By Phil James
After some poor showings in the Rugby World Cup, just who are the favourites for this year’s RBS 6 Nations?
So choosing a favourite for the 6 Nations is thankless task; Even though there are limited realistic options, you’ll probably get it wrong and even if you get it right, it’s probably for the wrong reasons. If the 2015 World Cup showed us anything, it’s that the Southern Hemisphere continues to dominate the rugby world. But who ran them the closest? Well, Scotland I guess, but we’ll come to them later.
Wales are, in theory, the most complete team in the 6 Nations; their squad was injury ravaged during the World Cup but they still beat England (ok not that much of an achievement) and pushed Australia and South Africa close.
Much of that was thanks to the revelation that was Dan Biggar; dancing shuffle aside, his goal kicking was close to automatic during the world cup. David Pocock and Michael Hooper have set the bar for winning the ball, and potentially the game, at the breakdown so expect Welsh captain Sam Warburton to try to emulate. Their weakness? Well tries have not been easy to come by for them of late. It was one moment of magic against England that created their only try in that game and they couldn’t break through against Australia – remember all that five-metre ball with a two man advantage, but no break through? Still, the Dragons should have enough to come out on top against some teams enduring some major rebuilding.
Speaking of…. New coach, new captain, new England? Eddie Jones has taken over from Stuart Lancaster, appointing Dylan Hartley as captain to replace Chris Robshaw.
However England will need more than just new leadership if they are to restore some pride to the English national team. The main problems at the world cup? Looking back with sore memories it would be easier to list what went right. The lineout was erratic (even more reason not to kick to touch with seconds remaining) and the pack was a weakness rather than the strength it once was.
Moreover, mistakes, mistakes and more mistakes. Handling, at the breakdown, decision making, and that’s just on the pitch. Off the pitch, locker room unrest, favouritism and strange player selections and substitutions. The good news is a lot of that shouldn’t take too long to fix and Jones should be the right man for job, preaching practice, discipline and more practice.
One thing standing in his way is the lack of central contracts for England players meaning Jones won’t have as much time with his players as he would like. Reasons for optimism for England fans? Well for one it has to get better doesn’t it? Plus Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, a potential end to Owen Farrell v George Ford debate, and Danny Care back at scrum-half; never a dull moment with ‘Care Bear’ around. Also, despite three matches away, England host Ireland and Wales at ‘HQ.’
Another team with a new coach and if it wasn’t for the home nation factor, France might have had an even more embarrassing world cup than England.
Les Bleus qualified from their group ahead of Italy but may wish they hadn’t after the All Blacks thumped them 62-13. As for the 6 Nations, Philippe Saint-Andre’s tenure saw four years of finishing fourth or lower in the 6 Nations– remember 2013 when they finished bottom?
And so Guy Noves is in and the only way is up, though it looks like it might be with a lot of newbies, with four uncapped players in the squad for the opener against Italy. If they feel like it, the French pack can provide a platform for some success. IF they feel like it.
The winner of the last two 6 Nations, but out of the World Cup with a whimper against Argentina, the opener against Wales could tell us a lot about this Irish team as well as going a long way to deciding both team’s fates in this year’s tournament.
They impressed in an albeit poor group at last year’s World Cup before coming out of the locker room 25 minutes late in their quarterfinal with Argentina to find themselves 20-3 down. Ireland are undoubtedly talented, strong in defence, and capable of executing a game plan that can, and has, won them the 6 Nations.
That game plan (kick and chase) is limited though and unlikely to be good enough to defeat the Southern Hemisphere teams at the next World Cup, or an inform England or Wales for that matter. So do they start work on a new strategy? Throw in a serious injury list, Paul O’Connell’s retirement from international rugby and the worrying form of the once reliable Johnny Sexton, and you start to understand why they are under the ‘enigma’ category.
Which Scotland will we see? The team which finished bottom of the table at the 2015 6 Nations, or the team which came within a whisker, and a referee’s whistle, of downing Australia in the World Cup quarterfinals last year? Honestly, probably somewhere in the middle. They are not as bad or as good as those two examples suggest.
In 2015 they lost their first three games of the 6 Nations by a total of just 13 points, including a last minute penalty try for Italy. If they limit the points conceded, Greig Laidlaw’s magical right foot can keep them in most games, through positional and points kicking. Unfortunately, that’s a big if as the Scottish defence is notoriously leaky. They gave up an average of more than 25 points a game across the 2015 6 Nations and World Cup. They can’t rely on scores from opportunistic play, charge downs and interceptions like they had against Australia in that epic quarter final in October.
Ok let’s put Scotland’s poor defence into some contextual perspective. Italy’s is really poor. They conceded 182 points in 2015’s 6 Nations (54 more than Scotland) and that was only 10 points worse than in 2014. Sergio Parisse will excite as always but it’s likely he will continue to be a beacon in an otherwise gloomy campaign for the Azzurri. Gone are the days when Italy were a complete walk over but they still struggle to stay competitive for the full 80 minutes, perhaps no surprise with their aging and shallow squad. France on opening day might be their best chance for a win, with both teams naming new-look line ups and 4 debutants a piece.
The RBS 6 Nations starts on 6 February.
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