Six Nations 2017 Preview
Last updated: January 30, 2017 by Leon Marshal
As the bleak winter months start to look just that bit brighter and spring appears, just ever so slightly on the horizon, the RBS Six Nations: rugby’s greatest championship, returns once again. The annual tournament, fuelled by age-old, bitter rivalries and intense passion and national pride is set to commence on the first weekend of February – this time featuring some new systematic changes designed to further advance the tournament as a universal spectacle.
For this year’s competition, the Six Nations council are trialling a new points system. Much like in the Aviva Premiership, teams will now be rewarded for winning games by scoring four tries or more in the process – as will losing teams that manage to score four or more tries. In addition, the more severe sanctions recently introduced for high tackles have forced teams and coaches to focus on lowering the height of the tackle area. While these changes have been met with varying criticism from players, coaches and fans alike, the former gives the competing unions a new added incentive to play a more ambitious, attacking style of rugby and the latter – as many pundits have commented – will allow the more skilful players, with their arms now free, more freedom to unleash their offloading games.
Structural changes are not the only developments that will determine the course of the 123rd edition of the competition. Under the trusted leadership of the ever shrewd, accomplished Eddie Jones, last year’s champions England – currently on a fourteen game winning streak after going through 2016 without a single loss – will be eager to hold on to their status as the second best team in the world while the home nations will all be vying hard to knock them off their newly found pedestal. France: mercurial, yet dazzling at times, must prove that their promising performances in the autumn were not short-lived if they are to reclaim a place in the top four, whilst Italy, still buoyed with optimism and belief after their historic victory over the Springboks in November, will be out to prove that they belong. There is, as ever, everything to play for in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
|Past Six Nations Champions|
England – The Team to Beat
For anyone that missed England’s transformation from a team devoid of all self-confidence and promise in the wake of their dire world cup malfunction on home soil, to a grand slam wining side, teeming with exuberance and purpose, it has been nothing short of mesmeric. In trademark Eddie Jones style, the new England coach has captured the headlines and caused quite the stir in the rugby world over the last eighteen months whilst catapulting the English side back to where he believes they belong. The upcoming Six Nations will, however, be his toughest challenge yet.
After a clean sweep in the autumn series with hard-fought victories over Argentina, Fiji and the Springboks, (not to mention a follow-up fourth consecutive victory over the Wallabies after the historic 3-0 whitewash earlier in June) Jones faces a number of injury worries in the pack, which may halt the red and white locomotive. The Vunipola brothers, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell, Joe Marler and Jack Clifford are all ruled out of England’s opening game against France. George Kruis and captain Dylan Hartley have both been declared fit for selection, however injuries and suspensions have meant that neither player has had sufficient game time in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
England maintain their cadre in the backline with Brown, Ford, Farrell, Joseph and Nowell all included in the fold, while Anthony Watson, prolific on the wing, makes his return after recovering from a jaw injury. Still, the gaps left in the absence of many of England’s first choice players, particularly at loose head and in the back row mean that Jones has little room for error as he rebuilds his pack and prepares for the first test against the French, at Twickenham, on June 4th. A successful title defence is of course a great feat, yet very doable for this rejuvenated England side with their eyes firmly fixed on overtaking the All Blacks as world number 1.
Wales Look to the Future
It is no secret that Welsh rugby has long been in need of a makeover. The old bruising style of wearing teams down through abrasive defence and squeezing out points with the boot was becoming increasingly predictable and wasn’t, shall we say, the most stellar advert for the sport. Rob Howley, the stand-in coach for Warren Gatland currently on sabbatical in preparation for the upcoming Lion’s tour to New Zealand, has selected a squad that not only keeps in line with the Welsh desire to play a more adventurous brand of rugby, but also holds great promise for the future.
Howley has made a well-judged call in charging Alan Wynn Jones with the responsibility of captaining the Welsh in this year’s tournament. At 31 years of age and 105 caps to his name, the Welsh veteran’s outstanding form for his club this season has proved that he still has plenty more to give. With the help of Justin Tipuric, Jones has been at the helm of Osprey’s impressive run of form both in the Challenge Cup and the Pro 12. In having captained the Welsh side on five different occasions in the past, he is a player of vast experience and resolve who leads by example and brings out the best of those around him. On countless occasions for club and country he’s come up the key involvements that put his side back on the front foot and sap the energy and confidence of the opposition. He will, no doubt, reproduce the same kind of impetus in the Wales Jersey.
This shift in leadership will also allow Sam Warbuton, who steps down after six years of valiant service, to focus on his own game and recapture that extra spark that has long been absent. Dan Lydiate will miss the tournament due to injury, however the form of Tipuric and Ross Moriarty over the last 12 months – not to mention the unequivocally world-class Toby Faletau – provide stiff competition and renewed motivation for Warbuton to play for his place in the back row. Seven uncapped players including Thomas Young, Ashton Hewitt and Olly Cracknell look set to invigorate the side and add a new dynamism as they join with some of the more household names in Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and George North. It’s a well-balanced side with plenty of experience and plenty of promise that speaks volumes of the Welsh desire to play more open, expansive rugby as they go in search of their first Six Nations title since 2013.
Ireland – The Main Challengers
Both at international and club level, Ireland have played a crucial role in closing the gulf in class between the Northern and Southern hemisphere in recent months. Coach John Schmidt, now in the final year of his contract with the IRFU, was instrumental in progressing provincial rugby during his time at Leinster; led Ireland to back-to-back six nations championships in 2013 and 2014, and then, after an outstanding autumn test series, became the first coach to register wins against the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia since Clive Woodward with England in 2003. Another six nations title after finishing last year’s tournament in third place would be, it seems, the perfect send off.
Ireland are now officially the fourth best team in the world and, behind England, the second best team in the northern hemisphere. They’ve made great strides in the last eight months; a historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago in early November showed the world that on their day, they have the ability to play with enough precision, physicality and discipline to outgun any opponent. They followed up with a narrow, hard fought victory over the Wallabies in Dublin some weeks later, showing exactly the kind of grit and determination worthy of a championship winning side. Cast your mind back even further to last June where Ireland just fell short of a historic series victory over the Springboks in their summer to South Africa and again, we see the signs of a team on the rise.
Schmidt has chosen a squad full with seasoned test players in the likes of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton – two mainstays in the Irish side over the last five seasons – Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearny and captain Rory Best. As ever, there’s a strong contingent of players from Leinster and Munster, whose recent dominance in the European Cup will surely bring a sense of confidence, as well as a winning mentality to the Irish camp. There’s more than enough talent and know-how in the squad to push England all the way to what many are building up as the tournament decider in Dublin on 18th March. For now, however, they must set their sights firmly on the tournament opener in Dublin for will certainly be a bruising encounter against the Scottish at Murrayfield.
Scotland Must Assert Dominance
Scotland, it seems, are on the brink of a real turning point in their rugby history. In seasons passed they’ve shown great promise, but always seem to fall short where it really matters. Last season, galvanised by their heroic performances in the 2015 World Cup, they managed to finish above France and Ireland and claim fourth spot. In what is head coach Vern Cotter’s last year in the job, Scotland will be surely be fighting hard to make 2017 the year where they establish themselves as real tournament contenders.
Too often, Scotland have been the nearly team in world rugby. In the last world cup they produced what was undoubtedly one of the best Scottish performances in the history of the union in the quarterfinal against the Wallabies, only to fall short – not without the help of some dubious referring on the part of Craig Joubert – in the dying stages of the game. In what was built up as the rematch of the epic game some 14 months prior Scotland, again, had their visitors on the ropes and produced some fantastic periods of play, only to let it slip away in the last 15 minutes before finally going down at the end by a single point. Still, Scotland can take great hope from their performances as they prepare to give Cotter a fitting farewell. Despite failing to take revenge against their new foes from down under, they bounced back and battled hard to snatch victory from Argentina the week after showing great spirit and resolve.
This year they have three home fixtures against Ireland, Italy and Wales and, despite some unfortunate injuries, most noticeably to David Denton, Peter Horne and tight head props Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland, the inclusion of key names such as Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Taylor, Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar – undoubtedly some of the most talented centres Scotland have ever produced – prove that they pose a real attacking threat in the backline. When you factor in the recent achievements of the Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh in the European club tournaments, Scotland’s chances of success in this time round seem a lot more likely.
France – Searching For Consistency
France, as ever, are in need of consistency and cohesion. After just sneaking past Italy and Ireland in their first two games in last year’s tournament they eventually crumbled and only managed a fifth-place finish. This year, coach Guy Novès has been optimistic about his side’s extensive preparation going into the tournament: “We’re on the right path. We can feel that the team is progressing, everyone can feel it,” he revealed at the official Six Nations launch in London earlier this week. However mounting injuries in key positions in the last week has now given the ex-Toulouse man plenty to ponder as he goes in search of France’s first win in seven years.
Despite finishing 2016 with a 40% win average, France managed to remedy their poor showing in last year’s Six Nations tournament. They went on to challenge both the All Blacks and the Wallabies in their autumn tests and managed a great result against Argentina earlier in the summer despite travelling with a heavily depleted squad. Continuity has long been the main problem for Les Bleus; they are majestic and almost unplayable on their day yet, as last year’s tournament proved, they have the tendency to crash and burn. In search of stability, Novès has opted for solidarity over invention by only including four uncapped players whilst retaining the core of Louis Picamoles, Rabah Slimani, Maxime Machenaud and Scott Spedding – promising newcomer Kevin Gourdon has also been named and will no doubt continue to contribute to the back row. However, recent injuries to Camille Chat, Raphaël Lakafia, prop Eddy Ben Arous and, the one that will be most felt, to Clermont centre Wesley Fofana.
If they are to improve on last year France must build on their encouraging performances against the All Blacks and the Wallabies and focus on being more clinical and capitalizing on their line breaks. They must cast their injury worries aside and target their away games in Ireland and Italy, as well as against defending champions England on the opening weekend at Twickenham in what could prove to be their tournament-defining fixture.
Italy Must Prove Themselves
Since joining the tournament back in 2000, Italy have managed to avoid taking home the wooden spoon on just five occasions. Last year they showed great spirit against France in their opening games despite losing 23-21, only to be well beaten in their remaining four fixtures – each by a minimum of ten points. As the sport continues to grow and tier two nations – most noticeably Georgia and Romania – continue to put forward valid cases for involvement in the Six Nations, Italy are under increasing pressure to show that they are not just there to make up the numbers.
Since taking over from Jacques Brunel in June of last year Conor O’Shea has enjoyed a successful period with the Italians. His first summer tour with the Azzurri saw them push Argentina close with a narrow defeat, 30-24, before edging past the United States and Canada. They then recorded their first historic victory against, albeit, a struggling Springboks side by combining their characteristic passion and determination with a renewed accuracy at the crucial moments in the game.
In O’Shea Italy have a coach that knows the home nations inside out. They too have an abundance of talent and experience in the squad with the likes of Campgnaro at centre, Edoardo Gori at scrum half, Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan – two in-form fly halves and the ever-industrious captain Sergio Parisse. They have the chance to lay down in a marker and get off to a fast start with two games at home in the opening rounds. If they can grind out results against Wales and Ireland and build some momentum then they will have everything to play for. If not then it may be yet another bottom-place finish for the Italians, which will surely spark further debate around their future in the competition.
Naming a winner for this year’s tournament is perhaps harder than ever. England’s outstanding year has led to the bookies tipping them as slight favourites, however extensive injuries to the pack, as well as mounting pressure from Ireland who are not far behind in terms of confidence and results mean there’s very little to call between the two sides. Reshuffles in the Welsh camp along with the growing confidence in Fern Cotter’s men also provides stern competition from the remaining home nations whilst France and Italy, both with points to prove and new changes of their own, are more than capable of upsetting the balance. As always, it will be an explosive, emotional seven weeks of rugby. Expect drama, zeal and uncompromising determination in abundance as the premier European nations struggle to assert their own dominance in what is shaping up to be the greatest tournament to date. How will it all unfold? Check our prediction table below.
|Predicted 2017 Final Table Standing|