Owain Jones gives his expert view on who will win rugby's Six Nations, and predicts the finishing places for all the countries taking part.
Like a pint of mild or a rerun of Fawlty Towers, the Six Nations is drenched in nostalgia for millions of hardy rugby fans. The annual seven-week tournament – which kicks off on Saturday February 4 – carries us from the depths of winter to the heady first days of spring.
This year, for the first time, a bonus-point system has been added to spur teams into scoring more tries. Whether or not it works is immaterial: we’ll still be guaranteed a championship with lashings of drama, controversy, internecine wrangling and the odd game of riveting rugby.
Owain Jones, editor of Rugby World magazine, gives his views on who he thinks will come out on top this year.
See the full fixture list at the bottom of this article
Predicted winners: Ireland
State of the nation: Vibrant
Ireland’s remarkable November first win over the All Blacks in 111 years has given Joe Schmidt’s men a belief they can achieve anything. This is backed up by wins over Southern Hemisphere giants South Africa and Australia and, coupled with the Irish provinces riding high domestically, you can see why England approach the final test in Dublin with barely disguised trepidation.
Key player: Sean O’Brien
Nicknamed the Tullow Tank, the boy from Co Carlow rears bullocks and he gives his country a similar muscular presence on the field. Has struggled with injury in recent seasons, but, when fit, he gives the back row added dynamism along with the explosive C. J. Stander and veteran No 8 Jamie Heaslip.
What to expect: Fire and brimstone
When the Aviva Stadium is bouncing, it can be an intimidating place and, with Tadgh Furlong and Jack McGrath, the pre-eminent scrummagers in the Northern Hemisphere, giving half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton a platform, there’s every chance that outside-backs Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo could run amok.
2nd place: England
State of the nation: Uncharted territory
Fourteen wins on the spin have given England an invincible air, but mercurial coach Eddie Jones has sounded a note of caution over complacency. However, of more concern are the injuries to Chris Robshaw and 20-stone brothers Billy and Mako Vunipola. Their go-forward will be difficult to replace.
Key player: Maro Itoje
The Harrow-educated second-row, who writes poetry in his spare time, is a once-in-a-generation player. At 6ft 5in and 18 stone, he is immensely powerful, but what sets him apart is his athleticism, which could see him pushed up to playing at blindside. Just 22, he didn’t play on a losing side last season and is being inked in as a future captain.
What to expect: Tough test for potential record breakers
If England can go unbeaten until the final game, they’ll have the chance to break the world record for consecutive wins—19—but Wales lie in wait at an inhospitable Principality. Expect a stern examination of their world number two status as they build towards the World Cup.
3rd place: Wales
State of the nation: New beginnings
In recent years, Wales have had the most settled of squads, but stagnation in the past 12 months has led to increasingly vocal demands for evolving Wales’s style of play from muscular domination to their more traditional, evasive running rugby. They have a glut of exciting, uncapped players, but can they gel in time?
Key player: Justin Tipuric
He spent a long time in the shadow of former captain Sam Warburton, but the Trebanos-born open-side—who wears a blue scrum-cap to remind him of his home village—is a gifted ball player who links the forwards and backs with intelligence and guile. ‘Tips’ recently completed 160 tackles without missing one.
What to expect: Two steps forward, one step back
If Wales can walk the walk, after talking the talk about their evolution, they could prosper, especially with the talismanic Alun Wyn Jones at the helm and the world’s best kicker, Leigh Halfpenny, ticking the scoreboard over. Lose to Italy and it could be tears in the Principality.
4th place: Scotland
State of the nation: Signs of hope
Head coach Vern Cotter will leave his role and head to France soon after the tournament and he leaves Scotland in a far better place than he found it. Scotland are now competitive, regardless of the opposition, and the soul-sapping drubbings of recent years are being slowly eradicated from memory. The taciturn Kiwi prefers substance over style, but allows the side to express themselves.
Key player: Stuart Hogg
The outstanding Scottish player of the past decade, the full-back seems to possess a dizzying array of skills. He’s lightning quick, has a siege-gun boot and boasts a fierce competitive zeal. Simply, he’s Scotland’s match winner and a certainty to tour with the Lions in the summer. If he spots half a gap, just watch the Borderer go.
What to expect: The end of Scotland’s dark ages
With Glasgow finally breaking into Europe’s elite domestically, there’s no need for any Scottish player to be gripped by an inferiority complex. With gifted players such as Jonny Gray, Finn Russell and captain Greig Laidlaw, they have enough hard-earned grit to prosper. Whisper it, but hope abounds that Scotland are on the brink of something special.
5th place: France
State of the nation: Signs of life
France have inhabited the lower reaches of the 6 Nations for the past five years, but there are tentative indications of an upturn. Coach Guy Novès—French rugby’s answer to Sir Alex Ferguson—has started getting France to play with some élan after years of uninspired drudgery.
Key player: Yoann Huget
The debonair Huget is a bit of a rogue. Often involved in scrapes and skullduggery, he is, nevertheless, a rather splendid player. At 6ft 2in and 15 stone, he is quite a presence on the wing, but manages to play with a Gallic panache many find irresistible.
What to expect: French resistance
If France can locate their mojo early on, they might well give their Anglo-Saxon friends a bloody nose at Twickenham. Infinitely more likely is a win over Scotland in Paris the following weekend. For all their joie de vivre out wide, they will need thundering No 8 Louis Picamoles and industrious captain Guilhem Guirado at their influential best.
6th place: Italy
State of the nation: Revolution, not evolution
With their domestic sides struggling, former Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea has been tasked with revitalising the Azzurri in a root-and-branch overhaul. Sadly for Italy’s fans, any meaningful change could come in years, not weeks.
Key player: Carlo Canna
Fêted by his coach O’Shea as having as much talent as England pivot George Ford, Canna is a leggy, graceful No 10 with a varied passing game and accurate kicking game—he will be relishing putting Italian jet-heeled backs Michele Campagnaro and Giovanbattista Venditti into gaps.
What to expect: A fast start, or none at all
Led by the gladiatorial Sergio Parisse, Italy will be looking to catch Wales cold on the opening weekend and then target a win over France or Scotland at Murrayfield. Achieve two wins and it will be back slaps all round; achieve three for the first time in their history and O’Shea will be granted the freedom of Rome.
Complete Six Nations fixture list