence of that – and now boast a more confident and cohesive team less reliant on star players such as Russell and captain Stuart Hogg. Russell’s absence in particular proved to be a blessing in disguise as other players gradually stepped up and emerged as leaders including Jamie Ritchie and Adam Hastings who enjoyed some of their best form during last season. Scotland look a far more rounded team now and couple that with Russell now returning to add that touch of class and Townsend’s side look very much a dangerous outfit this season. There is a welcome return for Lions lock forward Richie Gray from injury to join brother Jonny in the second-row, adding to a pack that also includes top test performers in Ritchie, Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson. Whilst an impressive back-division headlined by Hogg and Russell are joined by Six Nations debutants Duhan van der Merve and Cameron Redpath. 

Twickenham first up will be the ultimate test for the new and improved Scotland as will a trip to Paris in round three, and even if they come up short three home games against Wales, Italy and Ireland represent a real opportunity to highlight the progress being made.

Player to watch – Cameron Redpath 

The son of former Scotland captain Bryan, Cameron Redpath has represented both Scotland and England at age-grade level and his good form for Bath in the Premiership this season has seen Gregor Townsend steal a march on Eddie Jones and include the skilful centre in his Six Nations squad. A versatile back capable of playing in either the 12 or 13 jersey, Redpath is an intelligent footballer with a good range of skills that could dovetail well with Scotland fly-half Finn Russell. Scotland have boasted a talented back-line for some time but have sometimes lacked a touch of artistry and subtlety in midfield, but in Redpath they may finally have found a solution to unlock their potential in attack.

France

If England have proven to be the best test side since the World Cup, then this young French side have not been far behind. If anything Fabien Galthie’s team have looked the most impressive and certainly most exciting of international sides over the last 12 months producing some wonderful displays of attacking rugby reminiscent of the golden era of French rugby. Always a side capable of getting fans up out of their seats France added some much-needed steel to their customary style with the arrival of Sean Edwards as defence coach following their return from Japan, and the Englishman’s influence was clear to see from the beginning with France putting World Cup runners-up England to the sword in round one last year. A win over Italy and an impressive victory against Wales in Cardiff followed and seemingly paved the way for a potential first Grand Slam since 2010. However old habits die hard and much like they had done in the past decade France proceeded to press the self-destruct button, more specifically prop forward Mohamed Haouas who was stupidly sent off at Murrayfield in round four for throwing a punch at Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie. Scotland would eventually run out comfortable winners, a result that proved crucial in the final reckoning as despite victory over Ireland in Paris in round five England secured the title on points difference. A young side building towards a home world cup in 2023, the signs are promising that Galthie is building a side that could be one of the favourites to lift the Web Ellis trophy. Behind a formidable French scrum anchored by the skilful Gregory Aldritt, young stars Antoine Dupont – the best scrum-half in world rugby currently – and Romain Ntamack already look like the best half-back pairing in test rugby from the way they effortlessly ran the show last season. Throw in a back division containing cultured centre Gael Fickou and finishers like Damian Penaud and Teddy Thomas, and France are likely to emerge as England’s closest contenders this year once again. Even without the injured Ntamack at fly-half Galthie is able to call up another supremely talented 10 in Matthieu Jalibert, who has been getting rave reviews across France and Europe for his performances for his club Bordeaux.

An opening match in Rome should provide Les Bleus with an early opportunity to put a marker down in this season’s competition before they travel on the road once again in round two to Dublin in a fixture likely to tell us much more about their title prospects. Sandwiched between home fixtures against Scotland and Wales is the big match as France head to Twickenham to do battle with defending champions England in a match already looking like a potential title decider. France may have a poor record in recent times from their travels to London but England will most certainly be on their guard against a dangerous French team, and after coming so close last year Galthie’s side will be even more determined to end their 11-year wait for the Six Nations crown.

Player to watch – Matthieu Jalibert

At just 22 years of age and with eight test caps to his name, fly-half Jalibert has had to play second fiddle to Romain Ntamack in the early stages of his international career. A fly-half always looking to run with the ball, Jalibert has been in scintillating form for Bordeaux this season outstripping defences with his great pace and expert footwork. The Frenchman also possesses a touch of dexterity in his passing game capable of unlocking most defences. Injury to Ntamack has offered him an opportunity in the number ten jersey this season and with France being tipped for big things this may be his chance to shine on the test stage.

Italy

Like most times in recent years Italy come into the championship with the sole aim of ending their horrendous losing streak in the competition which now stretches to a staggering 27 games. Coach Franco Smith has the unenviable task of trying to inspire his side to bridge the clear gulf in class between them and the other five nations and grab that elusive win. A task that will be made even harder this year following the official retirement of their legendary talisman and captain Sergio Parisse. The only truly world-class player Italy have possessed, without Parisse it is even more important for this crop of Italians to step up and emerge from the shadow of their former icon. A side with little test experience – only four players in the squad have more than thirty caps – captain Luca Bigi will look to experienced fly-half Tommaso Allan to inspire those around him, although with key men such as Jake Polledri and Matteo Minozzi out it is hard to see the Azzurri grabbing their first Six Nations win since 2015.

There is at least the more welcome prospect of three games in Rome this year starting with the visit of France in round one. An ominous-looking trip to England awaits in round two before home games against Ireland and Wales, and then finally in round five a trip to Murrayfield, location of their last championship victory six years ago. With little sign of progress under South African Smith it would be a surprise to see Italy end their losing run this year and surely the primary focus for Smith and his men will be to get a win from somewhere somehow. Another barren year will raise the question again of Italy’s value in the competition and with the likes of Georgia and Romania scrapping to join the European elite, Italy’s future in the competition remains on a knife-edge.

Player to watch – Sebastian Negri

With Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri missing through injury, Italy will look to Zimbabwean-bron Negri to provide power and ballast from the back-row. In a struggling side Negri has often been a thorn in the opposition ranks whether it be tackling himself to a stand-still in defence or his storming ball-carrying in attack. Having earned nearly 30 test caps the Benetton flanker is one of the more experienced members of the Italian squad and in the absence of the injured Polledri and retired Parisse his influence will be key for the Azzurri.

Featured Image c/o Getty Images

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