It’s finally here. It’s finally time to fill that big Tokyo shaped hole in your heart with 8 weeks of everyone’s favourite annual sporting occasion. On Saturday the Six Nations is here, and it might be the tightest to call for some time.
While that might be an almost unbearable cliche, any tournament following a World Cup inevitably bears the scars of the highs and lows experienced by its competitors within those tumultuous 6 weeks, and I see this year being no exception.
There was disappointment, elation, frustration and heartbreak to spare over the course of Japan’s inaugural World Cup, with the varying fortunes of the Six Nations’ competing members potentially proving vital in predicting the outcome of this year’s tournament. But in the 3 months since Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis trophy, what have we learned about each team and how can we use this to determine their fortunes this time around? Let’s have some fun getting this completely wrong, here we go.
Was it going to be anyone else? Italy will be entering a Six Nations for the first time in a considerable period without talisman Sergio Parisse leading the side into battle. A fact that will do the Azzuri no favours. They had a respectable World Cup and have some talent coming through the ranks, but the reality is that they have done little to justify their inclusion in the set up for some time now. After Japan’s RWC heroics and Georgia’s rapid development, you wonder how long the Italian’s automatic inclusion will endure in the Six Nations, but for now it’s hard to look past another wooden spoon performance.
I drafted this post a week ago where I outlined how Scotland’s fortunes could very much rely on the quality and speed of possession they are able to give Finn Russell over the course of the tournament, and if he was firing on all cylinders then they could be due a resurgent performance. That thought was short lived. With Finn Russell managing to ‘Finn Russell’ the absolute s**t out of this situation, they find themselves heading into the tournament short of their most important player, and with it their realistic chances of a title challenge.
However, I don’t think their chances were overwhelmingly strong even with his inclusion. The World Cup was a good example of how their pack is lacking the depth of elite standard quality to be able to dominate the gain-line and breakdown areas effectively enough to consistently compete with other Tier 1 nations. While their backline boasts an array of talent (Hogg, Jones, Maitland to name a few), if they are not fed regular, quick ball, then their opportunities to impact matches will be significantly reduced. Jonny Gray, WP Nell and Hamish Watson remain classy operators, but their ability to contain and overpower their tournament counterparts remains to be seen and this will determine their pending status as a competitive outfit at current and future tournaments.
At this stage in time, I can’t see Townsend’s men embarrassing themselves by any means, but I also struggle to see them replicating the same success as they have enjoyed in recent Six Nations.
Ireland peaked two years ago, didn’t they. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still a good side and Joe Schmitt has left the team in a far better place than how he found it 6 years ago. Nevertheless; the relentlessness, stubbornness and sheer s**thousery of the two-time All Black slayers doesn’t seem to have lingered with the longevity many would have hoped.
That being said, they are still full to the brim with international quality. Probable captain-in-waiting James Ryan is developing into one of the world’s best second rows, while Tadgh Furlong, Peter O’Mahoney, Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray all remain among the finest in their respective positions that the Northern Hemisphere has to offer. Sexton is an interesting choice from Andy Farrell as the new skipper, as aged 34 he is entering what you imagine will be his international career’s twilight years. Which brings us to the crux of Ireland’s biggest issue, they are in somewhat of a transition phase with many of their best players moving slightly past their primes and a potential lack of up-and-comers banging the door down to replace them. With this brings experience, however I find it hard to see them posing the same threat that they did as recently as 2018, and a 4th place finish seems a fair assessment of their current fortunes after a disappointing World Cup and head coach departure.
Tirst big call. I think England are in for a disappointing tournament. That night against South Africa is one those players will have on their minds for a very long time, and its effect might lead them to underperforming this time around. After being the strongest team in the tournament all the way up to the final (including a legendary win against New Zealand), they were beaten so emphatically at the last hurdle that some of them still won’t have got their heads around it, and some might not ever properly recover.
The talent is obviously still present, with the core of the World Cup squad fit for the Six Nations. However, there are some selection head scratchers. Sticking with Youngs and Heinz as the solo scrum half options seems an increasingly strange choice; with neither of them likely to see another World Cup or even having an exceptional tournament the last time out, surely now is the time to blood some prospects into the first team? But perhaps even more concerning is that they appear to be heading to the tournament without a recognised No. 8. Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds of Harlequins and Exeter respectively will be wondering what they have to do in order to warrant a call up, as even with the competition ending injury to Billy Vunipola they can’t get in the squad. Presuming the squad stays as it is, a natural flanker will have to convert into a make shift 8 for the duration. A positional head scratcher, lack of quality at scrum half and a World Cup hangover will see them underperform this time around.
Or they’ll go out and win a Grand Slam, such is the nature of predictions.
Wales will have a good tournament. Their best players are mostly fit, they have an established winning mentality, and even with the departure of long-time coach Warren Gatland I can’t see a dramatic change in their style or fortunes. Boasting leaders like Alun-Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Justing Tipuric up front and a backline oozing with the class of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Josh Adams, it’s hard to see them taking a step backwards. They remain vulnerable to injuries in key positions and this is why I think they might just get pipped to the title this year, but would also be very unsurprised if they win it again. The safe bet, but not my pick for winners this year.
Have I gone mad? Maybe, but hear me out. France are sleeping giants, and I’ve got a feeling their dominance could be returning. Fabien Galthie was drafted in as assistant coach to Jacques Brunel last year, and already in the World Cup we saw a massively improved team with a fast, direct, offloading identity that was reminiscent of the flair and talent French sides were once renowned for. Now Galthie is head coach with Shaun Edwards (mastermind of Wales’ Grand Slam winning defense last year) as his assistant, a combination which could see the abundant talent in this team finally allowed to reach its potential. With the flair of Antone Dupoint, power of Virimi Vakatawa and class of Gael Fickou, France have a world beating back line behind a monstrous pack capable of dismantling most opposition forwards in World Rugby. Fitness and decision making has been a nagging concern for some time, but Galthie’s Top 14 record shows he is no mug when it comes to results and I believe he could be the man to get this French team to the heights their player base should be achieving.
Or they’ll get pumped like normal and I’ll look like a tit… but what’s life without a little gamble.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. What does your final table look like? Who are the the surprise package of this Six Nations? Who’s gonna laugh at me after all my predictions look stupid after the opening weekend?