Six Nations preview: who stands a chance at Grand Slam glory?

Our sports writers assess each countries' chances in the upcoming Six Nations.

Rebecca Johnson
30th January 2020
Image- Flickr
The beginning of February means one thing, no not Brexit, but the return of one of rugby's favourite competitions- the Six Nations. Here our sports team assess each team's chances as to who will lift the Championship trophy on March 14th.

England- Tom Moorcroft

So it’s that time of the year again. English sports fans crowd around TVs nationwide as their team competes in the Six Nations. England fans have had a fair bit to celebrate in the last few years, with the likes of English Football making it to the World Cup Semi-Finals in 2018, and English Cricket winning the 2019 World Cup. However, Rugby fans have relished in last years glory, as our England side managed to beat New Zealand, Australia and Argentina in the build up to the final. In the final, England fans were stuck to the TV after South Africa walloped the Roses 32-12, but fans this year will find inspiration with how our team performed.

However, with a new competition and a new squad, Eddie Jones has put forward a squad which should dominate Europe. A couple of standouts from the World Cup; Elliot Daly, Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs have received conventional call-ups, yet Jones has decided to recruit 8 uncapped players for the competition.

“We wanted to bring some young players in because we need to keep building our depth, so for those new players it’s an exciting opportunity for them”.

Eddie Jones

These players include the likes of hooker Tom Dunn, flanker Ben Earl, and Wasps fly-half Jacob Umaga. Other players include Bath prop Will Stuart, who according to Dai Young could go “all the way”, and Ollie Thorley, a talented young prospect with a bright, positive energy to his play. 

However, on the other side of the coin, we have the players that have either been injured, or simply just not selected. These include Dan Cole, a regular sub in last year’s World Cup. Sadly, we’ve seen Billy Vunipola not selected due to injury, resulting in England losing a key player, whilst lacking other number eights of the same class.

Another blow to the England squad, whilst not physical, would be the recent events at Saracens. International Rugby aside, their recent relegation from the Premiership at the end of this season, after a variety of salary cap breaches throughout the club, has left some players emotionally affected. Owen Farrel, England and Saracens fly-half, has stated that “It’s been different over the last couple of days,'' in comparison to his normal attitude towards the tournament’s build-up. Similar players that will be affected include Mako Vunipola and Jamie George, both forwards for the London based club.

Source: WikiCommons

However, there are definite positives to take from Jones’ team selection. With a combination of the class talent which we’ve seen come up through the England rankings over the last decade, and the bright new future talents which Jones has shown interest in, any England fan should seem comfortable in knowing that this squad will give anything it can.

With England due to play France on Sunday 2 February, their first game of the tournament, we’ll have to see if England attack their opponents with the same tenacity, strength and composure that saw them go all the way to a World Cup final.

France- Rebecca Johnson

France open up their Six Nations account against the old rivals England on Sunday 2 February, in a clash dubbed “Le Crunch”. Les Bleus will be looking to improve upon their fourth place finish last year.

In previous years, France have never been one of the worst rugby sides, but they’ve never been one of the best either. They had a relatively decent World Cup last year, reaching the quarter-finals before being knocked out through the narrowest of margins by their Six Nations rivals, Wales.

However, currently France are undergoing somewhat of a rejuvenation since the last Six Nations tournament. They are now under the leadership of former French captain and scrum-half, Fabien Galthlie. Prior to this, some squad and tactical decisions under previous coach, Jacques Brunel were questionable to say the very least. Under Galthlie, France are slowly starting to try and take shape and lay the foundations in order to build a successful team for the future.

This rejuvenation can already be seen in Galthlie’s decisions. Toulon’s Charles Ollivon has just been named captain, replacing the retired Guilhem Guirado. The 26 year old flanker has only 11 caps to his name, yet the new gaffer has still expressed his faith in Ollivon.

“We want to give these players the desire to become a great rugby nation again,”

“We needed strong players on board with our project, and Charles has the capacity to assume the skipper’s responsibilities.”

Galthlie’s desire for France to become a “great rugby nation” is illustrated through his decision to name 19 uncapped players for the Six Nations. Experienced players such as Maxime Medard, Camille Lopez and Alivereti Raka have been left out of the squad in favour for younger and fresher players. This includes a call-up for 20-year old Louis Carbonel. The fly-half has had a great season for Toulon and helped them to a finish in third position in France. He’ll be hoping to get stuck into the action straight away for France in the Six Nations.

"We want to give these players the desire to become a great rugby nation again."

France coach, Fabien Galthlie

Arguably, Galthlie is playing a huge risk this tournament by introducing so many uncapped players. However, if the gamble plays off, the gaffer may be on the right path to making France a “great rugby nation again”. He may find himself the leader of a group of hungry, passionate and fairly decent rugby players who can lead France to success. Alternatively, he could find himself back to the drawing board. Either way, this is bound to be a fascinating Six Nations tournament for France to see if their gamble works.

Ireland- Tom Hardwick

2019 was something of an annus horribilis for Ireland: they lost the Six Nations crown that they had claimed the previous year, suffering losses to England and Wales before enduring a comprehensive 46-14 World Cup defeat at the hands of New Zealand.

This may not have inspired the Irish with an excess of optimism going into the Six Nations, but there is reason to believe that they can improve on their prior showing. Johnny Sexton has been handed the captaincy by new coach Andy Farrell, in an effort to reinvigorate the squad. The 2018 World Rugby Player of The Year is an integral cog in the Irish rugby machine, as evidenced by the side's lacklustre performance in a 19-12 loss to Japan that Sexton watched from the sidelines. The fly-half offers years of experience at the highest level of rugby and is renowned for his unerring kicking accuracy, making him the perfect leader around which the Irish team can rally. Of course, his teammates will need to raise their own performances to match Sexton's standards, but this early move from Farrell seems a wise one as he looks to revive Ireland's fortunes.

Despite bestowing one of his most experienced senior players with the captaincy, Farrell has not been afraid make bold decisions, as emphasised by the inclusion of Caelan Doris in the starting line-up for the opening match against Scotland. It may be a baptism of fire for the former Ireland under-20 captain, with the Aviva Stadium sure to be a cauldron of noise, but his selection is not unwarranted. The young flanker has made his name as part of a Leinster team that has dominated in the Champions Cup, winning all six of their pool 1 games to set up a quarter-final tie with crisis-stricken Saracens. Ireland may have struggled with stagnancy over the past 12 months, but Doris is sure to provide dynamism and enthusiasm as the team look to dispel the memories of 2019. Irish fans should be wary of placing too much expectation on young shoulders, but having impressed at club level, Doris may well be one to watch as the tournament progresses.

Farrell's reign seems to have started positively, but he will need to tighten Ireland's defence if he hopes to extend this initial honeymoon period. The Englishman has history as a defence coach for both England and Ireland, with his appointment perhaps being a considered move by the IRFU to strengthen a defence that looked increasingly fragile towards the end of Joe Schmidt's tenure. This weakness was capitalised upon devastatingly by the all-blacks in Japan, and there are concerns that if this has not been addressed by Farrell, then similarly galling defeats might be inflicted yet again. The first game against Scotland is certainly not the most difficult tie that Ireland will face, but it is a chance to assess their progress from a defensive viewpoint. Scotland, as their 38-38 draw against England at the last Six Nations highlights, have the potential to pose an attacking threat. However, if Ireland can deal comfortably with the Scots on home soil, it will provide them with a welcome increase in confidence looking forward to more imposing fixtures, such as the trip to Twickenham.

Ireland may not be favourites going into the tournament, but they should not be written off at this early stage. England's World Cup run may have helped to establish them as Six Nations favourites, but with Billy Vunipola being ruled out through injury and the Saracens financial scandal affecting the likes of Owen Farrell, Eddie Jones' side might struggle. Wayne Pivoc's Wales will be confident of retaining the Six Nations but, if Ireland can capitalise on home advantage against the Welsh, Farrell's side may well have a chance of glory in March.

Wales- Rebecca Johnson

Wales begin their Six Nations campaign against Italy on Saturday and will be looking to regain the title of Six Nations champions for a second consecutive year.

Under the stewardship of Warren Gatland and captain Alun Wyn Jones, Wales have had a strong and steady few years. They are currently fourth in the World Rugby rankings, sat just behind South Africa, New Zealand and their Six Nations rivals- England.

The side come off the back of a successful World Cup in Japan. They opened their World Cup account with a comfortable 43-14 win against Georgia before defeating Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in the group. An incredibly narrow win against France, the score being 20-19, saw Wales progress to the semi-finals of the competition. Here, they faced an incredibly strong South African side, who not only beat them 16-19, but would go on to defeat England in the finals.

However, after the World Cup, the side have seen coach Gatland replaced by New Zealander, Wayne Pivac. Gatland had been with Wales for twelve years, and became their most successful coach, taking over in 2007 and leading Wales to four Six Nations victories and three Grand Slams in that time. New coach Pivac will be hoping to replicate Gatland’s success and more. He previously coached Welsh side, the Scarlets, for five years before taking over as Wales coach after the World Cup last year and oversaw his first win against the Barbarians.

One thing that remains consistent in the Wales team is the domineering presence of captain and gentle giant, Alun Wyn Jones. The captain won player of the tournament in the last Six Nations and will be eager to help lead his team to another Championship. In an interview with the BBC, Jones expressed how it will be a “bumpy ride” for Wales under new leadership, but added that this is something necessary if the team are going to “evolve”. The 34-year-old has captained Wales for three years and is not only Wales’ most captained player but the world’s most captained lock forward.

Regarding the squad, Wales have got a relatively healthy and fit squad, with limited injury concerns. The only major injury concerns are hooker Elliot Dee, who is suffering a rib injury and centre Jonathan Davies, who is suffering a long-term knee injury that he picked up during Wales’ World Cup campaign against Fiji.

The Six Nations could also provide some valuable experience for some new and young Welsh blood. 18-year-old, Louis Rees-Zammit is tipped to be given some game time for Wales during the tournament. The Gloucester winger has been on fire for his club, a player that comes packed with pace and a lot of tries, earning him the title of Premiership player of the Month in December 2019.

Wales are an incredibly confident and strong team at the moment, and are more than capable of winning another consecutive Six Nations. Fans have got plenty to look forward to, after a good World Cup run and the presence of a new gaffer, a mixture of old and new Welsh players under new leadership could prove quite the challenge for their rivals this tournament.

Scotland- Rory Ewart

One name is hot pressed with Scotland at the moment, which, don’t you worry; will be mentioned in depth later. But as a preview for the whole team as the Six Nations fast approaches, a certain Mr Russell’s antics are not the pressing issue for the rest of the squad.

Scotland enters the 20s with somewhat deflation. Having seen momentous individual performances in recent preceding years, victory over England and Australia in 2018 spring to mind, 2019 proved to be a year to forget somewhat.

Source: Instagram - scotlandteam

Last year’s Six Nations began with a convincing victory against Italy, with only a blip in the final ten minutes suggesting any creaks in the Scots armoury. The following weeks narrow defeat to Ireland saw poor errors from the back three of Scotland make poor errors leading to the crucial Irish scores, a headache for fans to watch, however, seemingly the nations form was still in reasonable shape.

The latter stages of the tournament was like a roller coaster which had no ways of predicting what was coming next. A dismal trip to Paris saw a virtual no show in the 27-10 loss to France, which was an even more dismal 32-3 loss in the southern city of Nice. We’ll leave the French at that.

The roller coaster ride then went to a near thrilling high with the visit of Wales in early March. Ending in a critical 18-11 Welsh win towards their grand slam, it was another guilty case of so close, yet so far. The final match against England needs little introduction, a 38-each draw was a game likely to never be repeated again, with Scotland replying from a four-try deficit to come seconds away from a momentous victory against England. A win that would have been the first at Twickenham since 1983.

 Topsy turvy comes to mind for Scotland entering the World Cup in Japan with a squad that took a youthful approach to it. With the likes of Scott Cummings, Jamie Ritchie, George Horne and Darcy Graham all making the plane, it was abundantly clear that Gregor Townsend wanted to blood young talent for future campaigns.

Sadly the risk didn’t play off, comprehensive losses to Ireland and Japan meant Scotland were knocked out from the tournament at the group stage for only the second time ever.

"Every individual has to align himself to what's to the benefit of the team"

Now to the present, Scotland are yet to kick a ball yet in 2020 but drama has already been in abundance within the camp. Of course, Finn Russell’s name is prominent to the developments of the past week. In case you missed this (have you been under a rock?) Gregor Townsend omitted Russell from the training camp due to a breach of “team protocol”, with unconfirmed sources claiming that this may have involved alcohol abuse.

Russell is likely the only player in the squad that could be classified as ‘untouchable’, with deputy Adam Hastings being perhaps lacking the creative flair of Russell, which has warranted a nomination for the European Rugby Player of the Year award.

Scotland will have to face the fact that Russell will be absent for the Irish test, with Hastings having to follow up his strong performances for Glasgow Warriors as the first-choice Scottish fly-half for the first time in his career.

Six new faces also enter the camp for the first time. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Dumfries-born Alex Craig. Plying his trade for Premiership side Gloucester, Craig has impressed when appearing for the Cherry and Whites and will provide a competitive alternative locks Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist.

Overall Scotland are entering the Six Nations, and this decade, in serious transition. Leaders in the form of John Barclay, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw have now retired and in their place comes the opportunity for players such as Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg to lead the Scots threat this championship.

Fifth place seems to beckon for Scotland once more this year, but with young blood entering the fray constantly presently, this decade promises to bring a new dynasty of Scottish rugby to the limelight under the leadership of Stuart Hogg.

Italy- Stan Gilyead

Italy come into the Six Nations off the back of a disappointing 2019 World Cup in which they won only two games, against minnows Canada and Namibia, and failed to progress to the knockout stages. Italy are the perennial whipping boys of the Six Nations, having claimed the wooden spoon in each of the last four editions of the competition, and have little hope of chalking up their first ever Six Nations title this year.

The Italians will instead be hoping just to win a game, having not done so in the competition since 2015. Their best chance of this looks to come on the 22nd February, when they face Scotland in Rome. The Italians will hope that their home advantage, along with the weakness of the Scottish side, will give them a chance of breaking their 22 match Six Nations losing run.

Signs aren’t promising for the Italians, however. Coach Conor O’Shea left after the World Cup and the Italians are yet to find a permanent replacement, South African Franco Smith will take charge on a temporary basis during the Six Nations. The Azzurri also have a new captain for the tournament, Luca Bigi will take over from the departing Sergio Parisse, and the Six Nations will represent a steep learning curve for the 28-year-old hooker who only has 24 international caps.

Whilst the chances of Italy winning the Six Nations are close to nil, the tournament is still important for the side. Talk of an expanded two-tier version of the competition is increasing, designed to reflect the increasing strength of sides such as Georgia in relation to Italy. The Italians will be keen to have a good showing in order to justify their presence in a tournament in which they have increasingly looked a class below the competition.

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