Guinness Six Nations Preview
By Peter Moore
This coming weekend will see the start of another Six Nations. From the 1st February until the 14th March five rounds of matches- all over weekends, as this year there are no Friday night matches- will decide who will be crowned Six Nations Champions.
Last year that honour deservedly went to Wales who completed a one hundred per cent record in the competition. As regards who will lift the trophy come March 14th as always there are plenty of cases for most of the six sides.
Let’s start with England.
Under the astute leadership of the experienced Eddie Jones, England certainly look the side to beat.
Jones, is entering his fifth six nations campaign, after winning a Grand Slam at the first attempt in 2016 and a second Championship title in 2017, he has found it harder going. A disappointing fifth place finish in 2018, and despite a much improved second placed finish last year, ultimately a defeat away at Wales and a draw against Scotland didn’t give the lift off Jones needed going into the World Cup.
After Jones announced his 34 man-squad last week, on paper England certainly have strength in depth and a perfect game plan for any occasion.
Jones has added to his backroom staff by calling upon the services of Simon Amor as attack coach and Matt Proudfoot as forwards coach.
Yes, there are questions to be answered at scrum-half and in the back row with Billy Vunipola injured and no specialist No 8 selected.
England open their campaign in Paris on Sunday against France. If England can beat the French, then a grand slam could well be on the cards. Loose, and they will have it all to do in the remaining four matches.
Wales go into the forthcoming tournament with a new man at the helm. Warren Gatland has departed from the scene to be replaced by Wayne Pivac. The new head coach has also bought in Stephen Jones alongside him and a Welsh legend Sam Warburton as consultant.
The key issue for Wales now is that they will be going into the tournament with injuries to key players, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and Justin Tipuric. However, the Welsh will be led by the outstanding Alum Wyn Jones who can call on the experienced fly-half Dan Bigger, who has thrived since joining Northampton Saints.
Wales have the added advantage of playing three of their five games at home. How they fare in the other two at Dublin and Twickenham will be so decisive.
Ireland, with new coach Andy Farrell are a very dangerous team. Despite a poor World Cup showing they will be looking to bounce back and run England close.
Rory Best’s decision to retire has left Ireland to turn to the evergreen Jonny Sexton to wear the Captains armband. The Ireland and Lions No.10 will enter another six nations campaign filled with the same enthusiasm he had when representing his country 16 years ago.
Ireland predominantly have announced the same squad who won the grand slam in 2018. The likes of Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony and James Ryan ooze class.
If Sexton can stay fit, then Ireland can go very close, and will have the added advantage of kicking off their campaign with two home games against Scotland and Wales before facing England at Twickenham.
Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend is about to go into his third Six Nations Tournament. He has called upon new Scotland Captain Stuart Hogg to lead his troops as they travel to Dublin on Saturday to kick off their Championship campaign without fly-half Finn Russell, who has been dropped for the opener for breaching team protocol. Darcy Graham will also miss out with a knee injury.
The Scots will be looking to two scrum-half’s who can really change a game. George Horne and Ali Price are the guys in question.
What the Scots must improve on is their defence if they are to win games. This was clearly shown up in the recent World Cup in Japan.
New French Coach Fabien Galthie has named a hugely exciting squad, with no less than nineteen uncapped players. This is certainly a new era for French rugby with Shaun Edwards on the coaching staff.
How quickly can the new players gel is certainly open to debate, but the French clearly have the talent if they can shake of the unwanted title of which French side will turn up today.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack is an exciting combination at half-back with the likes of runners Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas and strong ball carriers Gregory Alldritt and Captain Charles Ollivon in the back row, they are certainly most peoples tip for dark horses in the championship.
New Italian Coach Franco Smith, who replaced former Coach Conor O’Shea recently, will be looking for more improvement from the Italians who have an awful record in the Six Nations having lost 22 games in a row since 2015. Last season saw yet another wooden spoon for Italy, after losing all five games last year.
They will be no pushovers this campaign with a powerful pack and tighter game plan under Smith, but three away games, with Wales and France to begin with, suggest yet another wooden spoon for Italy.