As the tournament approaches Sheffield Vulcans resident rugby guru and unashamedly biased Scot, Innes MacLeod, casts his eye over the upcoming fixtures and predicts who will be lifting the trophy and what else we can expect from the tournament.
It has been 20 long years since Scotland last won this championship. Most of that time has been excruciating for Scotland fans such as myself, littered with wooden spoons and painfully dull rugby with only Chris Paterson’s boot preventing complete disaster.
There is no question now that Scotland are in the midst of a golden generation with new talents like Jones and McInally joining established the established greats like Hogg. Coach Gregor Townsend wants to play the fastest rugby in the world and many of the nations players are rising to that challenge. The question is which Scotland will turn up with many of its players as likely to cause anguish as inspire awe. This is epitomised by the mercurial fly half Finn Russell who is deservedly one of Europe’s most expensive players but who’s carefree play skirts on the edge of disaster at all times.
A catastrophic late run of injuries will dampen Scottish spirits as will a fixture list that includes a looming trip to Twickenham where Scottish rugby dreams go to die.
Greatest Strength: Finn Russell
Potential Weakness: Finn Russell
Predicted Finish: 4th
What a year 2018 was for Irish rugby. They dominated an incredibly competitive six nations taking home the grand slam and their third championship in 5 years. For most teams that would be the undoubted highlighted but more was to come with a stunning victory over the All Blacks in arguably the best international match of the year. It was only the second time they have ever bested Zealand and rightly had people talking them up as World Cup contenders.
They have incredible depth and talent, the try scoring machine that is Jacob Stockdale, the young prodigy Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong redefining what it means to be a quality prop, and of course world player of the year Johnny Sexton. Alongside all this Leinster are dominating the club game, taking their place as the best team in Europe if not the world. It’s hard to see any other result than a replay of last year.
Greatest Strength: They are just really, incredibly good at rugby
Potential Weakness: High expectations
Predicted Finish: Is it possible to finish higher than 1st?
Where did it all go wrong for Eddie Jones? The increasingly abrasive head coach had an unparalleled start to his England career with 18 straight victories, a grand slam and a 3-0 series win in Australia. Last year was not so stellar however with England dropping to 5th in the six nations, their worst result in decades.
With a world cup looming and little time for major adjustments England have decided to stick with Jones despite his growing grumpiness and ability to repel any assistant coach who gets close. The talent of the England squad with stars like Vunipola, Itoje and Farrell is however something that any team would be jealous of.
Many will be asking if they can they grind out wins, even when playing poorly, as they have in the past or will the ghosts of 2018 rear their ugly head? This Scotland fan certainly hopes so.
Greatest Strength: Enviable squad depth
Potential Weakness: Referees noticing that Owen Farrell doesn’t know how to tackle legally
Predicted Finish: 3rd
After 12 years Warren Gatland’s reign as head coach is coming to an end. His presence has defined an era of Welsh rugby with 3 Six Nations championships including 2 Grand Slams. The Wales squad will certainly be aiming to make his swan song a success and there is plenty of evidence they might just do that.
An unbeaten Autumn that saw victories over Australia and the Springboks is bound to bring confidence and before that securing the runners up spot in last year’s championship. In fact it was only a last minute Jacob Stockdale intercept that left Wales fans wondering what could have been. Injuries may be the teams undoing with key players Halfpenny and Faletau out of proceedings. There are still many in the squad capable of pleasing the Welsh crowds with Anscombe and Tipuric as one’s to watch. Everything could hinge on that final game against Ireland at home.
Greatest Strength: They’re can turn out a great team in spite of injuries
Potential Weakness: Still those are some quite big injuries
Predicted Finish: 2nd
In the last year France have been redefining what it means for a rugby team to be a bit all over the place. They came tantalisingly close to beating Ireland in their Six Nations opener and they would have if Johnny Sexton hadn’t knocked over one of the ballsiest drop goals of all time.
Their eventual 4th place finish would have definitely disappointed les bleus and further shock was to come with surprise defeat to Fiji in the Autumn. Much like England France has a wealth of choice when it comes to players as is only natural for a country with the richest league in Europe. The onfield talent is all too often let down by directionless coaching that leaves them looking more of a group of individuals than a team. Those individuals are capable of sparks of brilliance and they are definitely dangerous but it’s hard to see this being their year.
Greatest Strength: Trinh-Duc isn’t in the squad
Potential Weakness: Mathieu Bastareaud might get sent off for being a massive homophobe again
Predicted Finish: 5th
Poor old Italy have not had much luck in recent years. The Azzuri’s 2013 4th place finish, including a win over Ireland, seems a distant memory. Their recent form has been so poor it has led some to question their place in the tournament with upcoming nations like Georgia putting their head above the parapet. Italy’s victory over them in the Autumn (one of only two wins all year) should put that idea to bed for now but there is not many who wouldn’t predict a wooden spoon is on it’s way.
There are some glimmers of hope, Conor O’Shea is a smart coach as he demonstrated against England in 2017 with a game plan that forced world rugby to literally rewrite the rulebook. Benneton Treviso, from whom Italy draw the core of their squad, have had some good results in the pro14.
Ultimately this team lacks quality as highlighted by the selection of rugby pensioners Parisse and Ghiraldini. While Parisse is unquestionably the greatest Italian to ever play the game and arguably one of the greatest number 8’s of all time his age was on show last year with a less than stellar performance.
Greatest Strength: O’Shea might have another trick up his sleeve
Potential Weakness: Inability to sustain a performance over 80 minutes
Predicted Finish: 6th
What do you think? Agree with Innes’ assessment? Let us know your thoughts and feelings using #VulcansPredict on twitter and instagram or leaving a comment here or on facebook.
We’ll be at Walkabout – Sheffield, watching the Six Nations on Saturday 2nd February from 1:30pm. Come along and join the Vulcans as we cheer on our various nations in our favourite few weeks of the year.