It’s that time of year when the northern hemisphere’s finest (and most ferocious) international rugby teams go head-to-head for the coveted Six Nations crown.
Following swiftly on from last autumn’s World Cup, the 2016 tournament throws up a number of key questions: can Ireland make it 3 championships in a row? How will England’s new management regime fare? And which French team will actually turn up?
Here’s our handy team by team preview…
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Dylan Hartley
2015 Position: 2nd place (on points difference)
What we’re expecting: The beginning of a new era following the appointment of a new coach in the abrasive Australian Eddie Jones, a new captain in the similarly uncompromising Dylan Hartley, and the selection of a squad including a number of new faces as the Red Rose tries to put its embarrassing World Cup exit behind them.
The new coach, who guided Japan to their famous upset victory against South Africa back in the autumn, is already playing a few trademark mind-games, claiming Scotland as favourites for the opening weekend clash at Murrayfield.
While a transitional campaign under the new regime is to be expected there’s undeniable talent in the England ranks, and with opening fixtures against Scotland and Italy to perhaps build some confidence, it doesn’t take too much imagination to suggest they could make another run for the title…
Player to watch: Hartley – a controversial selection even as a player, the hooker has totted up suspensions lasting more than a year throughout his career and missed out on World Cup honours because of his latest indiscretion. However, he brings vast experience and that genuine confrontational edge that the new coach is keen to introduce.
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
2015 Position: Champions (on points difference)
What we’re expecting: The back-to-back champions to go close again in their quest to become the first team to claim a hat-trick of Six Nations crowns, but how will they replace their talisman, the now retired titan Paul O’Connell?
Injuries have also hit the Irish camp hard, with stalwarts such as Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson likely to miss the entire tournament. But you don’t win the Six Nations for two years in succession without having sufficient strength in depth, and if Ireland get off to a fast start against Wales in Dublin on the opening weekend, they have the experience and quality to build momentum quickly.
Back-to-back trips to Paris and Twickenham in rounds 2 and 3 could prove pivotal for Irish hopes of a third successive triumph though…
Player to watch: Jonny Sexton – hampered by injury since the World Cup, but as the old saying goes “form is temporary, class is permanent” and if the men from across the Irish Sea are to have a competitive campaign, they’ll need the classy fly-half operating at his best.
Coach: Guy Noves
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
2015 Position: 4th place
What we’re expecting: The unexpected! Notoriously unpredictable at the best of times, who knows how the French will perform under a new coach who has selected a squad including 8 uncapped players.
To be frank, performances will struggle to get any worse than recent efforts by Les Bleus, who despite the undoubted strength of its club game have failed to finish above fourth place in the tournament over the previous four years – and that’s before we mention the 62-13 humiliation suffered against the All Blacks back at the World Cup in Cardiff.
Opening up this year’s tournament with what looks on paper to be the easiest of matches at home to Italy could provide the perfect platform for something of a renaissance… Or it could end up being the latest disastrous day for French rugby and the start of another tournament to forget…
Player to watch: Yacouba Camara – Without the retired captain Thierry Dusautoir, Noves is expected to turn to the 21-year-old back-rower from his former club Toulouse as a replacement.
Coach: Vern Cotter
Captain: Greig Laidlaw
2015 Position: 6th place and the wooden spoon
What we’re expecting: Following on from an agonising World Cup quarter-final elimination against Australia (and referee Craig Joubert!), hopes are high that the Scots will finally emerge from years of underachievement and become a real force to be reckoned with.
And what better way to lay down a marker than by hosting the ‘auld enemy’ on opening weekend when England travel to Murrayfield to contest the Calcutta Cup.
If the traditionally ferocious pack of Scottish forwards led by Jonny Gray and Zander Fagerson are complemented by the more expansive backline we witnessed during the World Cup, the optimism may prove well-founded. However, “defence wins Championships” and having leaked 14 tries in just five games during last autumn’s tournament there are serious question marks over the Scots’ durability.
Player to watch: Laidlaw – the tenacious scrum-half certainly leads from the front, and if he can release Stuart Hogg and the rest of the Scottish backs it could make for some expansive and entertaining rugby.
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Sergio Parisse
2015 Position: 5th place
What we’re expecting: Another battle to avoid the wooden spoon and further questions as to whether a promotion/relegation system needs to be introduced to the competition.
Following on from a disappointing World Cup campaign and with a lengthy injury list to an already ageing squad, the Azzurri go into the tournament with limited expectations. While there will be no questioning the commitment and passion of the players, a lack of overall quality and strength in depth will surely be the Italians’ downfall.
The fixture computer hasn’t been kind either, with an opening trip to France combined with two tough away games to complete the tournament against the powerhouse Ireland and Wales. Perhaps the home games against an England side in the early stages of Eddie Jones’ revolution and versus Scotland offer the likeliest hope of an Italian victory…
Player to watch: Parisse – an obvious choice but at 33 years of age and with 114 international caps under his belt already, we should enjoy watching the inspirational Number 8 perform at the highest level while we still can.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Sam Warburton
2015 Position: 3rd place (on points difference)
What we’re expecting: Third time lucky? The previous two Six Nations staged immediately after a World Cup (2008 and 2012) have seen the Welsh claim the crown and a coveted grand slam.
The horrendous injury list that plagued their ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign has eased significantly (although Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams and Rhys Webb are still unavailable) so the Welsh go into Six Nations 2016 as the continuity team, with a settled coaching staff, captain, and starting XV.
The opening trip to Dublin could prove pivotal, as the Welsh are notoriously slow starters. And while the defence led by coach Shaun Edwards is still one of the best and most reliable in the business, it remains to be seen if the men in red can throw of the shackles of their limited “Warrenball” approach and take their attacking game to the next level…
Player to watch: Dan Biggar – from being the only Welsh player left behind by coach Warren Gatland on the 2013 Lions tour to become probably the northern hemisphere’s form fly-half, the Ospreys man is now integral to Welsh hopes and one of the form players in world rugby. With Leigh Halfpenny out injured, he also takes on the goal-kicking duties.
The Net World Sports Prediction:
Here’s hoping this year’s tournament leads to as dramatic a finale as the last round of matches did in 2015…
What are your predictions for this year’s tournament? Who’ll be the players to shine? Can Ireland win again? Who’ll walk away with the wooden spoon?
Scrum on down and let us know your thoughts in the comments below…