SIX NATIONS | SPORTS PREVIEW
Campbell Prosser looks at the lay of the land before the enormous battles of this year’s Six Nations.
Like a fine wine, the Six Nations seems to only improve with age, with each team growing in squad depth, technical ability, skill and literal physical size. For the first time ever, the RBS Six Nations is going to be awarding bonus points for sides that score four or more tries, or if a side loses by seven or less. This is seen to be a promising alteration to the Six Nations, in an attempt to promote expansive play and try scoring. It won’t just be the Welsh players that will be on the lookout for Gatland’s all-seeing eye n the stands during this year’s competition. Many players will be looking to impress the British and Irish Lions coaching staff with their performances, while still hoping to get their hands on some of the ever-coveted Six Nations silverware.
World Rank: 8
Opening fixture: England, Sat 4 Feb
French rugby: once the proud rooster combining robust brutality with technical panache, and now a tired cockerel with a similar sense of lack of intent as Wales. It’s no secret that fitness has been the hubris of les Bleus. After the autumn internationals, French coach Novès made it clear that conditioning was one of their top priorities in the months prior to their first test match against England. This first fielding will be the true test of the current state of French rugby, going up against the favourite to clinch the Grand Slam. France had close calls in the autumn internationals with Australia and New Zealand, in which they put in hopeful performances but failed to finish on vital opportunities. Novès has also highlighted this as a particular issue for the side’s performance, and will look to players like Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana; players that definitely know where the try line is but desperately need the platform to jump off, from a consistent pair of halfbacks. Allez les Bleus.
World Rank: 4
Opening fixture: Scotland, Sat 4 Feb
England’s real competition for this year’s trophy, and a potential obstacle in their Grand Slam ambitions, Ireland had a superb running in the autumn international series, having defeated the mighty All Blacks after 111 years of not once beating a single New Zealand side. Ireland also accomplished victory over the Wallabies in the autumn, placing them in a great position going into this year’s Six Nations campaign. Ireland have one the most technically gifted halfback pairings in the world in Connor Murray and Jonathon Sexton. Many pundits consider Murray to be the number one contender for the number nine jersey for the Lions tour, with England’s Ben Youngs in relatively close contention. The Ireland squad is solid over nearly all of the park and they have arguably been the most consistent team over the last five years.
World Rank: 5
Opening fixture: Italy, Sun 5 Feb
Since the 2012 Six Nations, Welsh rugby has seemed to be slowly falling into a state of stagnation, the recent autumn international series being testament to this view. Wales has one of the oldest squads in the tournament and the team is crying out for a spark of youth and creativity, especially when the most creative player on the squad plays in the back-row. Nevertheless, Welsh rugby stalwarts still offer a sense of reliability and structure that the team often relies on. It seems that the side has set their sights on every Six Nations since 2012, expecting another glorious victory over England. Considering the strength of both England and Ireland going into this Six Nations, reality suggests that Wales will struggle to achieve any form of miraculous victory. However, hope remains in Welsh hearts and on the shoulders of players like Alun Wyn Jones, Liam Williams and Justin Tipuric.
World Rank: 13
Opening fixture: Wales, Sun 5 Feb
The 33-year-old rugby union superstar Sergio Parisse will be leading his squad into his 14th Six Nations this February. The side will be hoping to improve on previous performances in the tournament, continuously attempting to reduce the deficit between themselves and the home nations. Last year’s Six Nations saw the side suffer a narrow defeat to their continental cousins, France. In addition, for the first time since Italian rugby union began, the side defeated the Springboks in the autumn internationals; a memorable moment for any Italian rugby fanatic, even though it was a wounded Springbok side. For so many years, the Italian scrum was a force to be reckoned with in the old days of high velocity impact play. In the modern game, sadly this method of scrummaging is outdated and many experts in this field have been made redundant. Possibly one of the most exciting features in the Italian squad is the centre dynamic in Gonzalo Garcia (at inside) and Michele Campagnaro (at outside). In their opening game against Wales, this dynamic will give the Italians the go-forward and creativity they need to put points on the board (but not too many).
World Rank: 2
Opening fixture: France, Sat 4 Feb
England are both the bookmakers and the critics’ favourite to outright win the Six Nations and potentially the Grand Slam, again. Under Eddie Jones’ regime, England seem to have a new lease of life. The squad has a seemingly perfect blend of youth and experience, along with an incredible strength in depth. Last year we saw England go on to achieve an unbeaten record at the end of 2016 under the reign of Eddie Jones and Dylan Hartley. Although questions continue to be asked of Hartley’s ability as a leader and his discipline on the field, England have been performing superbly as a unit with standout performances from England’s halfback Ben Youngs during the autumn series. Eddie Jones has had his sights set on the 2019 World Cup (held in the emerging rugby nation Japan) since he took on the role in 2015. English rugby seems to have a mind set for progression, especially concerning the Southern Hemisphere teams, an attitude that all home nations should attempt to emulate.
World Rank: 7
Opening fixture: Ireland, Sat 4 Feb
Potentially the dark horse of the competition, this year Scotland will be making an effort to prove themselves a real contender in the Six Nations. Scotland’s last great victory was in 1999 when they took home the Five Nations trophy, and the Scots have yet to win the Six Nations title since Italy joined at the turn of the new millennium. The side has many young prospects that the coaching staff will hope to build upon for the future, and they recently had a very close shave with Australia, only being beaten by a point in the autumn internationals. Some of the strongest players for Scotland are in the back three, with arguably one of the best fullbacks in the world in Stuart Hogg, alongside the expert Kiwi finisher Sean Maitland and Scotland’s ‘Flying Dutchman’, Tim Visser. The squad has some great qualities, including their recently improved abilities in open play and Greig Laidlaw’s deft right peg keeping the points ticking over. Scotland will be hosting the opening fixture of the 2017 Six Nations at Murrayfield against Ireland.
Italy v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Sun 5 Feb; Wales v England, Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Sat 11 Feb; Scotland v Wales, BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Sat 25 Feb; Wales v Ireland, Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Fri 10 Mar; France v Wales, Stade de France, Paris, Sat 18 Mar. Tickets: sold out. Info: www.rbs6nations.com