It’s the moment all us rugby fans have been waiting for. January is out of the way and the start of the 2017 Six Nations Championship is just around the corner. Whilst we all brace ourselves and get behind our teams, here’s Impact Sport‘s lowdown on what to look out for in this year’s clashes.
Here’s our team-by-team preview to get things kicked off:
Under the exceptional Eddie Jones, England seek to defend their title, as they attempt to achieve their first back-to-back titles since 2000/01. If achieved, it’ll continue the impeccable winning streak we have seen over the last twelve months; including the 2016 Grand Slam and defeating Australia in the autumn series 3-0.
England are currently 2nd in the world and are averaging over 30 points a match, which puts them as clear favourites for the tournament. However, with injuries ruling both Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola out of the tournament, along with putting James Haskell on the bench for their first game, there’s every chance things will not go their way.
Whilst England have an array of great players on the sidelines and the talent of Owen Farrell orchestrating them, we wonder if the injury concerns could result in a team without the chemistry and structure that has made England so wonderful to watch over the last year.
As ever, the pundits will ask one question of France: “Which team will turn up?” The question is as unpredictable as ever. Les Bleus have not had good run in the last few years, and not a tilt at silverware since losing to New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup final.
Yet, France seem to have been on the up since finishing fifth in 2016’s Six Nations. They competed particularly well against the southern hemisphere in the autumn series where, despite losing, they showed a flair that has been missing for more than half a decade. The potential for a French uprising is always on the cards.
Despite what felt like a slightly disappointing attempt at a title defence (which would have seen Ireland win the championship three years in a row) at the Six Nations last year, we seem to forget that Ireland were swamped with injuries. This was somewhat proven in the autumn, where Ireland defeated Australia and, of course, achieved their historic win over New Zealand in Chicago.
If anyone is going to challenge England, it seems likely to be the Irish. They are on form, and certainly have something to avenge. Despite most players being injury-free, there are concerns over Johnny Sexton’s calf, which see him ruled out of the first game where Ireland take on Scotland in Murrayfield. If they lose and Sexton is kept out for longer, the Irish campaign could crumble once again.
Italy have actually been unlucky in the Six Nations over the past few years. They’ve had constant heartbreak, experiencing a series of incredibly narrow losses and losing some of their integral players to retirement. However, despite being 500/1 at the bookies, they aren’t incapable of spoiling the party. Under new manager and ex-Irish international Conor O’Shea, Italy have really contested against the big teams, most notably beating South Africa back in November.
Italy’s first two games are in Rome against Wales and Ireland; if they take the momentum from autumn forward, who knows what could happen?
Scotland have been a bit disappointing in the Six Nations generally, failing to clinch anything higher than third place since it became the Six Nations (2000). There has, however, been cause for optimism within the Scottish camp over the last six months, with a late loss to Australia and a win over Argentina. Additionally, Glasgow are on superb form, and have consequently made Scottish rugby quite exciting within a European context as of late.
The Scots are unlikely to top the table, but, if they play to their potential, could easily spoil the day for other teams. Manager Vern Cotter has also declared this will be his last string of matches as the Scottish manager, and is therefore likely to be aiming high.
With Warren Gatland on British Lions duty once again, the lack of confidence in Wales is only decreasing with each day that passes. Since 2013, Wales haven’t fared well in the six nations, or elsewhere, and despite winning 3 of 4 autumn series games, seem to have ended 2016 with a lack of flair.
Rob Howely, the interim manager, has had a few months to dwell on the autumn series, and claims Wales will have changed their tactics considerably, along with their squad, in a bid to adapt to the high-paced and high-scoring game the other nations have adopted recently.
The question over the captaincy is still contentious and it will be interesting to see how Alun Wyn Jones fills the shoes of Sam Warburton in the Six Nations, with the latter’s form proving suspect throughout the year.
Wales will face the favourites England and Ireland in Cardiff, however, which will make for a far less obvious encounter. Additionally, the squad that has been announced for the first match in Rome is, though without a few key players, formidable. There’s talent in the squad, but will there be execution?
England (Championship, not Grand Slam)
… but anything could happen.