Rugby fans across the UK braced themselves for the return of the six nations tournament last weekend.
The oldest international Rugby competition in the world is a colourful and engaging spectacle watched and attended by millions. This year it is the 122nd edition of the tournament which began as the Home Nations Championship back in 1883. The 2016 Championship has the added element that all nations will be eager to banish memories of a a World Cup campaign which saw the southern hemisphere reign supreme, with no northern hemisphere countries progressing past the quarter-final stage.
England’s new era under coach Eddie Jones began with a trip to Murrayfield on Saturday in the Calcutta Cup. Defending champions Ireland began life without the retired Paul O’Connell, in facing a Wales side chasing a fourth Six Nations title under coach Warren Gatland. In addition, France, who also have a new manager, hosted Italy in the weekend’s first encounter.
The tournament will offer a fresh start for England as they will be looking to remove memories of abysmal World Cup defeats to Wales and Australia carried out on their own turf. Previous skipper Chris Robshaw has said this tournament feels like a “new start” and a chance to “right some wrongs”. As well as a new coach, England have a new captain in Dylan Hartley. This young England squad possesses great potential, pace resonates throughout a side which sees the likes of George Ford, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes and Robshaw as the most experienced. With English clubs progressing well in Europe and accounting for five of the quarter-finalists in the Champions Cup, can this form be replicated by English players on the international level?
BBC Sport’s Jeremy Guscott gave his verdict on the new-look England side: ‘most of all, they are in very good form… I would say they’re going to play a territory-based game, with a good deal of kick, chase and defend, but all at a challenging tempo. They don’t have any hefty backs to smash the gainline but they have some good pace to exploit quick ball and a scrambling defence’.
A rejuvenated Scotland, who were defeated in the quarter finals 35-34 by finalists Australia at the World Cup, are much more innovative these days under coach Vern Cotter. The Scots seem to be strong in their attack, with an energetic back row, try scoring wingers and a fly-half capable of kicking Scotland into decent positions, Cotter has built a team capable of performing the basics well. Defensively however, they are less sound; Scotland conceded 14 tries in five games at the World Cup. They will need to eradicate that if they are to avoid attaining the wooden spoon as they did last year. There appears to be more promise for Scotland than in previous tournaments, and it will be interesting to see whether captain Greg Laidlaw can help his team build on improvements made in 2015.
Warren Gatland will be hoping that Wales’ recovery from injuries that swept across the squad at the World Cup will enable them to lift the Six Nations Championship trophy, which was ousted from Gatland’s team on the last day of the 2015 tournament by Ireland. Wales have an a excellent kicker and a dynamic back row. Sam Warburton is a terrier at the breakdown and will win multiple penalties for Wales. When he does, Dan Biggar’s kicking accuracy will ensure the scoreboard is ticking over. George North on the wing will also provide a constant threat for scoring tries on the counter attack. In the 2015 Six Nations, Wales were second-best to England in points scored and second-best to Ireland for points conceded. The Welsh are defensively strong but need to be clinical in attack if they are to launch a serious grand slam challenge. Former Wales player Jonothan Davies offered his opinion: ‘Wales are in good shape. They’ve got a tough game to start with away to Ireland but they have a solid squad. They have a few players returning from injury and they are in a good position, they have that familiarity and now they need to find consistency’.
Ireland are aiming to become the first team to win three successive Six Nations titles but they face the challenge of life without stalwart Paul O’Connell. Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson are out of the entire tournament through injury, while Marty Moore is ruled out with a hamstring tear. Mike Ross and Cian Healy have not played since December, meaning it will be an intriguing prospect to see if Ireland can defend the Championship title despite their injury-hit squad.
France have failed to finish higher than fourth in the last four Six Nations and it remains to be seen whether Guy Noves can lift them out of their recent rut. France’s scrum pack can be world class at times, provided they’re in the mood. Noves has reshuffled things up by choosing eight uncapped players, including talented centre Jonathan Danty. France are at a low point following World Cup humiliation, Les Blues are still in the recovery process from the 62-13 defeat to the All Blacks. The new management will be hoping to reinvent a French team in need of some inspiration.
Jacques Brunel heads into his final Six Nations in charge of Italy. The Azzurri have not improved under Brunel’s leadership and flopped again at the World Cup. With an ageing squad and a lengthy injury list, they are surely destined for the wooden spoon. However, ten uncapped players will bring some freshness to an ageing squad. Nonetheless, Italy have conceded 40 tries over the last two Six Nations. Their lack of squad depth has also resulted in heavy defeats towards the latter end of the championship, giving away 61 points on last year’s final day against Wales and 52 against England in 2014.
Words by Joe Tanner
Image courtesy of rugbyredefined.com