Guinness Six Nations: What to expect, and who will win

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As we reach the start of the Six Nations, it seems like the upcoming version of rugby’s greatest championship carries extra significance.

It is the last chance for the northern hemisphere’s powerhouses to test out their World Cup credentials in competitive international action.

Sure, each team has a bank of warmup matches across July and August, but these are more for fine-tuning a squad, but will be played with nowhere near the same intensity.

It seems Ireland are the obvious place to start, and they will be everyone’s target this championship.

After a marvellous 2018, with one small Brisbane-shaped blemish, Ireland is the leading team in the championship, and indeed in the world.

A first-ever home win over the All Blacks, the crown jewel in an exceptional year – but all must be forgotten, as they enter what could, and possibly should be, the greatest year in Irish rugby history.

However, Ireland must start on the right foot with a win against England, before they can start to concentrate on two testing trips to Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium, both venues where they lost on their last Six Nations visits.

How Johnny Sexton and Dan Leavy return from injuries will be critical for Ireland’s opening match, with Leavy the leading openside in world rugby and Sexton having just won IRB’s World Player of the Year.

The battle of the 10’s returning from injury will go a long way to decide the outcome this year.

Ireland Must Start on the right foot with a win against England

England will enter the championship full of optimism after a successful autumn, which came within a TMO’s interpretation of a full house with the much-desired All Blacks scalp.

However, it wasn’t to be, and Eddie Jones’ side will travel to Dublin this weekend as underdogs, but confident they can do a job on the Irish.

A strong contingent from Saracens and Exeter Chiefs will play a large part in England’s push for a third title in four years.

A couple of questions remain for the backline, with Elliot Daly looking less than comfortable at full back in the autumn.

The back row, thought to be an area of weakness before the autumn internationals, turned out to be a huge strength, but with Underhill injured, England will have to look to Tom Curry to fill his boots.

Billy Vunipola looks certain to start at 8, Mark Wilson is likely to retain his place at 6, and the return of George Kruis and Mako Vunipola to the front five will boost an already strong pack.

With three home wins a must for England, the other significant test will be away to a Wales side they’ve beaten in their last five Six Nations meetings, but who are now ranked third in the world.

Wales will enter the tournament with every belief they can win their first title in six years, with their two toughest games coming at home: Ireland and England.

Bound together by Alun Wyn Jones, who at thirty-three is ageing like a fine wine, the Welsh will certainly be harbouring title ambitions after a strong autumn in which they finally broke their Australia curse.

On a nine-win streak, they face a tough fixture list, with away games in Paris and Edinburgh must wins, as well as the home matches against the two pre-tournament favourites.

It will be a three horse race between England, Ireland and Wales

With Leigh Halfpenny out, Liam Williams will have to provide much needed security at full back, and Gareth Anscombe will be given total control of the backline with kicking and playmaking duties.

If Wales can provide enough attacking threat to match their strong defence, they will be a very hard team to get past, especially at home.

Scotland have quite possibly their strongest Six Nations squad ever, and will be aiming for the top prize.

With Scottish domestic rugby at an all-time high, both Edinburgh and Glasgow reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions Cup, there is plenty of reason for optimism for the Scottish.

The pack is largely dominated by Edinburgh players, whilst the backline is, as usual, full of Glasgow Warriors.

Add Racing 92’s Finn Russell and Clermont’s Greig Laidlaw, both in fine form for their French sides, and Scotland have a very strong team with plenty of strength in depth to dip into.

With three home games against Italy, Ireland and Wales, teams they have beaten in their last meetings at Murrayfield, Scotland will believe they can pull off an upset against Ireland or Wales.

Trips to Twickenham and Paris will be tougher, especially to Twickenham on the final day where England will want to avenge last year’s defeat and regain the Calcutta Cup they had held for ten years previously.

Challenging for the championship might be a stretch too far, but Scotland will definitely want at least three wins from five.

If Wales can provide enough attacking threat to match their strong defence, they will be a very hard team to get past

France and Italy are much harder to predict, as both seem to turn up with a brand new team year on year.

The French have plenty of youth playing well in the Top Fourteen, with Damian Penaud and Romain Ntamack starting at 14 and 12 respectively.

Wesley Fofana is back in the team having announced his international retirement after the World Cup, and Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra complete a familiar half-back pairing.

The French pack is big as usual, and has the potential to dominate, but it remains to be seen what sort of game they will bring.

The Italians last won a Six Nations game in 2015; a run Connor O’Shea will be keen to snap. Sergio Parisse may well be playing in his last Six Nations, so this year might represent their best chance to get a win before they are playing without Parisse.

Treviso’s current form will also give plenty of reason for optimism; they currently lie in second place in their conference, only behind European champions Leinster.

Despite this, with a fixture list that has them playing Scotland away, France at home seems like their best chance of a win, but getting a result in this match does seem like a long shot.

 

Writer’s Predictions: Ireland, England, Wales, France, Scotland, Italy

It will be a three horse race between England, Ireland and Wales, and much will be decided on the opening weekend.

If Wales lose in Paris, you can count them out, and whoever loses in Dublin is likely not to win.

I don’t think Scotland will get any away wins, and might just sneak a result at home to Wales. If France beat Wales, it could set them up nicely, but even then, they won’t push for the title, and Italy look certain to collect the Wooden Spoon.

 

Photograph: David Dixon via Geograph

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