By Nicola Kenton
- The 2018 Six Nations tournament begins on Saturday 3rd February
- The 35-man squads have been announced
- England are looking to win their third title in a row
The Six Nations kicks off with Wales hosting Scotland in Cardiff, Ireland travelling to France and reigning champions England playing away in Italy.
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Last year saw the points system change, in a move to fall in line with domestic competitions, where bonus points are awarded for scoring four tries or more and losing by seven points or less. England topped the table and retained their crown; however, they were denied the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown after losing to Ireland in the last match of the tournament.
There was a close battle for second with France, Ireland and Scotland all finishing on 14 points with three wins, one try bonus point and one losing bonus point each. Nevertheless it was Ireland who had the best points difference ahead of France and Scotland, with Wales in fifth and Italy were whitewashed while also picking up the wooden spoon.
Injury woes continue for Wales
The injury list for Warren Gatland has grown in recent weeks with the likes of Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, Jake Ball and Taulupe Faletau all out of action. This has continued recently with scrum-half Rhys Webb being ruled out of the tournament due to a knee injury. However, the position in most difficulty is that of fly-half where Dan Biggar is set to miss the first three rounds of the competition with a shoulder issue, while Rhys Priestland is unavailable for most of the tournament with a hamstring injury. Wales are left to choose between Rhys Patchell, Owen Williams and Gareth Anscombe who have 21 caps for their national side between them. It is likely that either Anscombe or Patchell will gain the number 10 jersey, as Gloucester player Williams has to return to his team throughout the tournament.
Former Wales Captain Martyn Williams told the BBC: “It is a massive blow for Wales. Dan is outstanding, one of our best players. There are some real big decisions for Wales and Warren Gatland. I don’t think Warren is going to go with Owen Williams at 10 so you are left with a straight shootout between Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe.
“They are two quality players who have been in really good from at full-back over the last couple of weeks. They seem to have a reluctance to play Patchell at 10. Rob Howley seems to see him as a 15 and Gatland seems to be a big fan of Anscombe. I would go with Patchell but I think they will start with Anscombe against Scotland and that would be the safer choice.”
Equally, Liam William’s fitness is adding to the quandry as he faces a race to recover from an abdominal injury. The Saracens star had not played for the Premiership side for six weeks before returning in last week’s Champions Cup clash. However, the Welsh coach is concerned that if he doesn’t respond to rehab, surgery may be the only option.
Moreover, there are multiple players included in the squad who have only recently returned from injury such as George North, who has recovered from a knee injury; Hallam Amos re-took to the field having been sidelined by an ankle injury at Christmas and Ross Moriarty has only played three matches all season for Gloucester. With so many internationally experienced players either missing or just returning from the physio’s table, it looks as though Wales will be relying on their younger stars to make their mark in the tournament.
England’s captaincy questions
At the beginning of this year, there were many questions about whether Dylan Hartley should be captaining the England team. This came after his Premiership side, Northampton Saints, went on a dismal run winning only one match out of thirteen in all competitions between October and December. Hartley’s form dipped during this time but Eddie Jones has remained defiant that the hooker should remain as England captain.
Last summer, the Northampton captain was left out of the Lions Tour and according to Will Greenwood is not one of the top three England hookers this season. However, his record as England captain has to be admired with 22 wins in 23 test matches, two Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam in 2016 and a test series win over Australia. When Jones was appointed as head coach, he stuck his neck on the line by choosing the hooker as his captain – considering his past disciplinary issues – but this has paid dividends with England being guided back to their best after their failure at the 2015 World Cup.
Wales are not the only side to have injury afflictions and Jones has 16 players unavailable so will be relying on a mixture of experience and youth to achieve a third title in-a-row. The leadership that Hartley can provide will be instrumental and with a different personnel on the field, it will be interesting to see whether it is indeed his captaincy that earns him his spot in the team.
Is it finally Scotland’s time?
Scotland’s last win in the tournament was in 1999, the last year it was the Five Nations, but for the past two years the player of the tournament has been Scottish. Full-back Stuart Hogg has been a fundamental for the fifth ranked side in the world and having returned from injury, he could be the key to victory in the competition.
The Glasgow player, who has been on two Lions tours, got injured before the final test of their Autumn International series and was sidelined for two months. However, he returned to action for Glasgow in the Champions Cup scoring one try and being a part of the build-up play in the other two.
Even though Hogg was injured before the Autumn test against Australia, Scotland had an extremely successful series. They beat Samoa 44-38 before taking New Zealand to the wire, ultimately losing 17-22 and thrashing Australia by a score line of 53-24. What made these results in the Autumn more impressive was the fact that many of their experienced players were out with injuries.
The creativity of their backline, including Hogg has been essential in their attacking play and the tries have flowed as a result; however, this attack-minded play also means that they can also concede many tries and coach Gregor Townsend will be hoping that this year they are able to stick to their game-plan.
- Saturday, Feb 3: Wales vs. Scotland at 14.15
- Saturday, Feb 3: France vs. Ireland at 16.45
- Sunday, Feb 4: Italy vs. England at 15.00
- Saturday, Feb 10: Ireland vs. Italy at 14.15
- Saturday, Feb 10: England vs. Wales at 16.45
- Sunday, Feb 11: Scotland vs. France at 15.00
- Friday, 23rd Feb 23: France vs. Italy at 20.00
- Saturday, Feb 24: Ireland vs. Wales at 14.15
- Saturday, Feb 24: Scotland vs. England at 16.45
- Saturday, March 10: Ireland vs. Scotland at 14.15
- Saturday, March 10: France vs. England at 16.45
- Sunday, March 11: Wales vs. Italy at 15.00
- Saturday, March 17: Italy vs. Scotland at 12.30
- Saturday, March 17: England vs. Ireland at 14.45
- Saturday, March 17: Wales vs. France at 17.00
All kick-off times above are GMT, subject to change and will be shown live on either the BBC or ITV each weekend.
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