It’s that time of year again when European and domestic rugby goes out the window and the frenzy of the Six Nations descends.
With a Rugby World Cup just months away, there is added importance to a tournament that is already packed to the brim with fierce rivalries and competitive contests, and we’ve put together our preview of what to expect over the next two months.
England enter the 2015 Six Nations on the back of a disappointing set of autumn internationals, but with a home World Cup looming large on the horizon, those travails will be cleared from their consciousness as they attempt to find their best form ahead of rugby’s showpiece event. Injuries have robbed Stuart Lancaster of three of his best players in Joe Launchbury, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes, but with England boasting a depth that they’ve arguably not had since the halcyon days of 2003, there will be no excuses offered if those in the Red Rose cannot get the job done.
Away trips to Cardiff and Dublin beckon for England, both of which will prove to be extremely testing, but if they can pick up one win from those two games and maintain a 100% record at Twickenham, then their hat will certainly be in the ring. England’s tight five will be as formidable as ever and if George Ford can spark the back line, then Lancaster’s men will be in a very good position.
Key Player – Billy Vunipola
With Ben Morgan out until at least the RWC, the burden of providing England with front foot ball falls back onto the shoulders of Vunipola. The behemoth has been in sparkling form for Saracens, not least so in their dismantling of Munster, as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing end to 2014. The veteran Nick Easter is breathing down his neck for another crack with England, so Vunipola needs to translate his club form onto the international stage quickly and if he does, the England back line could feast off of his line breaks and offloads.
One to Watch – Anthony Watson
Despite perhaps being better utilised at full-back, Watson showed glimpses on the wing of his talent in the autumn and will be keen to kick on next month and leave his mark on the Six Nations. Alongside May, England have pace to burn on the wings and providing they can get the ball to their outside backs in space, they should do damage to whoever they come up against.
Prediction – 1st
It’s a struggle to see a Grand Slam for anyone this year, but home games against Italy, Scotland and France could help England to a points difference advantage over Ireland and/or Wales.
Predicting French performances is less analysis, more crystal ball-gazing, but there’s no doubt they have picked a strong squad and one that seems to be more heavily influenced by form, rather than reputation. A consistent and skilled fly-half seems to have been found in Camille Lopez, whilst Fijian-born winger Noa Nakaitaci adds to threat of France out wide.
With just Scotland and Wales visiting Paris this year, the schedule has not been kind to France, who often struggle to reach their heights on the road. To be in contention for the title, France will probably need to win one of their trips to Dublin or Twickenham and that’s difficult to see as things stand now. Les Bleus open up against Scotland at home and if they can generate momentum with a comprehensive victory in Paris, then their campaign could get off to the fast start it almost certainly needs.
Key Player – Thierry Dusautoir
No nation in World Rugby’s top ten relies on their captain as much as France rely on Dusautoir. When France play well, Dusautoir leads from the front, dominating at the breakdown and providing quick ball for their mercurial back line. In addition, when France struggles, he puts in a tireless shift in defence, keeping his side in tight games and allowing them a shot at winning late on, as England learned to their misfortune last year.
One to Watch – Teddy Thomas
Thomas burst onto the international scene in the autumn, scoring four tries in his first two appearances for the French national side and will be keen to cement his place in the XV, especially after he was controversially left out of France’s third game in the autumn. A deadly finisher, Thomas should be amongst the players competing for top try scorer at the competition.
Prediction – 4th
It looks as though some much-needed consistency has been brought to French rugby, but with a tough schedule and a potential banana skin against Scotland to open up, it would not be a surprise to see France retain last year’s position of fourth this time round.
The returning trio of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson should prove to be a big fillip for Ireland, who are coming off the back of a very successful autumn that saw them chalk up wins against both South Africa and Australia. All three will be lacking match fitness but even if they are relegated to roles from the bench to start the tournament, they should have a significant impact on helping Ireland maintain their upward trend ahead of the RWC.
Home games against England and France will be warmly greeted by Irish fans, but they may need to take maximum points from both games and their visit to Rome in Round 1, as they finish the tournament with trips to Cardiff and Edinburgh and taking momentum into those away fixtures will be pivotal in their bid to retain their Six Nations title. Fly-half Jonathan Sexton will miss Ireland’s opener against Italy, but his performance in his potential return match (France in Dublin, Round 2) could be decisive in how successful Ireland can be over the next two months.
Key Player – Conor Murray
Paul O’Connell will obviously be extremely important to Ireland, but without Sexton for at least their first game, Joe Schmidt will rely on Murray to take on extra responsibility and ensure they are playing their rugby in the right areas of the pitch. The scrum-half is as good as, if not better, than anyone in his position in the northern hemisphere and his direction and nous will be critical to maximise the effectiveness of both the Irish pack and back line.
One to Watch – Robbie Henshaw
The full-back-turned-centre had a good autumn and will be looking to nail down a starting spot in the Irish XV, whether that is at 12 or 13. Schmidt’s plans for Jared Payne and/or Ian Madigan will likely dictate where Henshaw plays most of his rugby over the next two months but having impressed at both centre spots, not to mention in his natural position of full-back, Henshaw will be well worth keeping an eye.
Prediction – 2nd
If Ireland had the trio of Healy, O’Brien and Henderson coming into the tournament with a month’s rugby under their belts, as well as a fully-fit and firing Sexton, they would surely be favourites, but it’s conceivable they slip to second this year. Their game with England in Dublin could be a Six Nations decider.
For the first time in a number of years, Italy feel like the unanimous choice for the Wooden Spoon, thanks in large part to the impressive autumn Scotland enjoyed. The two nations have become accustomed to duelling it out to avoid the ignominy of a sixth-place finish, but there seems to be a perceivable gulf between the two teams at present.
It’s a horrid schedule for Italy, who face a tough task getting anything out of their game with England at Twickenham, whilst their game with Scotland, that so often decides who finishes bottom of the table, is at Murrayfield. The Azzurri’s biggest positive comes in the form of a game with France at Stadio Olimpico, who they have two victories over in the last four years.
Key Player – Sergio Parisse
As was said previously with Dusautoir, Parisse is vital to Italy on a level which few other players can match in world rugby. He frequently leads Italy in carries, tackles and metres made, whilst his impact as a leader is clear for all to see, not least so in those two aforementioned victories over France. The talismanic captain had a relatively quiet tournament in 2014, but if Italy are to have any chance of moving off the foot of the table, they will need Parisse to be at his very best.
One to Watch – Kelly Haimona
The Tommaso Allan experiment seemed to end in the autumn, as the Azzurri turned their attentions to Haimona, with the New Zealand-born fly-half assuming a mantle that has been frequently on the move ever since the days of Diego Domínguez. Haimona will have to deal with a lot of slow and back foot ball, but Italy need to a consistent fly-half and this will be as good a test of Haimona as they will have ahead of the RWC.
Prediction – 6th
Had Italy’s game with Scotland been in Rome, then this would be a harder decision, but it’s a struggle to see this Italian side winning in Murrayfield. The home match against France will be fierce and could be Italy’s best chance of picking up a win this year.
Scotland are certainly on the up after an impressive autumn and instead of fixating on their match with Italy, this year journalists up and down the country will be predicting whether or not they can push further up the table than the fifth position they found themselves in last year. The Scottish back line is finally scoring tries and is arguably more cohesive than either of the units England or Ireland have at their disposal, both of whom are still trying to find their best combinations.
An opener in Paris could go one of two ways for Scotland. On one hand they meet a fired up French side and take a shellacking, or they could catch the French cold and pick up a huge, momentum-generating victory. Home games against Wales and Italy beckon after their trip to France and it’s certainly conceivable that Scotland can get off to a fast start this year.
Key Player – Jonny Gray
The younger Gray brother was imperious in the autumn, not to mention in excellent form for Glasgow more recently, and is surely now one of the first names on Scotland’s team sheet, despite their considerable depth in the engine room. Gray is the prototypical modern lock who can do everything well and to think that he’s just 20 years of age is astonishing. The influence of the young lock at the set-piece and in the loose could be the difference between another fifth-place finish and a move up the Six Nations table.
One to Watch – Mark Bennett
Like Gray, Bennett was extremely impressive for Scotland in November and his return from a hamstring injury will be a big fillip ahead of Scotland’s opening game against France. The centre was a key component in making the Scottish back line look cohesive and dangerous in the autumn and he’ll need to be playing at a similarly high level if he is to help Scotland unlock the tough defences of the Six Nations.
Prediction – 5th
Although fifth wouldn’t be an improvement on Scotland’s final position from last year, they should be much more competitive with the likes of Ireland, England and Wales and with a highly-talented and youthful core, this Six Nations could be a big stepping stone towards future success.
Wales’ 2015 Six Nations campaign feels just as hard to call as France’s, but one thing that’s beyond question is the challenge Warren Gatland’s men will pose at Cardiff, where they meet arguably their two biggest rivals, England and Ireland. Winning both of those games will be a must for an expectant Welsh public, but with both games sandwiched either side of a trip to Paris to take on France, Wales will have to contest with a very challenging run of games.
Samson Lee has been in revelation in the front row, not only replacing Adam Jones, but negating any need for him in the squad, but the duo of Paul James and Gethin Jenkins have struggled for consistent form this season and make the Welsh scrum look vulnerable for the first time in years. The back line, who were tagged as ‘world beaters’ not long ago, will need to improve on their form from the autumn, but if they can click, are more than capable of taking oppositions apart.
Key Player – Alun Wyn Jones
Jones never seems to get the credit he deserves on a global scale. The Ospreys lock might not be as physically gifted as the new breed of colossal, super-athletic second rows, but his contribution to the set-piece is immense, as is his work rate in the loose. Sam Warburton may be the captain, but Jones provides Wales with a second leader on the pitch, who, importantly, leads by example. His form, and that of the Welsh set-piece, could be a decisive factor in Wales’ two home games against England and Ireland.
One to Watch – Gareth Anscombe
He may well end up playing second fiddle to Dan Biggar, but his ability to cover fly-half and full-back well should be enough to see him make appearances from the Welsh bench. Regardless of whether or not you’re in favour of Anscombe representing Wales after arriving in the country such a short time ago, he is a player with considerable talent. His performances at full-back for the Chiefs rarely fell short of excellent and although his record at fly-half isn’t quite as illustrious, he is a certainly a nice addition to the Welsh squad.
Prediction – 3rd
Teams have been able to negate the power game of Wales over the last year and whilst they will still be in the mix, a scrum which could creak against France and England could ultimately prove costly, particularly if Lee shows any signs of rust from his recent injury.