This year, February will bring us some of our favourite things: Valentine’s Day, pancakes and Six Nations rugby. Let’s have a look at what the 2021 edition of the tournament has in store for England, France and Ireland.
As winners of the Autumn Nations cup and Six Nations holders, England go into the tournament as hot favourites
Since Eddie Jones took the reins as head coach in 2015, England have won three out of five Six Nations titles. After being bullied up front by South Africa in the 2019 World Cup Final, Jones has adopted a more pragmatic approach, based around kicking for territory and a dominant pack of forwards. Turgid? Yes. Effective? Also yes. As winners of the Autumn Nations cup and Six Nations holders, England go into the tournament as hot favourites. They would do well to hold off an improving French outfit, though.
Player to Watch: Billy Vunipola – When fit, Vunipola has been one of the first names in Jones’ Starting XV. The back-rower has a knack for getting England over the gain-line with his powerful carries. However, after Saracens were relegated for breaking salary cap regulations, Vunipola has seen no game time this term. This, coupled with Sam Simmonds’ blistering form for the Exeter Chiefs, means that Vunipola’s place is under pressure for the first time in his England career. It will be fascinating to see how he reacts.
Breakthrough Star: Beno Obano – Bath prop, Maro Itoje’s cousin, Sinny the rapper: Obano has many aliases. Chronic back issues saw Obano released from Wasps Academy by the age of 20, but his hard work has seen him become a fixture in the first team at The Rec. He is destructive in the loose and his scrummaging has come on leaps and bounds. Following Dan Cole’s retirement, he is an emerging talent in this new generation of English front-rowers.
If the French combine their mercurial attacking talents, sound basics and effective strategy, they will be a force to be reckoned with in this Six Nations and beyond
Just before the Autumn Nations Cup Final against England, French club sides triggered a contractual clause to recall of France’s star players from international duty. This left France with a B-team for the tournament’s showpiece event. Pundits predicted them to be thrashed, yet, when the full-time whistle blew at Twickenham, Les Bleus could feel aggrieved by a three-point, extra-time defeat. The team that day was largely comprised of winners of the last two U20 World Cups, and popular coach Fabien Galthié is expected to blood more youngsters this Six Nations – all three of their fly-halves are under 21. If the French combine their mercurial attacking talents, sound basics and effective strategy, they will be a force to be reckoned with in this Six Nations and beyond.
Player to Watch: Antoine Dupont – Crowned last Six Nations’ Player of the Tournament, this little general is on the cusp of superstardom. The no.9 plies his trade at Toulouse, where he has formed an impressive partnership with international teammate Romain Ntamack. Dupont is the epitome of the modern scrum-half: an aggressive defender, great box kicker and instinctive playmaker. What sets Dupont apart is his decision-making, as he expertly marshals the hefty French pack around the field. Defences will need to watch out for his sniping runs.
Breakthrough Star: Arthur Vincent – One of the starlets from the recent U20 World Cup triumphs was centre Arthur Vincent, who will start against Italy in the place of the injured Virimi Vakatawa. Vincent made his debut in the Top 14 at just 18 and has not looked back. Montpellier man will provide a vital link between the fly-half and pacey backs outside him. His biggest strength is his balanced running style – he runs with the ball in two hands, can play crashball or make piercing line breaks. Like many others in this French side, his potential is immense.
Ireland’s success this tournament will depend on the half-back axis of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton
In 2018, Ireland reached new heights. Joe Schmidt’s accurate and aggressive kick-and-chase game plan had beaten the All Blacks for the first time and Grand Slam champions. Ireland were named 2018 World Rugby Team of the Year as Schmidt claimed World Rugby Coach of the Year. Then, the wheels came off. Ireland were dumped out of the Rugby World Cup in Japan and Schmidt left. Ex-England defence coach Andy Farrell stepped into the role. Ireland’s success this tournament will depend on the half-back axis of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. Will they rekindle their former glories this year?
Player to Watch: James Ryan – It is a sign of James Ryan’s prodigious talent that he made his debut for his country before his club, and a try-scoring debut at that. The 6”8 second row is a set-piece guru and calls line-outs. Ryan is also surprisingly mobile in open play. At the age of 24, the Dublin native already has 32 international caps to his name. A strong turnout in the Six Nations could see him push for a starting berth for the upcoming Lions tour against the Springboks – whenever that may be.
Breakthrough Star: James Lowe – Lowe has been a sensation since joining Leinster from the Waikato Chiefs. The winger has produced the same consistent form that saw him play for the New Zealand M?ori. Lowe is confident under the high ball and a supreme finisher. After qualifying for Ireland on residency grounds, Lowe will be hoping that his strong form will translate onto the international stage.
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