As the Six Nations returns Phil Rice assesses the teams’ readiness and form
How have each team been performing in their national leagues? Who are their key players as they step into this tournament? And which matches will be key milestones for each of them?
For the full fixtures list visit the 6 Nations website here: six-nations-guide.co.uk
England are the reigning Six Nations Champions and haven’t lost a game since their embarrassingly early departure from their ‘home World Cup.’
The Eddie Jones-led transformation of the team has been dramatic and comprehensive. There is a steely resolve that was lacking under Stuart Lancaster’s leadership. His controversial selection of ‘bad boy’ Dylan Hartley as skipper gave an early indication of the way Jones was thinking.
He has loaded his team with physicality. Players such as the Vunipola brothers, James Haskell and Hartley relish throwing their weight around. Outside the bruising pack are backs who have been freed up to express themselves and the centre combination of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph has been particularly effective. In Jonny May and Jack Nowell they have two of the fastest wingers in the business. The Vunipola brothers have both been discounted from at least the initial Six Nations games and possibly for the tournament. It will be interesting to see how well the team copes with their loss.
Nathan Hughes is a more than capable number 8 but he has big boots to fill to match up to Billy Vunipola. Chris Robshaw has been a key player for England and he will play no part in this year’s championship through injury.
Most rugby commentators believe that the Irish match at the conclusion of the campaign will be England’s toughest game and the winner of that match is likely to win the Championship. Time will tell, there is a long way to go!
Key Player: Jonny May
After a mildly disappointing Six Nations campaign last season in which Ireland won two, lost two and drew with Wales, the future didn’t look too promising. A moderately successful tour to South Africa during the summer, in which they lost the series 2-1, didn’t suggest anything strange was around the corner.
However on 5th November history was made at Soldier Field in Chicago when Ireland finally beat the World Champions New Zealand and since that historic day Irish Rugby has been on cloud nine. It was a thoroughly deserved win and was followed up with an excellent performance from the Irish two weeks later at the Aviva, where only three pieces of individual brilliance by Kiwi flyhalf Beauden Barritt saved the All Blacks from another defeat.
This was followed by victory over the hitherto unbeaten touring Aussies at the Aviva and suddenly the rugby world began to realise that Ireland really do have a quality side that can sit at the top table of world rugby.
Since that time the provinces have played with renewed confidence and Munster and Leinster, who provide the bulk of the national team, have qualified in style for home quarter-finals in the European Champions Cup. The most encouraging aspect of the Autumn series was that at times the team had to rely on a number of reserves and the quality of performance was sustained. This was what was lacking against Argentina at the last World Cup.
The Irish forward pack is the strongest for at least 50 years. The backs are thriving on the supply of quality go-forward ball they are receiving. The half backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are key to Ireland’s success. Sexton has been injured and taken from the field in each of his last four games. He is becoming increasingly injury prone.
Fortunately Paddy Jackson is looking more like an international ten every time he plays and the experience he gained in the Autumn series has increased his confidence greatly. Ireland have never enjoyed the favourites tag but this has become a measured and organised team under Schmidt’s tutelage. They are coming to terms with the high levels of expectancy every time they take the field.
The English match will be a crunch encounter but in Scotland they have a potential banana skin at the outset and they will need to be at their very best to make a winning start. They cannot allow Scotland to get a foothold in the game or they will have a real challenge on their hands.
Key Player: CJ Stander
For the past seven or eight years the French rugby team has spurned their old flair and wizardry for a forward dominated game where they try to wear down the opposition into submission. Not only has this been one of their most unsuccessful periods in their rugby history but they have also become tedious to watch.
The French public have made their views known. They want a return to running rugby with all their traditional flair. To this end Guy Novés has been drafted in as Head Coach and lo and behold France have become eminently more watchable and their Autumn internationals showed signs of real promise.
Narrow defeats to New Zealand and Australia showed that Noves is on the right track. The physicality of the Top 14 French league has yielded a number of injuries to key players. Sadly the brilliance of Wesley Fofana will not be seen during this championship and unfortunately Mathieu Bastareaud has been called up as his replacement. Let’s hope for the sake of the game Noves persists with his expansive game rather than going back to crash ball tactics.
France start their campaign with the daunting task of facing England at Twickenham. If they gain anything from that game they will move forward with optimism.
If France play with their old style and flair anything could happen but it would be a major surprise if this injury hit squad finish in the top two.
Key Player: Camille Lopez
Two years ago Scottish rugby reached its nadir, finishing last in the Six Nations in front of dwindling crowds. Clermont Auvergne Coach Vern Cotter had been called in to halt the dramatic decline in the country’s fortunes. Last season, his second year in charge, Scotland managed to score more points than they conceded in the Six Nations, for the first time in 17 years! He is the first Scottish Head Coach to have a win percentage over 50 per cent in more than 30 years.
Attendances at international matches have increased substantially. At the last World Cup Scotland were closer to qualifying for the semi-finals than any other Northern Hemisphere team, when they were robbed of victory over Australia in the quarterfinal, by a howler of a referee decision. There is a steady progression in the fortunes of the national team and Ireland need to be very aware of their determination to maintain this progress in this year’s matches.
Cotter is a believer in immersing yourself into the national culture of a country when you become coach. “Scotland is a humble country and it’s a place you can become attached to very quickly,” he reflects.
He has been a breath of fresh air to the rugby community in Scotland. He continues, “The principal foundations are mindset and skill-set, It was about creating clarity. “The other thing is leadership, creating a group who determine behaviour and standards. We’ve become aware of what we can do. Winning is the most important thing.”
Glasgow Warriors supply most of the national team’s players and they have just qualified for the Champions Cup quarter finals for the first time. They see the Irish match as a crucial game in the evolution of the team. Victory would be a massive stride forward for them and they believe it is very attainable.
Joe Schmidt is in no doubt as to the motivation his erstwhile coaching colleague has instilled in his charges and he will be impressing upon the Irish players the need to match this focus if they are not to fall at the first hurdle.
Key Player: Finn Russell
A disappointing Autumn series for Wales was rescued somewhat by victory over the Springboks in their final game, but Coach Robert Howley is smart enough to know that the South African team was one of the worst in living memory.
Difficulties at the set piece have been at the root of much of their troubles. Particularly at scrum time where the ageing Gethin Jenkins has battled on to secure a semblance of stability. They have an outstanding back row with Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau, all likely to feature on the Lion’s tour at the end of the season. For back rows to shine they need to get some goforward ball and that may be in short supply for this team.
They have an outstanding place kicker in Leigh Halfpenny and he will punish any indiscretions by opponents in their own half. They will be highly motivated to beat England in Cardiff, but it is difficult to see them mounting a serious challenge for the title this year. Two years ago Ireland left their dreams of a Grand Slam behind when they visited Cardiff and with many of that team still playing they will want revenge for that upset.
Unfortunately Wayne Barnes will be refereeing again as it was his inconsistent decisions that were partly responsible for that result. Wales first match is away to Italy and they will be looking to acquire a bonus point victory from that game. How they perform against England in Cardiff a week later, will go a long way to determining the success of this season for them. Victory over the ‘old enemy’ would be a huge boost to their confidence, but failure could lead to a deflated team trudging up to Murrayfield for a difficult away match.
In a similar situation in 2013 when Warren Gatland was preoccupied with Lion’s matters, Robert Howley deputised for the Head Coach and somewhat surprisingly finished up winning the Six Nations. A victory over England might spark sufficient self belief into the team to repeat that feat, but it will be a major surprise.
They have turned to Alan Wyn Jones to lead the team in order to free up Warburton to concentrate on his own game. Jones is in the mould of Paul O’Connell, an inspirational leader, who will get the best out of his players. A successful campaign could see him being rewarded with the Lion’s captaincy.
Key player: Leigh Halfpenny
Ex-Irish fullback Conor O’Shea has been installed as Head Coach of Italy. He is assisted by former London Irishmen, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt. The magnitude of O’Shea’s task was brought home to him with his first game in charge against the All Blacks. The 68-10 defeat was partly influenced by the need for New Zealand to expunge the memories of defeat the previous week to Ireland.
This theory was given more credibility when Italy unexpectedly beat the Springboks by 20-18 the following week. Had Italy finally turned the corner? Sadly one week later they lost 19-17 to Tonga! These topsy turvy results may reflect the poor form of the Springboks more than anything else, but that result brought home to O’Shea the passion and pride that the Italian people have in the performance of their national team.
“For the first time I experienced just how proud and passionate these people are, and hopefully we can give them something over the next few weeks that will show that we’re on the right path.” O’Shea continued, “First and foremost, we want to make sure that we focus absolutely 100% on Wales, because the last couple of Six Nations games against them have been difficult. We want to make sure we gain their respect back and show that we’re moving in the right direction. Then we’ll look at Ireland.”
Sergio Parisse has led what has seemed like a lonely battle to instill respect and belief in his national team. He would have been an automatic choice for any team in world rugby, but has struggled to find colleagues who could approach his standards. There are young talents who are showing encouraging signs for the future. Michele Campagnaro, Marco Fuser and Carlo Canna have been showing good form for their club sides in the Champions Cup.
The performances of the two major clubs in Italy, Zebre and Treviso, have disimproved this season and O’Shea will have a major task to instil the belief into these players that they can mount a serious challenge to the other five nations.