International rugby is back. The Six Nations Championship kicks off on the first weekend in February and while this great part of the rugby calendar will be played behind closed doors, there is still a huge amount for fans to get excited about.
Add in the fact that it’s a British and Irish Lions tour year (hopefully) and the level of scrutiny on the players and teams goes up a notch or two.
Last year’s tournament ended up in some weird two-phase situation after it had to be paused in March and the final games delayed until October. England ended up walking away with the trophy but it’s all sort of a blur and fans and players alike will be looking forward to getting back to a sense of normality this year – well, what passes for normality at this point.
Before we launch into a team by team preview, let’s make some bold/foolish predictions and hopes for the tournament ahead.
I hope that Finn Russell delivers the tournament of his career and locks down the Lions starting ten slot, we see fans back in the grounds before the end of the competition, France don’t lose a single bit of the confidence or intent that they showed in 2020, Sergio Parisse gets one final game for Italy before retiring for good, and fans in Europe get to watch at least one game in the pub and not just on our own at home.
Right, that is my wish list shared. Let’s get on with the show.
For the reigning champions, there is the usual level of expectation and pressure that is always there and that Eddie Jones denies any knowledge of whatsoever. The England coach has started building his team for the 2023 World Cup with a big focus on defence and kicking, which while important, did lead to some pretty frustrating and boring displays from his side in 2020.
The physicality that is so often spoken about was there as always but England relied upon opponents buckling under this sort of defensive pressure rather than tearing them apart with innovative attacking play.
What will concern opponents about England is that they did manage to find a way to keep winning even with this less offensively minded style of play and when players like Owen Farrell couldn’t kick a goal for love nor face mask. In the Autumn Nations Cup they were by far the worse side in the final against France but hung on and snuck the win deep in extra time.
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There are some exciting new and young faces to keep an eye on over the coming weeks with Ollie Lawrence hoping to lock down a consistent starting spot in the centres and break through star Paolo Odogwu looking to turn his club form into a first of many international caps.
Up front England fans will be focused on how the pack can overcome a series of injured players and still dominate the opposition. Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler are all out as are Joe Launchbury and Sam Underhill.
It’ll be interesting to everyone to see how the players from Saracens step up. Not only was their club relegated at the end of last season due to financial misbehaviour, but their England players haven’t played rugby of any sort for months.
Jones was criticised in the run up to the 2019 World Cup for not having a genuine back up to Ben Youngs at scrumhalf. Unfazed by the criticism, Jones continued with Youngs throughout 2020 and is starting him against Scotland in Round 1 this year.
The number nine is only 11 games away from setting a new record for England caps and is playing well but can the 31-year-old really be England’s first choice come the World Cup in 2023? So will we see Youngs turn into mentor this year as he looks to help the next generation step into his boots?
Speaking of old hands needing to guide the next generation, Ireland coach Andy Farrell has some tricky decisions ahead of him with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Both still have much to offer an Ireland side who will be wanting to take further steps forward on their journey post Joe Schmidt. But with Murray at 31 and Sexton at 35 years old, there are plenty of questions being asked about how much longer they should be starting.
After the relative disappointment of the 2019 World Cup, Ireland showed some good signs of development in 2020. Their previous style of grinding teams down ruck after ruck started to be replaced by a faster style of play with quicker ball movement. It didn’t always work but the intent was right and if they kick on in this year’s tournament they will cause teams some real headaches.
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Farrell has a strong coaching squad around him and with legend Paul O’Connell joining the set-up, we can expect the forwards especially to be fired up and wanting to make a statement or two. The typically reliable Irish lineout stumbled in 2020 and so fans should look to see how much work the pack has put in to ensuring they have a rock solid set piece.
James Lowe brings both pace and strength to the wing and after two promising appearances last year, he is one to watch from the men in green.
You know a French team is good when even English fans are talking about them as their second favourite side. The youngsters of 2020 surprised almost everyone with the way they performed and surely every rugby fan is looking forward to seeing what they can do this year.
Almost just as impressive was the depth the French coach, Fabien Galthié, was able to call upon for the final of the Autumn Cup when practically every single one of his first-choice team were not available. This back-up team were seconds away from beating England and winning the whole thing. This is partly a testament to the depth of talent in France and partly a sign that Galthié and his coaching team are instilling a culture and set of expectations at the national level that is having real impact.
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This year look for scrumhalf Antoine Dupont to continue his wonderful form and guide his team to more success. Whether they can go all the way will depend quite a bit on whether Dupont’s halves partner can step up. Last year Romain Ntamack and Dupont played well together but with the first-choice flyhalf due to miss the start of this year’s competition because of surgery, France needs replacement Matthieu Jalibert to replicate his Top 14 form.
You do get the feeling that Wales might be in for a bit of a rough few years? Warren Gatland was such a huge influence on the team and the country as a whole that it’s going to take a while to adjust afterwards and find a new identity.
Wayne Pivac focused in 2021 on attack and encouraged his team to go out and run with the ball in hand and challenge the opposition. When it worked, it looked great and there were some memorable tries scored. However it didn’t work often enough and in their last ten games they’ve only managed to beat Italy (twice) and Georgia.
Under Gatland, Wales were very hard to beat and they need to find that grit and find it quickly. They too have an issue when it comes to replacing ageing talent – captain Alun Wyn Jones will pick up his 144th international cap in Round 1 and once you’ve stopped thinking about how impressive that is (and it really is!) you’re left thinking, ‘Wow they really do need to replace the old fella!’
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Unfortunately one of the attacking stars of the team – Josh Adams – will miss the opening of the Championship having been banned for breaking COVID distancing rules in the past week. That’s not what any of the Welsh set-up would have wanted as they look to start the tournament with a win against a competitive Irish side in Round 1.
Pivac’s contract has a break clause apparently mid way through this year. It’s no exaggeration to say that his career with Wales depends upon how his team performs in the next few weeks. Hosting Ireland and England in Cardiff would usually be a great thing but with no crowds, Pivac will be hoping that his team can find the fire they need from somewhere else and pick up two big scalps.
Usually any preview about Italy in a Six Nations competition are quite simple to write – you can practically copy and paste the entry from the previous ten years’ tournaments.
However this year there’s something a bit different about the men in blue. Yes, they will still struggle and will likely pick up the wooden spoon. But in 2020 there were some signs of something genuinely building within Italian rugby. The national team didn’t perform especially well but at lower levels there were some much better results and performances and that’s going to flow up into the national side… hopefully.
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Franco Smith has Italy playing in a more bold manner and expectations are being set higher by all involved. He is clearly taking a longer term view as well with only four of his squad having over 30 caps. But what these players lack in experience, they make up for with talent and potential.
Paolo Garbisi will play at flyhalf and if you search for his name on YouTube you’ll probably come across a highlights reel of the most audacious – and effective – dummy passes ever made. If he can learn the game management that the top tens have and not lose that skill with ball in hand, then he could become a real leader for the Azzurri.
The Italians will miss full back Matteo Minozzi but scrumhalf Stephen Varney has impressed in his first couple of games and has that habit of all the great nines of popping up in just the right places to support and finish off an attacking passage of play.
Smith needs time to build this team – he’ll buy himself some of this time if his team can snatch a win in this year’s competition. It doesn’t sound much but it’ll be their first in 27 matches.
How can any team that has Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg in their line-up not be up there with the favourites? Well that’s the story of Scotland for too long now and every year there is always this same discussion about when they are going to deliver more.
Over the past few years there have been some absolutely fantastic performances but unfortunately they have stood out as the exception rather than the rule and time after time the Scottish fans and players have had to look at championship tables with their nation’s name nowhere near the top.
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Gregor Townsend will be wanting a bit of everything from his side this year. They need to make their average performance level a bit better and they need to cut out the errors that have seen them lose games they really could have, even should have won.
The margins are thin for sure but that’s so often the case at the top level of any sport. One encouraging area of improvement more recently has been that Scotland have started to be able to identify and punish an opponent’s weaknesses as they appear in a game. Typically the men from up north would doggedly stick to their game plan and sometimes it worked, but most times it fell short.
If they can keep developing this ability to spot chinks in the opposition’s armour and exploit them then that’s going to see them turn those narrow loses into narrow wins and suddenly fifth places and fourth places become third and second and maybe, just maybe…
Duhan van der Merwe is an exciting talent to watch this year – he’s had some good games so far for Scotland and with his speed and size can be a scary threat out on the wing.
Round 1 Predictions
Italy versus France
France to open their 2021 account with an easy win over the Italians. France by 15 points.
England versus Scotland
England to win a close one against their old rivals on the 150th anniversary of this match. England by five points.
Wales versus Ireland
Ireland to sneak the match of the round as they enjoy playing in a quiet Cardiff. Wales spiral into trouble begins. Ireland by six points.