Shane Nolan examines how each of the Six Nations will fare this coming season.
The RBS Six Nations kicks off this weekend with Ireland taking on an ever-improving and dangerous Scotland side. Under Verne Cotter’s regime the Scots have underperformed in this tournament, but they had a good Autumn series, turning in impressive performances beating Argentina and narrowly losing to Australia.
With an impressive second row of the Gray brothers, a back-row of naturalised talent in Hardie and Strauss and an exciting back three of Hogg, the returning Maitland, and in-form Tommy Seymour, Scotland will worry more than one side this year. The loss of WP Nel has had little impact, as Zander Fagerson has shown himself to be an exceptionally good, young tighthead prop. Finn Russel also continues to grow into the number ten shirt, and with captain Greg Laidlaw taking the kicking responsibilities, Russel may flourish without the additional pressure. As regards to new players, make sure to keep an eye on Huw Jones and especially Hamish Watson.
Conor O’Shea’s Italian side will face another tough tournament. Their famous autumn victory over South Africa was followed up with a typical loss to the islanders of Tonga. Continuity, as always, seemingly eludes the Italians who will probably put up one big performance before self-imploding. However, if anyone has a chance of improving their fortunes it is the former Harlequins man. They will need the leadership of Sergio Parisse to be as formidable as ever and hope whoever they entrust to kick, be it Tommaso (Tommy) Allan or Carlo Canna, can find some respectable level of accuracy.
France will be an unknown quantity, as usual. Their sheer depth of talent is evident, as injuries to the centre have resulted in Johnny Sexton’s worst nightmare, Mathieu Basteraud, receiving a recall to the side. He joins Gael Fickou, Yoann Huget and Virimi Vakatawa in a mercurial back division. The French are not at their peak however, and are some way off contending for this year’s championship. They will have a pivotal say in who does emerge victorious though. With key players, such as Picamoles and Guirado fit and ready they could push England very close in round one.
Rob Howley takes over an uncertain Welsh side with Gatland occupied by the impending Lion’s tour of New Zealand. The Welsh first XV will be extremely predictable, for a good reason, and will push any side close. However, underrated players such as Justin Tipuric and Leigh Williams may well get more game time in Gatland’s absence. Injury free, this Welsh side can defeat anyone and I have a sneaky feeling Ireland may still be able to win the tournament while losing to England, if Wales do them a favour at Millennium stadium in round two.
Eddie Jones’ England side will be everyone’s favourites to produce another Grand Slam. Should they manage such a feat, it would take place in the Aviva, matching New Zealand’s record for successive wins. The loss of Billy Vunipola will cost England a lot at the gain-line but he will be more than adequately replaced. Their brutish pack, growing since the days of Stuart Lancaster, will easily dominate most teams. Their outstanding line-out is matched by an efficient scrum, no matter who takes to the pitch. What is often overlooked is their ability to throw the ball around when needs be. With a top-class playmaker like George Ford, as well as the finest kicker in world rugby, Owen Farrell, they will always be on the right side of fine margins.
That leaves us with England’s main and maybe only challenger, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. There are no real surprises in Schmidt’s squad selection, nor will there be on matchday. Kearney will most likely continue at full-back with Jared Payne in the centre, despite many calling for change in those areas. The return of Tommy Bowe will be a welcome boost, and he may surprise those who feel he has little left to offer at international level. The emergence of Tadgh Furlong will be a pivotal factor in Ireland’s campaign. His otherworldly power against New Zealand may have taken the headlines but it will be keeping up the scrum that will concern Schmidt most. Their pack, and especially the back-row, can handle anything England throw at it. I fear only for Ireland’s creativity to transform a tight game into a win. Should Sexton find himself still smarting from Steyn’s monster hit in the Champions Cup, at least we have the assurance of a perfectly fine replacement in Paddy Jackson. New caps such as Niall and Rory Scannell deserve their recognition for Munster’s reinvigorated form but they may find playing time quite scarce during a tightly contested championship.
It will be the tried and trusted from Ireland and it may well work. It will probably be down to them and England to claim the trophy but France and Wales are always hard to write off and will have a big say. The Irish have a strong enough squad by now to compete no matter what injuries inevitably transpire. It’s looking like it will all come down to March 18th in the Aviva Stadium, but there are fourteen quality matches to be enjoyed between here and then. It promises to be an intriguing period of rugby as we lead into the Lions tour.