By Neil Leverett
- The 2020 Guinness Six Nation kick off this weekend, as holders Wales begin new era under Wayne Pivac in Cardiff against Italy
- England begin campaign in Paris against Les Bleus, looking to erase memories of their World Cup final defeat last November
- Ireland similarly to the Welsh enter new managerial era at home to Scotland, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin
SIX NATIONS – As the 2020 Guinness Six Nations begin this weekend – just three months removed from the Rugby World Cup – can Wayne Pivac’s Wales retain their crown?
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Welsh holders begin post-Gatland era
With memories of Japan having now faded in the realms of sporting history, Wales will look to move on from the Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to eventual champions South Africa this weekend, as the Welsh Dragon fire is re-ignited as the Welsh begin the defence of their Guinness Six Nations crown this weekend.
Now emerged from Warren Gatland‘s leadership, Wales remain under Southern hemisphere tutelage and rivals snapping at their heels to become the first to take the Welsh scalp in their new era, Italy approach Cardiff on Saturday.
Having led the Welsh rugby revolution since 2007 – with the odd sabbatical thrown in – Gatland now hands the reins over to compatriot Wayne Pivac, who led the Scarlets to the PRO12 title in 2017.
As the the 57-year-old Auckland native takes charge of his second game after a 43-33 victory over the Barbarians in the Autumn, Pivac has named a bold and youthful looking squad to face the Italians with George North set to be the lynch-pin at outside centre in partner with Hadleigh Parkes.
With Jonathan Davies and Owen Watkin both absent, uncapped Kiwi-born Johnny McNicholl is set for a place in the Welsh starting XV on the wing and who not only scored against the Babas back in November, but was a key cog for the Scarlets under Pivac.
The Welsh Head Coach is keen to stamp his own brand on the games in the Valleys, after a route to the semi-final of the World Cup which many will say was driven by defence and less by expansive play, and as he told The Guardian, the Kiwi steward wants to see his new charges adopt that style:
“The guys have been made aware of the style of game we want to play, the positional specifics and the roles they will have, whatever number is on their back.
Everybody has been given clear instructions about what is expected, and what I am seeing is a great reaction. We have a good vibe in the group.”
Wales were also juggling the possibility of blooding Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit, with the 18-year-old having been earmarked by Pivac as his impact player however instead, Jarrod Evans has been selected as a replacement.
The effervescent Dan Biggar will also be a likely hallmark of what Pivac hopes to be a more offensive-minded approach, and together with skipper Alun Wyn Jones, Welsh rugby could again be in for a new dose of not necessarily revolution, but more evolution.
Wales XI to face Italy: Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Nick Tompkins.
The Rose on rebuilding mission
A little under three months on from their Rugby World Cup final humbling by the Springboks, Eddie Jones‘ England begin the four-year cycle to France 2023 once more, looking to swiftly erase memories of their Yokohama heartache last November in Japan – after inflicting defeat in the tournament on the All Blacks for the first time in 12 years.
Still burning after the final demolition, the Six Nations may come as a welcome distraction from domestic affairs, particularly for the nine Saracens men involved, whose side have began restructuring with demotion to the RFU Championship next season to come, in line with a breach of salary cap regulations.
Having last won the tournament back in 2017, England remain without a trophy in the Jones era however it should be noted the last time the Rose came off a World Cup year – albeit after a Group stage elimination – the men in white went on to not only win the competition but complete a Grand Slam.
Retaining the majority of the World Cup final squad, Owen Farrell will again lead his men out at the Stade de France on Sunday, with uncapped Northampton full-back George Furbank making his debut against the French.
George Ford will partner the England skipper at fly-half, whilst Charlie Ewels will partner Maro Itoje in the second row behind Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler.
Tom Curry and Sam Underhill who rose to prominence in Japan last Autumn will play at number eight and openside flanker respectively, whilst Jonny May will deputise on the right wing following the late withdrawal of Anthony Watson from England’s training camp in Portugal.
England XI to face France: George Furbank; Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (capt), Eliott Daly; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Ollie Devoto, Jonathan Joseph
Russell-gate clouds Scottish prep
For Gregor Townsend‘s embryonic and growing Scotland, their Six Nations hopes have been hit by a hammer blow, following Finn Russell‘s exclusion from initial selection after a breach of team protocol during an incident at the team hotel earlier this month.
The driving force for the Thistle, Russell’s absence leaves a sizeable void not least in attack, however one man’s error presents third-generation Adam Hastings with the chance to shine, alongside Hamish Watson as the fulcrum of the Scottish side.
Edinburgh number eight Nick Haining is the most notable inclusion to face Ireland, with the Haining set for to make his international debut this weekend. Prop Rory Sutherland who has been out of the Scot’s XV for some time makes his first start in over three years.
Skipper Stuart Hogg leads his men for the first time with the captain’s armband against Ireland, who themselves begin life after Joe Schmidt, with Andy Farrell taking charge of the Shamrock, now without the presence of Rory Best.
As Scotland attempt to move forward in the short-term with regard to Russell, Head Coach Townsend has not closed the door on the 27=year-old’s shock return to the fold during the course of the Six Nations, and as the Scot told RugbyPass, Russell’s efforts to make amends have not gone unnoticed within the camp.
“The door is open for any player. Obviously he is unavailable not because of injury, he is not available because of what went on and there has got to be a link to where he would be in terms of is he with the team?
“Is he able to live up to the standards expected of a team player and a Scotland team player, but the focus is so much on us preparing for Ireland that these are questions for a later time.”
Scotland XI to face Ireland: Stuart Hogg, (capt); Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray; Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Nick Haining.
Replacements: Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Ben Toolis, Cornell du Preez, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Chris Harris.
The 2020 Guinness Six Nations begin this weekend, as Wales host Italy at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff on Saturday, kick-off 14:15 UK time.
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