The Six Nations gets underway this weekendFlickr: Welsh Assembly

We say it every year, but this Six Nations looks set to be one of the most competitive yet. Ireland’s provinces are dominant in the Champions Cup, Scotland are resurgent under Gregor Townsend, and England have still lost just once under Eddie Jones. Wales are attacking more, Italy’s club teams are finally performing, and France are, well… France.

All the nations are suffering badly with injuries, so it could become a test of strength in depth, rather than skill, but here’s how I see the Championship playing out.

England

Injuries and suspensions have robbed Eddie Jones of at least 15 players for the start of the tournament, but he is still able to call upon 11 British and Irish Lions. Indeed, while there are 8 uncapped players in the squad, England also have a man who has captained England more times than anyone else in Chris Robshaw, as well as their most successful captain ever, Dylan Hartley. England, more than any other nation in the world, have the resources to cope with such a crisis.

Though they went unbeaten in the Autumn Internationals, their performances were some way below where they need to be if they are to become the No. 1 side in the world. English club sides, too, have been struggling in Europe, perhaps the toll beginning to tell on their Lions players, who have played significantly more than their Irish, Welsh and Scottish counterparts.

Nonetheless, if they can find their spark, home fixtures against Wales and Ireland should put them on course to become the first nation to ever win three consecutive Six Nations tournaments. If they manage the Grand Slam, though, it will be some achievement. Scotland are going from strength to strength, meaning their clash at Murrayfield could be the toughest of the lot, while the match against Ireland on the final day could be a Grand Slam showdown.

Prediction: Winners (Grand Slam)

Player(s) to watch: Sam Simmonds – with Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes out injured, Simmonds is poised to be England’s No.8 for most of the tournament. Considerably smaller than those he is replacing, it will be exciting to see how the former centre fits in. Look out for Denny Solomona, too. The winger is having a quiet season for Sale Sharks, but his 50m solo try against Argentina last summer is hard to forget. 

Ireland

Ireland are perhaps the form team, coming off the back of some impressive autumn performances, and Leinster are undefeated in Europe. With Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton controlling things at half-back, and a back-row including Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, Ireland have the foundations of a world-beating team. They too, however, have injury troubles, with the likes of Sean O’Brien, Jaime Heaslip, Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose missing out. Fortunately, though, they also have the in-form Leinster back-row of Dan Leavy, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier, and explosive centre Bundee Aki to call on.

With home fixtures against Italy, Wales, and Scotland which I expect them to win, the real test will be England away. That’s not to write off Scotland, who could spring a few surprises this year, but with their passionate supporters cheering them on, I can see Ireland arriving at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day with Grand Slam hopes fully intact.

Prediction: Runners-up

Player to watch: Jordan Larmour – the wing/full-back has been tearing it up for Leinster in his break-through season, aged just 20. If given the chance, he could provide the long-term replacement for Rob Kearney in the 15-shirt. Expect fireworks.

Scotland

This is the first Six Nations for many, many a year when Scotland have a genuine chance of winning the trophy. In November, they were within inches of beating the All Blacks, then put 53 points past Australia. Their weakness has been defence but if they can sort that out, this will be a team to be reckoned with. As with all the teams, though, Scotland find themselves in an injury crisis, with eight front-rowers missing. I’m backing them to win in Cardiff (just) on the opening day, but England and Ireland’s strong packs will be too powerful.

With a predominantly Glasgow back-line, playing together every week, and the high-tempo game of half-backs Ali Price and Finn Russell, Scotland now pose a threat to any defence. They will have far too much for Italy and will run the big French pack ragged… England will have to be on high alert for their trip north of the border.

Prediction: 3rd

Player to watch: Stuart Hogg – having been out injured, the Glasgow full-back set up two stunning tries against Exeter on his return and is one of the few northern hemisphere players who would be picked by the All Blacks – he’s that good. Oh, and keep an eye out for Scott Lawson, the 36-year-old hooker.

England, led by coach Eddie Jones, will start the tournament as hot favouritesDiallo 25

Wales

After finishing fifth in 2017, Wales will be determined to make it into the top half of the table, and their selection for this weekend is exciting.

Though their new, more expansive style of play is still a work in progress, and their backline is much-changed – fly halves Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland are injured – this could be a watershed moment as they have been forced to pick a more attacking stand-off, Rhys Patchell. Indeed, while the back-line is new at international level, right-wing Josh Adams is the only player not from the Scarlets, meaning – like Scotland – they will all be very familiar.

Unfortunately, Wales’ injuries are also extensive. They are missing an entire Lions back-row, including captain Sam Warburton, as well as star Lions backs Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb and Liam Williams.

Over the past couple of years, Wales haven’t looked like a team capable of winning things and, with the same coaching staff at the helm, I don’t see a lot changing; but, if they are able to take the form of Scarlets into international colours, there could be a surprise. Still, I anticipate away defeats to Ireland and England, with another loss at home to the buoyant Scots.

Prediction: 4th

Player(s) to watch: Josh Adams and James Davies – Wing Adams is the Premiership’s top try-scorer despite playing for 11th-placed Worcester, while the tackling and turnover stats of flanker Davies are mightily impressive at Scarlets. Davies is also an Olympics Sevens silver-medallist, so if these two are selected, there will be plenty of skills on show.

France

Where to begin? The amount of talent at their disposal is so great that part of me wouldn’t be surprised if they won the Grand Slam. With young new half-backs, Vrimi Vakatawa out wide, and the canon-ball of a prop Dany Priso, there is plenty to get excited about under new coach Jacques Brunel. But then again, this is France. It used to be that they would always win the Six Nations after a Lions year, but their inconsistency in selection and lack of structure has let them down badly in recent times.

Sadly, this looks set to continue, with No.8 Louis Picamoles – perhaps their only world-class player – being left out. With over half of their squad under 25, you get the feeling that Brunel is thinking more about a home World Cup in 2023 than Japan 2019. Indeed, their oldest fly-half is just 21 and captain Guilhem Guirado is the only player with over 50 caps, leaving them very light on experience. While I’d back them to beat Italy at home, you can never be sure with the French.

Prediction: 5th

Player to watch: Matthieu Jalibert – the 19-year-old Bordeaux fly-half looks to be the real deal. His pace and foot-work are like those of a winger, but he reads the game like an experienced 10. If Brunel can nurture him, he will be one to keep an eye on.


READ MORE

Mountain View

James Haskell: ‘What was good when I last played wouldn’t be good enough now’

Italy

The perennial winners of the wooden spoon look destined to pick it up again. Conor O’Shea has done wonderful things for Italian rugby, revolutionising the way the sport is managed at elite level, and club sides Zebre and Benetton have put in some impressive performances this season. There are more reasons than usual for them to be positive, but positivity alone is unlikely to be enough.

With the constant clamour for Georgia to be given the opportunity to enter the Six Nations, Italy badly need some results. Their best chance probably comes in France where, depending on the state of disarray Les Bleus are in by then, they might be able to produce a shock, but with England and Scotland their only home games, any victory would be a pleasant surprise.

Prediction: Wooden Spoon

Player(s) to watch: While there is plenty of youth coming through Italian rugby, look out for veterans Sergio Parisse (captain) and Alessandro Zanni who will be looking to add to their 129 and 99 caps respectively

Sponsored links