The Gain Line looks forward to this year's RBS Six Nations and selects his favourite outright bets for this year's competition.
After a World Cup dominated by the Southern Hemisphere sides, the leading Northern Hemisphere contenders (and Italy) look to regroup for the 2016 Six Nations Championship. But which teams will redeem themselves in the coming weeks and which will continue to flag? Let's take a look.
England are favourites for this year's Six Nations and deservedly so in my opinion.
Ever since their embarrassing Pool exit from last year's World Cup, as hosts, I've been keen to get them onside for the upcoming Six Nations for one simple reason: they have more to atone for than any other side in the competition. By a distance. Last year's World Cup exit hurt the English players and they must be itching for a chance to prove themselves in white.
Added to this is the strong form of English club sides in Europe (five of eight Champions Cup Quarter Finalists) and the change of head coach from the incompetent Stuart Lancaster to the shrewd Eddie Jones. I imagine morale is high in the English camp right now and the change of captaincy from Chris Robshaw to Dylan Hartley must be a boost. Hartley's suspensions have been well documented in recent weeks but less so is England’s lack of clear direction (and inspiration) under Robshaw. The change of captain is positive.
After Jones' success with Japan, England are the team I'm most looking forward to seeing this Spring. And although they've yet to play under Jones, in a style he has signalled will be rooted in English traditions, I have them down as the team to beat.
Projected Finish: Winners.
Wales carry some injuries into the tournament (such as Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Scott Williams) but nothing to the extent of their World Cup travails. So for Wales, a team adept at coping with injuries, this should present a small setback at most. Of more concern, perhaps, is the poor form of George North for his club. North is the man other teams fear, especially in attack, and Wales are a lot less dangerous if he is “off form”.
However, Wales still have a number of top-class experienced players – Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton to name a few – and know what it takes to win games. They’ll be difficult to beat. But if I have a concern in backing Wales for the tournament, it's in their scrum where Gatland has struggled to replace Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard. I’m not certain they can hold their own here against the likes of England.
Projected Finish: Second.
For a side looking to make it three Six Nations titles in a row, the Irish appear more fragile than any other Six Nations side (apart from Italy).
To my mind, there are two key issues facing Ireland. The main one is that more talented and tactically adept opponents have figured out Joe Schmidt's narrow game plan and learned how to exploit it. You only need to recall Ireland's last international game, against Argentina in the World Cup quarter final, to see the impact of this. To date, Schmidt’s Ireland have failed to roll out a "Plan B" when "Plan A" fails – something partly attributable to a lack of leaders like O'Driscoll (retired), O'Connell (retired) and O'Mahony (injured). Secondly, the performances of the Irish provinces in Europe this season raises serious question marks over the form and confidence of the Irish players at present. Not to mention the clouds over Jonny Sexton's health due to repeated concussive traumas in recent years.
With a fixture list that sees Ireland travel to both England and France, the Irish aren't contenders this year for me. In fact, I think they may struggle.
Projected Finish: Third.
Of all the Six Nations sides, Scotland will be most pleased with their World Cup efforts (notwithstanding their controversial exit to Australia). Without doubt, progress is being made under Vern Cotter. Based on the more attacking style of its leading club side at present, Glasgow, Scotland is transitioning towards a more adventurous style of rugby under Cotter. And it’s proving competitive with Scotland becoming increasing difficult opposition for any side. Just ask Australia.
Scotland will win games in this year's Six Nations. But, for me, they still lack sufficient quality throughout their squad to mount a challenge for the tournament.
Projected Finish: Fourth.
France being France, it’s almost impossible to predict how they will they perform this season. Philippe Saint-Andre had to go after the World Cup but I can't help feeling that Guy Noves' appointment has come several years too late. His Toulouse side won four European titles and ten French titles but it undoubtedly regressed against its rivals in his final few seasons at the helm. The reasons were many but a significant amount of the blame must surely lie with Noves himself. Maybe his international stewardship will begin better than his club one ended but the jury is still out.
Noves aside, there are no signs from the French players that they’re about to discard their long tradition of inconsistency. The absence of a safe pair of hands at out half looms large over their prospects (even if Trinh-Duc has the makings of a high calibre 10), whilst the retirement of captain Thierry Dusautoir also weakens their side.
Projected Finish: Fifth.
Italy have Sergio Parisse and nothing else. No coach. No hope.
Projected Finish: Bottom.