By Sam Martin
As 2018 kicks off in the sporting world, it signals the fact the first major international rugby tournament of the calendar year is nearly upon us: the Six Nations. A perennial treat for all those lovers of the oval-ball-based sport, but this year’s competition will be viewed with extra excitement because we are getting two tournaments for the price of one. The state of the six international teams vary to such an extent that this year I predict the competition will effectively be fought in two separate tiers of three; a trio of truly international-quality sides in the upper section and then a group of three teams struggling to find an identity and any sort of hope for success heading into the World Cup in 2019.
Eddie Jones’ England squad have been imperious since he took over as Head Coach after the disaster that was the 2015 World Cup. In that period they have lost just one game against some of the world’s best teams, and Jones has developed a core of truly world-class talent with the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers providing power and skill across the park.
Indeed, in certain positions England are so strong they are forcing some of their best players to play out of position. Itoje has often been packing down at six to make room for England’s other hugely talented locks; George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchberry and new-boy Nick Isiekwe. This strength in depth is mirrored across the whole team, perhaps with the exception of full-back where there is very little cover if Mike Brown picks up an injury. England boast a 23-man squad that is certainly among the world’s best and so nothing short of a third straight Six Nations title this year will be a disappointment for them.
A possible stumbling block to further success is the fact that the squad boasts some very impressive players currently unfit to play due to injury. Indeed, this year’s Aviva Premiership season has been particularly harsh to many of England’s star players, with utility back Elliot Daly likely out for the tournament, starting tight-head prop Joe Marler missing for the first two tests and the bulldozer that is Billy Vunipola only just easing himself back from injury. Eddie Jones has shown a remarkable ability to weather these injury crises during his tenure but, with such core cogs missing from his set-up, this could be more of an issue going into the 2018 tournament.
Perhaps what England should be most worried about, though, is that the other five national teams have largely figured out their tactics. In 2016, the men in white steamrolled all opposition, using impact substitutes such as Ben Te’o, Kyle Sinckler and Jamie George to make a huge difference in last minutes of test matches.
By 2017, England were still winning but by far less, as teams had figured out how to counter their inventive strategies and so, going into 2018, there is far less of an ‘aura’ surrounding this team. Having said this, England still present one of the two best squads in the tournament and so my prediction for the team is that they will pick up their third title in three years but, as was the case last year, it will not be a Grand Slam this time around.
Ireland are the only team to have beaten Eddie Jones’ England team in the last two years, and looking at the Irish team it is not hard to see why. After a few years of being caught in transition, Ireland have revamped their squad with potent ball-carriers and speedy backs presenting a real danger to any team that they face.
Lions props Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath underpin a strong forward unit, with the rangy Iain Henderson providing more strength further back in the pack. The combination of Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton has worked well for Ireland for years now and these two have not slowed down, pulling the strings expertly in the half-back positions.
Where Ireland’s real strength lies, though, is in their devastatingly exciting back three. Andrew Conway, David Stockdale and Joey Carbury have been ripping apart defences in the Guinness Pro14 this season, and the ever-reliable pair of Rob Kearney and Keith Earls provide a nice safety net for Head Coach Joe Schmidt should he need a safe pair of hands at full-back or wing in the bigger games of the tournament.
But this safety-first approach may be Ireland’s greatest weakness. Schmidt has often preferred to stifle teams defensively rather than allowing free-flowing rugby to develop. This was seen in Ireland’s first match of the tournament last season as they came unstuck at Murrayfield. On that day, the Irish were bamboozled when Scotland shifted their attack to the wings rather than attacking down the middle, and the men in green came unstuck as they were unable to adapt their tactics from the rigid set-up that Schmidt had employed. If Schmidt allows his players to roam free, then Ireland are a very dangerous proposition indeed. Expect a loss along the way but they will certainly present a very real challenge for the title this year.
Could this year be the year that Scotland finally come good? It just might be. Mired in years of ineptitude and mediocrity, Scotland are now a force to be reckoned with. Gregor Townsend has slipped seamlessly into the Head Coach role, having been Vern Cotter’s understudy in that very role for a number of years, and Scotland’s results have been impressive to say the least.
Multiple wins against Australia, a victory over Ireland and coming ever so close to knocking off the mighty All Blacks at Murrayfield in November were just some of the highlights from an impressive 2017. Stuart Hogg is still the star but the likes of Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Jonny Gray are all world class players for Scotland to pepper their team with. Keep attacking with their traditional gusto and Scotland are an outside shot at the Six Nations title.
But they do have a weakness, and that is inexperience. This team is young and while they experienced great success in 2017 there were also some alarming losses. Indeed, the last Calcutta Cup match against England saw them register an embarrassing 61-21 defeat, and it points to the fact that when Scotland are without their key players they fall apart. In that match against England last year, star player Hogg left the game early with a potential concussion and at that point, the team fell apart. They need to develop contingency plans in case their game goes a little pear-shaped, but on their day, this Scotland team can challenge any of the world’s best teams.
The Welsh are the first team in what we can perhaps call ‘Six Nations-lite’, the clear lower tier in this year’s competition. Wales are largely in this position because Head Coach Warren Gatland has been afraid to modernise his squad, sticking with the same faces who are now becoming too old to take on the fresh-faced exuberance of England, Ireland and Scotland.
There is no question that the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies are all high-quality players, but the Welsh bench is nothing short of a disgrace. There is simply no way that they will be able to compete for a full 80 minutes against the class nations of the tournament.
The autumn internationals allowed the likes of Hallam Amos, Aled Davies and more surprisingly New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes to get some game time and show their skills, but this is too little too late. Welsh development has not been helped by Gatland spending two full years on sabbatical coaching the Lions, proving a distraction for the New Zealander.
The Welsh attack is basic, to say the least, and they are too reliant on the ball kicking of Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny. They can expect to pick up one or two wins this year, but my expectation is that they will finish fourth, which should set alarm bells ringing heading into the World Cup of 2019 – Gatland better have answers and he better find them quickly.
Italy are the great mystery of European rugby. Some days they are frankly woeful, with no idea how to defend and hell-bent on kicking every ball that heads into the backline. And then on other days, they flash mercurial talent that has seen them chalk up major wins against their continental rivals France.
Indeed, who could forget their remarkable game against England where they used a nuance in the ruck rules to utterly flummox the opposition for a good 40 minutes? With Conor O’Shea at the helm as Head Coach and rugby wizard Brendan Venter working as a defensive consultant, this Italian team could be a little different though – more class than chaos. The Italian club sides have been doing noticeably better in the Pro14 this year as well, and there is certainly a new wave of talent coming through.
However, Italy are still a few years off making an advance towards the top of the table, and this is because they are unable to complete a full 80-minute performance. They are too reliant on their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse, with the team too centred around the fantastic no.8, meaning that when Parisse’s performance drops as he gets more tired, the whole team’s does too.
By diversifying the attack through exciting players such as fly-half Carlo Canna or centre Micheli Campagnaro, Italy can really put pressure on opponents. I predict they will defeat France and could well spring a surprise on one other team as well, so look out for those underdog Azzurri.
What to say about France? The crème de la crème of European rugby throughout the 1990s and perennial Six Nations giants throughout the 2000s, the French national team have certainly fallen from grace since the 2011 World Cup Final, where they narrowly lost to the All Blacks.
Now they are mired in political issues and are a team who clearly lack belief in their squad. Jacques Brunel, the Head Coach, was brought in to end the chaos that had engulfed the squad during the Philippe Saint-Andre era but has done very little to steady the squad. Indeed, the appointments of the remarkably inexperienced duo of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Julien Bonnaire to his assistant coaches show that he doesn’t care for traditional rugby knowledge.
The problem for the national side is that French club rugby is so highly paid that it attracts the world’s best and displaces many French national players from club rugby spots. Teams like Toulon, Racing 92, Clermont and Stade Francais are so focused on domestic triumph that they buy in players such as Dan Carter or Victor Vito to fill their squads, stifling the development of young French talent.
Furthermore, there is minimal development of French coaching because these wealthy teams simply look to employ big-name coaches with ‘star-power’, often preferring English or Kiwi knowledge to French skill in the role. It is no wonder, therefore, that France’s best players at the moment are Fijians and Kiwis rather than those in the French national set-up.
French rugby has stymied and, without an overhaul, the national team will become a real embarrassment. The glimmer of hope for Les Bleus is the fact that the actual players in the squad are unquestionably talented individuals, but just do not gel with one another. With some more inspired leadership this team could succeed, but in 2018 don’t expect fireworks from the French.
This year’s Six Nations will be a fascinating contest, and it will give us a good indication of where these teams are at heading towards the World Cup of 2019. England, Ireland, and potentially Scotland all present a very real threat to Kiwi dominance in international rugby now, and so let’s hope for further development so that one team can prevent the All Blacks from picking up their third straight World Cup. Wales, Italy and France are a long way off challenging, but these games are still an important learning curve for teams, and the pride that these players take over the Six Nations could mean there will be some upsets on the cards.
Predicted final points table
Photograph: National Assembly for Wales via Flickr