The Gain Line looks forward to this year's Six Nations and highlights two surprise outright selections for this year's competition.
In a World Cup year, as the Heineken Cup group stages conclude and quarter finalists are determined, the Six Nations has crept up on many. Let's take a look at the contenders.
It’s easy to understand why Ireland are favourites for the Six Nations after an almost faultless 2018. In March, Ireland claimed their second-ever Grand Slam in Twickenham. In May, Leinster beat Racing 92 to join Toulouse as four-time European champions. Ireland then traveled to Australia in June and won a three-test tour series against the Wallabies. And in Autumn, Ireland claimed their second-ever win against the All Blacks with an accomplished performance that reaffirmed their ‘Number 2’ world ranking. The only dampener for Ireland was Joe Schmidt’s November announcement that he will step down as Irish coach after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Current Irish coach, Andy Farrell, has been announced as Schmidt’s successor.
The Irish players have started 2019 where they left off in 2018. Munster, Leinster and Ulster are all Heineken Cup quarter-finalists whilst Connacht is also a quarter-finalist in the Challenge Cup. And aside from second-rowers Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, and Rob Kearney who hasn’t fully proved his sharpness for the England game in the mind of Schmidt, Ireland are virtually at full strength with a deep squad of talented, experienced and motivated players eager to make this a year to remember.
When you reference the likes of Sexton, Murray, Furlong, O’Mahony, Ringrose, Henshaw, Earls, Stockdale, James Ryan, O’Brien and Stander as just a few of leading Irish players, alongside the fact that Ireland hasn’t lost a home game in the Six Nations for almost three years, the scale of the challenge facing all title rivals becomes clear. Ireland are the team to beat.
It must be a major concern for England that Eddie Jones doesn’t appear to know his best team. Last season’s Six Nations highlighted the problem. Jones’ starting XV against Wales in Round 2 (ignoring Italy in Round1) saw George Ford start at fly-half; Owen Farrell partner Jonathan Joseph in the centre; Mike Brown play full-back; Dylan Hartley play hooker and the backrow feature Courtney Lawes at 6, Chris Robshaw at 7 and Sam Simmonds at 8. England won this match but in unconvincing fashion. With the exception of Nathan Hughes replacing Sam Simmonds at 8, the same team started away to Scotland and it seemed that Jones had settled on a preferred XV. But England’s comprehensive 12-point defeat in Murrayfield appeared to create doubts in Eddie Jones’ mind. After publicly defending Brown at 15 and Harley at 2, he dropped both for England’s Round 4 trip to Paris and made a positional change by moving Joseph to full-back and Ben Te’o to 13. England lost to France by 6 points and Jones then made another series of wholesale changes for Ireland by moving Farrell to out-half (thereby dropping his Ford-Farrell experiment) to be partnered by Saracens’ teammate Wigglesworth; recalling Hartley at hooker; dropping Dan Cole at prop in favour of Sinckler; moving Robshaw from 7 to 6 to replace Lawes; naming Haskell at 7 and recalling Simmonds at 8. But the changes didn’t work and England lost to Ireland by 9 points.
For all his changes, I think Jones’ starting team against Ireland this weekend is his best available selection. I like the look of this team. Farrell starts at out half, partnered by Wigglesworth. Tuilagi at 12 and Slade at 13 offer a nice balance of power and flair. A back trio of Nowell, May and Daly (at full back) looks poised and pacy. And a pack featuring Mako Vunipola, George and Sinckler in the front row, Itoje and Kruis in the second row and Billy Vunipola (who amazingly has only 36 caps) at 8 looks set to hold its own. And with Ford, Ashton and Hughes on the bench, England have strong replacement options.
So bad was England’s 2018 Six Nations, it’s easy to forget that Eddie Jones’ men were winners in 2017 and Grand Slam winners in 2016. They haven’t become a bad team overnight. But they have alot to prove.
Similar to Ireland, Wales come into this Six Nations under a successful coach scheduled to depart after the World Cup. They also carry strong form. Since their defeat to Ireland in last year’s Six Nations, Wales has won nine consecutive tests against teams including France, South Africa (twice), Argentina, Scotland and Australia. Confidence is high.
But Wales don’t have the squad depth of Ireland and have been weakened by the retirement of Sam Warburton and the absences of Faletau and Halfpenny. Few teams wouldn’t be. That's not to say they lack quality. Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams are top class, and there’s lots to like about a back row of Navidi, Tipuric and Moriarty. However, most interesting about Gatland’s team to play France is his preference of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe over Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar at 9 and 10. It looks a gamble and Wales’ prospects could hinge on it paying off.
Looking at Wales’ fixture schedule, it's clear Gatland is pleased. First up is France in Paris on Friday night. Then Italy next week before a two-week break before England at home. And then another two week break to prepare for Scotland away and Ireland at home a week later. Garland has suggested Wales will win the Six Nations if they beat France this Friday night. This implies a Triple Crown is a mere formality. I'm not so sure.
Scottish rugby is on the rise. Scotland has two Heineken Cup quarter-finalists and Stuart Hogg has publicly stated his belief that the Scots are serious contenders to win the Six Nations. It's a big statement.
With players like Hogg, Russell, Jones, Maitland, Laidlaw and Seymour, Scotland won’t be taken lightly. But, in the past few seasons, Scotland's front five has been perceived as a weakness. So can the Scottish forwards – both starting and finishing – now win anything close to parity against their opposite numbers? Glasgow and Edinburgh have shown positive signs in this respect and WP Nel looks to be a Lion in the making. Another issue for Scotland has been Townsend's preferred half back pairing of Russell and Laidlaw. Each is an exception player in his own right but can the “ball playing” Russell naturally combine well with “tactician” Laidlaw? The jury is out on this for me.
What Scotland really have in their favour is a nice run of fixtures. With Italy up first, the Scots can iron out any issues in readiness for Ireland at home on 9 February. Then they have a full two weeks to prepare for France in Paris. A location where Racing’s Russell will relish showcasing his undoubted talent. And finally, another two week break to prepare for Wales at home before facing England away. The latter looking like Scotland’s most difficult fixture.
France remain, as always, an enigma. Results show Les Blues have now lost 13 of their last 17 test matches. But, by way of context, 5 were against South Africa (3 away), 4 were against New Zealand (3 away) and France can count themselves unlucky to lose against Ireland and Wales in last year’s Six Nations. But just as France looked to be making progress under Jacques Brunel, their old frailties showed in a 7-point home defeat to Fiji last November. A defeat labelled as "shameful" by Mathieu Bastareaud.
With one eye on the World Cup perhaps, France included five uncapped players in their 31-man Six Nations squad – Romain Ntamack, Demba Bamba, Dorian Aldegheri, Gregory Alldritt and Thomas Ramos. Bamba and Alldritt have been named on the bench for Wales with Ntamack selected at 12. It's an interesting selection with 12’s now normally manned by more powerful runners – think Aki for Ireland and Tuilagi for England.
To complement the injection of youth, there’s a lot to like about this French team. Parra and Lopez will expertly control the game from the half backs in a manner that few French teams have seemed capable of in the past few years. Huget, Medard and Fofana bring huge amounts of experience and attacking nouse to the table. And a pack featuring Poirot, Guirado, Atonio at front row, Vahaamahina ad Willemse at second row and Lauret, Picamoles and Iturra in the back row looks more than capable of holding its own. On paper this French team looks like it could challenge. The only problem is that the French rarely play to their paper potential.
Italy have only won 3 games in their last 22 – against Fiji, Japan and Georgia – and it’s clear that Conor O’Shea has found the balance between short-term results and long-term structures difficult to navigate. However, signs of longer-term improvements are beginning to emerge. Most notably with Benneton who have quickly become competitive in the Heineken Cup and currently sit high in a Pro14 table featuring Leinster, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Ulster and the Dragons.
Italy are unlikely to win in Scotland or England; and haven’t won a Six Nations game in Rome since 2013. They are making progress but their more-established rivals have also moved on. Hence, any Italian win the Six Nations would be a surprise.
Pre-Tournment Thought & Advised Bets
Aside from Italy (who haven’t a hope), it looks incredibly difficult to pick the winner of this year’s Six Nations. Defending champions Ireland are clearly the team to beat. But their rivals look improved this year and even in their pomp, Ireland were fortunate to overcome France last year. And the scheduling hasn’t helped by coupling England at home with Scotland away in the opening fortnight, and France at home with Wales away in the final fortnight. Odds of 5/6 don’t remotely appeal.
Although England won back-to-back tournaments in 2016 and 2017, and should be vastly improved over last year, 4/1 doesn’t appeal. They travel to Dublin seeking to do what more-proven teams, including the All Blacks, have failed to do in the past few years – beat Ireland on home soil. A fresh, well-prepared Ireland. You can back England at 10/3 to beat Ireland if you really like their prospects this year. To back them at 4/1 to see off France, Wales and Scotland as well makes no sense to me.
Wales are confident and like their fixture schedule. They travel to France this week followed by Italy next week. Then England two weeks after that. And then they have two weeks to prepare for Scotland before hosting an Irish side they hope will have been pummeled by the French. And despite not winning the competition since 2013, departing Gatland knows how to successfully navigate the competition. For these reasons, mainly, I was quite keen on Wales before writing this piece. However, their half backs’ lack of big-game experience concerns me and with the exception of Alun Wyn Jones, I’m not particularly enthused by their front five either. I’d almost side with France in the opener even though Wales have won 6 of their last 7 against the French. In the round, 5/1 for Wales holds little appeal.
Who knows what France will turn up game-by-game. I’m not even sure they know. I definitely feel France has enough about them to collect some scalps this year … starting with Wales. But to put together four or five test results over a short period against teams ranked second, third, fourth and seventh in the world (France are ranked ninth) – including visits to London or Dublin – I’m not so sure. I feel that’s beyond them. 20/1 doesn’t appeal.
When Hogg came out and suggested Scotland could potentially win the Six Nations, I initially thought he was “half mad”. After sitting back and thinking about the tournament a little bit, I can see where he’s coming from so perhaps I’m the other half mad! I definitely feel that Scotland hold better prospects than their odds reflect. Their two clubs have shown positive signs this season – particularly in the forwards where Scotland have been short in prior years – and the fixtures work really, really well for them. I also think it’s a plus that a World Cup focused Ireland may be reluctant to show too much to their Pool rivals in advance of Japan.
Scotland are 10/1 to win the Six Nations in some firms. But you can get 18/1 on them in places which I hope will us a decent run.
Scotland to win the Six Nations: 1 point at 18/1 with Ladbrokes
I also see Scotland at a whopping 28/1 with Boylesports for the Triple Crown. I think England is Scotland’s most difficult fixture, from a scheduling perspective, but how I turn down an extra 10 points in the price.
Scotland to win the Triple Crown: 1 point at 28/1 with Boylesports