The 2022 Six Nations Championship begins this weekend in Dublin as Ireland welcome the reigning champions, Wales, to the Aviva Stadium. England travel to Murrayfield to play a hopeful Scotland side and Italy play France in Paris on Sunday.
The competition this year is set to be fiercely fought. France enter the competition as favourites, and it is easy to see why. Under the captaincy of World Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont, France are hoping to build on an autumn which saw them beat New Zealand and Argentina.
Les Bleus have not won the competition since 2010 and will be desperate to change their fortunes this year with a strong squad including the likes of Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud.
However, the favourite mantle could prove a hinderance. Former French Hooker, Benjamin Kayser, has suggested that being favourties is “usually the situation when (France) crash the most.” The old cliché that you never know which France team will turn up has often proven to be true. Despite this, this competition seems France’s to lose.
Ireland will be looking to improve on their third-place finish last year. Like France, Ireland had a strong autumn series, including a historic performance against the All Blacks. Ireland are currently in great form and will be hoping for a convincing showing against a heavily depleted Wales on Sunday.
Difficulty for Ireland lies in their away fixtures. Andy Farrell’s men will have to get results from Twickenham and the Stade de France. Two daunting fixtures, but if they continue to play the way they have been then they will be confident of securing the results needed away from Dublin.
Earning points at Twickenham will be no easy task. After a massively disappointing competition last year, finishing fifth, England are aiming to prove that it was just a blip. Their autumn campaign went some way to instill some confidence into the team, as England beat South Africa, Australia, and Tonga.
Tom Curry leads England this year with Owen Farrell out with an ankle injury. Curry is set to be the youngest England Captain since Durham University alumnus Will Carling in 1988.
The conditions for captaincy are not ideal for Curry. England has been plagued by injuries, missing Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes, and Joe Launchbury. The squad does have a good deal of depth and young talent so although not an ideal situation, England are in a good position to challenge for the title.
Injuries may be a problem for England, but Wales have been even more significantly affected. Last year’s champions are without key players such as Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Dan Lydiate, George North and Leigh Halfpenny. With the loss of these players, Wales lose experience amounting to 657 test caps.
The most significant absentees are Ken Owens and Captain Alun Wyn Jones. Wales have not started a Six Nations game without one or both of them for 16 years and their absence will be greatly missed.
Wales are forced to rebuild around new captain Dan Biggar but may struggle in the tournament this year unless the plethora of young players- such top scorer favourite Louis Rees-Zammit and flanker Taine Basham- continue to prove themselves.
While the champions of last year appear to be getting weaker, a side that has not won a championship since 1999, Scotland, have gone from strength to strength.
Former Scotland captain John Barclay has boldly claimed “I do believe this has to be Scotland’s year.” This claim is not without cause.
Scotland had a good autumn, with the highlight being a victory against Australia. The Scots have a frightening backline, featuring five British and Irish Lions. The inevitable flair of Finn Russel, the open field running of Stuart Hogg and the power of winger Duhan van der Merwe may prove difficult to stop.
Scotland are looking to upset the other nations and break from tradition. Barclay may be right. This could be the year that Scotland establish themselves as a serious threat in world rugby.
Image: Phil Rogers via Flickr