By James Beringer
Ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, James Beringer takes a look at each side.
There is clearly only one goal for England this year, and that is the Grand Slam. Five victories would see England’s winning run extend to 19 matches, beating the current tier run record of 18 set by the All Blacks last year (although Cyprus’ record of 24 straight wins isn’t in danger anytime soon). This is obviously easier said than done, and with away matches against Wales and Ireland, the task becomes even more daunting. While last year, England won the title based on their status as the ‘least bad’ amongst the six teams that were suffering the worst of World Cup hangovers, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere has shown significant improvement and the task of picking a winner is much more difficult.
England’s problem areas are in their pack, with several key players either out injured or coming back from injury spells. Then, of course, there is the problem of captain Dylan Hartley. The question of Hartley’s captain credentials have come under much scrutiny, however, Eddie Jones has retained his faith in the hooker, so the question has been settled from my point of view. However, Hartley has played so little over these past months that his match fitness will surely be a problem. Both Vunipola brothers have been ruled out through injury, and replacement prop Joe Marler has only recently returned from injury so will no doubt be a little rusty. At number 8, Nathan Hughes will have to prove himself a worthy deputy to Billy Vunipola. Chris Robshaw is also injured, which means that Maro Itoje is likely to slot in at 6, and there remain doubts over flanker James Haskell. For teams looking to capitalise on England’s weakness, the scrum looks the place to do so.
If England can maintain their composure, they should have the ability and confidence to see themselves past France at Twickenham, but France have been improving and will present a stern test of this team’s Grand Slam credentials.
Ireland, like England, have improved greatly over the last 12 months. Their title defence in last year’s championship left a lot to be desired and never really got off the ground following an opening draw and then a defeat in Paris. Since then however, they have beaten the ‘Big Three’ Southern Hemisphere teams (the first time it has been done in a year since England in 2003) and have risen to fourth in the world rankings (with the next World Cup draw just around the corner, being the top seed would be an added bonus for Joe Schmidt’s team). They are genuine title contenders this year, and they will surely relish the opportunity of taking on England in Dublin should there be a Grand Slam at stake. However, they must make sure to get momentum early on, and that means negotiating a tricky fixture this weekend in Edinburgh.
Obviously, the big loss for Ireland is influential fly-half Jonny Sexton, meaning that Ulster’s Paddy Jackson will likely be wearing the number 10 jersey on Saturday. Peter O’Mahony has also been ruled out, and on the wing, Andrew Trimble is a major doubt. Tactically, Ireland will be looking at what worked for them in the November series. Their aerial game is strong, their back row is strong, and in Conor Murray they have arguably the best Northern Hemisphere scrumhalf to knit play together. If they can keep their intensity up throughout the tournament, and avoid costly injuries to key personnel, they have a fantastic shot at regaining their title.
As always, Scotland will be coming into this tournament as underdogs with enormous potential (stop me if you’ve heard this before). The main question over this team is whether or not the form of the Glasgow Warriors players will spill-over onto the international stage. Glasgow were completely dominant in their European Champions Cup fixture against Leicester, and should that quality come out against Ireland, Scotland could certainly pull off a surprise. With that sort of momentum, they could be outside bets, although in order to be considered a true force to be reckoned with they will need to win at Twickenham, a feat they have not managed in over 30 years.
Scotland will need to play to their strengths, which requires a brains over brawn approach, and a need to move the ball quickly to avoid turning the game into a predominantly physical encounter. Simply put, Scotland do not have the players to compete in a power battle up front, especially after the injury to prop WP Nel. Scotland’s danger players are mostly backs. Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Huw Jones will be the players Scotland needs to perform if they are hoping for an improvement over last years distinctly average 4th place. Captain Greig Laidlaw will also have pressure to provide quick ball to Scottish runners. While a very capable scrumhalf, Laidlaw sometimes dallies at the ruck, which invariably slows the whole team down. With competition on his position from Glasgow’s Ali Price, Laidlaw will need to stamp his authority on the number 9 jersey.
As said above, Scotland lack the full package to be serious contenders, but if they are able to play quickly and intelligently, they are more than capable of pulling off shock results.
It is difficult to gauge where Wales sit in the rugby hierarchy these days. They currently sit 5th in the World rankings, but seem to be there because of South Africa’s dramatic decline rather than through their own performances, which frankly have left a lot to be desired. The truth of the matter is Wales have carved out a distinct physical identity based on power and the direct approach, whereas the rest of the world has changed to playing a more expansive game that ultimately yields more tries. Australia carved them apart in November, and so did Japan (although Wales did narrowly avoid defeat in that game), and a victory over a rapidly free-falling Springbok side only papered over the cracks of what was a disappointing end-of-year series.
However, the good news is that head coach Rob Howley has picked an impressive squad that takes into account current form rather than trusting the same players by virtue of their past contributions. The uncapped trio of Owen Williams, Olly Cracknell and Thomas Young, will be eager for opportunities to prove themselves. Injury-wise Wales’ main blow will be at number 8, where Taulupe Faletau has been ruled out with a long-term knee problem. Luke Charteris is also out with a bone fracture in his hand. Unfortunately, Wales will also not be able to try out exciting young prospect Keelan Giles, who has been touted since at least autumn as the successor to Welsh legend Shane Williams.
Wales will need to be on their toes for their opener against Italy. On paper it seems the easiest possible entry into the tournament, however, Italy have been much improved, claiming a famous win against South Africa in November. They have a good coach in Conor O’Shea and many will hope that this is the tournament where they finally turn a corner. With Wales’ confidence fairly low after their flattering results in November, this tie has banana skin written all over it. If Wales finally decide to cut loose and allow their on-form players to express themselves, they have more than enough ability to see this one through. However, if they struggle to find their feet then doubts will creep in and Rome may become very unpleasant.
It has been terrible for the tournament that France have been wandering in the international rugby wilderness for the past 5 years, and it is about time they rediscovered some of that flair and passion that they are most renowned for. Their match against New Zealand in the Autumn showed lots of positive signs, but it still seems as though they are a little short of the level required to win a tournament. They were dealt a cruel blow with the injury of arguably their most creative player- Wesley Fofana, and have had to recall Basteraud to the centre position for their opener against England. While Basteraud is effective at what he does- specifically brute strength and power, for a team looking to rediscover the free-flowing, unpredictable quality they have been known for in the past, Basteraud is, unfortunately, a spanner in the works that will slow the game down around him. The big question mark will be at scrumhalf. Maxime Machenaud has traditionally been France’s number 9, however, Bordeaux’s Baptiste Serin will be pushing him for that jersey. Against New Zealand, Serin’s reverse pass completely caught the All Blacks off guard, and his performances for Bordeaux have been impressive. Like England, France are experiencing issues in their pack, and both starting props Eddy Ben Arous and Jefferson Poirot have been injured. The key man for France is their number 8 Louis Picamoles, and head coach Guy Novés will be wrapping him in cotton wool to prevent him from getting injured between now and Saturday.
If France are able to turn on the style as they did against the All Blacks in November then they certainly have the ability to cause England problems at Twickenham. However, Twickenham seems to cause a psychological block when it comes to French teams, who have only won there once in the past 16 years, so if England can turn the screw and maintain the intensity that has seen them win 14 matches on the bounce, their record may move one step closer to New Zealand’s record.
Finally, we get to Italy, who surely breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the talk of relegation was quashed last week. They are a capable team but seem to lack the consistency to make a mark over an entire tournament. In November they secured a famous win against the Springboks but followed up with a disappointing loss to Tonga the next week. The challenge presented to Italy’s coach Conor O’Shea is finding a way of keeping his squad motivated and carrying any momentum that they should gain throughout the tournament. Italy have won 12 matches since joining the competition 16 years ago, the discourse around their team invariably devolves into “can they win at least one game?”, and this is the attitude that O’Shea needs to overturn so Italy can move to the next level.
As always, Italy will look to their talisman Sergio Parisse for confidence and leadership on the field, but Italy have a solid sprinkling of quality throughout the pitch. Fly-half Carlo Canna was almost Italy’s hero in last year’s opener against France and he retains his place for the Wales game this weekend. O’Shea has stuck to the old guard for this one, with Michele Campagnaro only making the bench despite an excellent game for Exeter last weekend. Ten of the team that beat the Springboks have been named in the starting line-up, so the experience and psychological edge that will have come from that game will be of great benefit to the Azzuri.
Arguably, out of all the games, this is probably the ripest for a shock result. Wales have been on a poor run of form, and the pressure of being away from home without their head coach may prove to be a stumbling block that allows Italy to get a foot in the door.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons