With time ticking down until the start of this year’s Six Nations Championship, the discussions over who will take home the title in 2018 are in full swing. Having lost just once during the tenure of Eddie Jones, the target will be firmly on England’s back. But some poor performances last autumn and the threat of Ireland and Scotland in particular look set to make this England’s most challenging tournament in recent years. So, is the 2018 edition England’s to lose again, or should we expect the Six Nations trophy to leave Twickenham for the first time since 2015?
First off, for the defending champions England, there are a few warning lights on the dashboard. Some average performances by the standards of the Eddie Jones era last autumn, labouring at times in the clashes with Argentina, Australia and Samoa, will give the side concern ahead of the tournament. Added to the struggles of England’s club sides of late, with just one side, Saracens, making the Quarter-Finals of the top tier Champions Cup.
As well as this, top clubs like Leicester and Northampton have been floundering in recent months, and some serious doubts can be raised about how sleek the defending champions will be ahead of their opener in Rome. Unfortunately, key components of England’s dominance of the tournament in the past two campaigns, including Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly will be out for the entire Six Nations, stretching the side’s depth to the limit.
However, there is still plenty to make England the leading contenders for the tournament. Despite struggling in recent games, they have still managed to win games with something to spare, including a 30-6 triumph over Australia and a 43-14 victory over Samoa. And despite injury worries, England will still be able to showcase a powerful line-up for the tournament, with the 10-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell that has formed the basis of England’s positive results set to continue, whilst the addition of in-form players to cover injuries, such as Exeter’s Sam Simmonds in the back-row, means opposing teams shouldn’t expect a significant drop-off in performance from the defending champions.
Even if England may be able to get over their own problems, the challenge of other nations may pose a more significant test. First among them will be Ireland, the only team to have beaten England since the 2015 World Cup, having denied England a Grand Slam in Dublin last March. Having taken big scalps against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia over the last couple of years, Ireland’s big game pedigree will put them in a great position to challenge England in what could prove to be a Championship decider at Twickenham in the last round. If Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton can replicate the calm control that has served Ireland so well in recent years, Joe Schmidt’s side can certainly see themselves contending for the third title of his reign as coach.
Plus, the attacking threat of Scotland will make them a challenger for England’s crown. With a devastating backline including Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland, Scotland will be able to exploit any lapses in concentration in defence to devastating effect, as they demonstrated in the demolition of Australia last November. The coherence and familiarity of this Scotland side, with seventeen Glasgow Warriors in a squad selected by their ex-coach Gregor Townsend, makes them an especially dangerous contender for the Six Nations.
However, questions remained unanswered over the composure of this side in this tournament, with last year’s 60-21 smashing by England at Twickenham last year leaving doubts about whether this Scotland side has the maturity to mount a successful championship challenge. A victory in their opening match in Cardiff would certainly do a lot to silence those doubters.
Their opponents in that first match, Wales, certainly have plenty of questions of their own needing to be answered. With injuries mounting up, including Lions captain Sam Warburton, Man of the Series Jonathan Davies and skillful scrum-half Rhys Webb, Wales’ already daunting task looks to be becoming increasingly difficult. And with the evident teething problems shown last November from Warren Gatland’s attempts to transition towards a more free-flowing brand of rugby, including far too many basic errors, Wales will need a sharp improvement to be able to challenge for a championship.
However, the brilliant attacking form of the Scarlets, the Welsh regional team who qualified for the country’s first Champions Cup Quarter-Final since 2012, can give some hope that Wales can play the attack-minded game needed to take on the likes of England and Ireland. But with that extensive injury list, it appears to be a long shot.
On the continent, the odds seem to be even longer. The old cliches about not knowing what France side will turn up can almost be discarded. Having failed to build a serious title challenge for several years now, the France that turns up most frequently is one playing conservative, ineffectual rugby that fails to provide the excitement that French teams of the past could provide.
Now, with off-field issues becoming a major distraction, headlined by a legal dispute between sacked coach Guy Noves and the French Rugby Federation, the problems holding back French success in the Six Nations seem to be growing larger by the day. On the positive side, the youth selected in the French squad, including fly-halves Anthony Belleau and Mathieu Jalibert, at least indicates some green shoots are emerging for the future, even if the old problems of a lack of consistency in selection remain.
Over in Italy, the prospects of a first win since 2015 seem fairly slim. Although their provincial teams, Benetton Treviso and Zebre, have enjoyed some impressive improvements this year, with the former already racking up more match points than they achieved in the whole of last year, an unfavourable fixture list that sees them have their most winnable games away from home means Conor O’Shea will likely have to wait another year to record his first Six Nations triumph. Although many pundits will call for their replacement in the tournament by Georgia, these improvements at club level suggest it will be worth allowing the Italians to stick around.
To sum up, England’s form over the past two years means they are still the favourites for another Six Nations title, but Eddie Jones can expect his toughest fight for it as England coach, with Ireland and Scotland set to provide stern tests of the defending champions.