England look set to absolve their World Cup disappointment by lifting the Six Nations crown, says Owain Jones, as he gives his team-by-team guide ahead of the contest that kicks off on Saturday.
The Rugby World Cup might have become the big beast in the global rugby calendar, but there’s nothing quite like the Six Nations to stir the emotions and rekindle rivalries that date back 139 years.
Our revered tournament touches places that others can’t reach and, throughout seven weeks of good-humoured revelry, the Six Nations 2020 action will be punctuated by thunderous collisions, moments of barely believable dexterity and the sheer unbridled joy of watching speedsters decked in national colours pinning back their ears.
They’re World Cup finalists, so hot favourites, right? It would appear so. England have their traditional rivals, Ireland and Wales, at their own ‘House of Pain’, Twickenham, and that bodes well. The most recent Six Nations after a World Cup led to a grand chelem in Paris.
Eddie Jones’s men have raw power in abundance with Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Manu Tuilagi boasting enough muscle to scare the bogeyman. What’s more, in George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, they also boast craftsmen capable of unpicking the wiliest of defences.
So they’re unstoppable in the Six Nations 2020? Not so fast. The common thinking is that scrum-half Ben Youngs is on the wane and that England are still flip-flopping between Ford and Owen Farrell at fly-half. Then there’s the full-back, Elliot Daly, who has his doubters. And how much have England’s Saracens contingent been affected by their club’s relegation after breaching the salary cap? We shall see.
Player to watch
Joe Marler has been England joker-in-chief for a number of years, vying with Mako Vunipola for the No 1 shirt. However, behind the peroxide-blonde mohawk and rugby-outlier act lies a fantastic player. Marler, 29, has 68 England caps and is famed for his scrummaging and tackling. He has the madcap personality to transcend rugby’s niche walls. Did I mention I’m a Celebrity?
No more Warren Gatland? I’m afraid so. Gatland was Wales’s greatest coach, leading them to three Grand Slams and four titles, but the majority of the squad are still together after reaching the World Cup semi-finals. Under new coach Wayne Pivac, they have selected crowd pleasers Johnny McNicholl and Owen ‘Fast’ Lane, but they’ve also added heft in the form of 21st prop WillGriff John. The return of the incomparable No 8 Taulupe Faletau and scrum-half Rhys Webb means Wales have a squad brimming with brio, too.
How will the loss of Shaun Edwards be felt? Keenly. Byron Hayward has the unenviable job of replacing the world’s best defence coach and has been tasked with making Wales watertight. In addition, Jonathan Humphreys, the former Wales captain, has to build a scrum that can cope with monstrous English and French packs.
Wales have also had to use guile to prise Nick Tompkins, the Kent-born Saracens centre, from under Eddie Jones’s nose. Bedding him into a key defensive channel will be instructive to how Wales fare.
Player to watch
The term bolter was written for the stripling Louis Rees-Zammit from Cardiff. At 6ft 3in, the wing, who plays his rugby at Gloucester, has already been named ‘Rees Lightning’ on account of running in 10 tries in as many games. A subtle offloading game and the ability to come infield looking for work mark him out as a future Welsh superstar.
It all went a bit sour for Joe Schmidt, didn’t it? Ireland’s most successful coach ended his trophy-laden tenure under something of a cloud after a last-eight World Cup exit, with mud-slinging from all quarters. Now, his long-term lieutenant Andy Farrell has taken a broom to a stuttering squad, with mainstays Rory Best (retired) and Rob Kearney left out and young backrows Caelan Doris and Jack O’Donoghue adding dynamism. New captain Johnny Sexton will mentor in-form halfbacks John Cooney and Billy Burns.
Is all well in Team Ireland? The jury’s out. Ireland are still a very well-oiled machine, they simply need to re-find the mojo they lost a year ago when being obliterated by England in Dublin. They never recovered, as Sexton and Conor Murray’s auras of invincibility evaporated, Jacob Stockdale stopped scoring tries and the backrow of Peter O’Mahony and C. J. Stander became a blunt instrument. A ‘period of transition’ is mooted.
Player to watch
Full-back Jordan Larmour, 22, can send his hips to Tipperary and back and bamboozle defenders on jinking runs from the backfield. His sure-footedness under the high-ball sees him as a dependable sort.
The French have lost their va-va-voom. Sadly, Les Bleus have been woeful for a decade, finishing above fourth on only two occasions, which is lamentable given their resources. New coach Fabien Galthie has left no euro unspent on his coaching team, and as Louis Picamoles, Guilhem Guirado and Yoann Huget have become a footnote, 19 new caps with a youthful accent have been named, spearheaded by half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Vive la revolution!
Are they still maddeningly inconsistent? Mais bien sûr. On the cusp of knocking Wales out of the World Cup, they had Sebastien Vahaamahina sent off for violent play and they are yet to show any signs of changing their spots.
The biggest shock to the system will be the implementation of the new defence coach, Shaun Edwards, a pugnacious Northerner who is known for getting results. It may take time, but a new French era is upon us. As hosts of the 2023 World Cup, expect Gallic pride to kick in.
Player to watch
The jet-heeled wing Teddy Thomas exudes an insouciant cool that comes with growing up as a surfer in Biarritz, but the Racing 92 wing comes alive when he touches the ball. He might be prone to the odd sacré bleu moment, but he’s a match-winner and has looks that wouldn’t look out of place promenading on La Croisette during Cannes.
More of the plucky old Scots act? Well, Scotland have got talent, but they’ve also lacked a little oomph in the pack, which is why behemoths Alex Craig and Cornell du Preez have been added to the likes of muscle brothers W. P. Nel and Zander Fagerson.
They need to find a belligerent edge to complement a gifted backline who can dance a merry jig when in the mood — see last year’s miraculous revival from 31–0 down to England to draw the game 38–38. Hope rather than expectation abounds.
Scotland are perennial also-rans, but why? They can field some of the most gifted rugby players in the world. Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and, on his day, Huw Jones, are players who can splinter defences for fun, but they struggle to see out the game in an arm wrestle. Their coach Gregor Townsend is known as an entertainer, but hard-edged wins are the currency at this level.
Player to watch
With the ever-reliable Greig Laidlaw having bade farewell to Test rugby, Scotland require a new petit-general to boss the pack around and create a frisson of excitement. That man is George Horne, younger brother of Peter. The Glasgow No 9 is a box of tricks around the fringes and has a prodigious try-scoring rate.
Italy haven’t won a Six Nations game since 2015, making them the perennial wooden-spoon holders. It’s not for the want of trying, but a small player base, lacklustre crowds and football’s dominance means Italy still occupies fringe status in a competition it joined in 2000.
In Matteo Minozzi, Guglielmo Palazzani and Tommaso Allan, they have players to quicken the pulse, but are still looking for performances as opposed to results, such are the limits of their ambition.
Do they have a new man in charge? Yes, Conor O’ Shea has gone back to England Rugby after a four-year stint and Franco Smith, a South African coach with a reputation for running rugby, has taken the reins. He has picked a squad with a blend of youth and experience and some serious pace out wide with Leonardo Sarto and Tommaso Benvenuti, but the onus will be on the brilliant backrow of Jake Polledri, Braam Steyn and Sebastian Negri to secure the ball for them to shine.
Player to watch
With a name such as Jake Polledri, you’d be forgiven for imagining a young, dark-haired buck from the streets of Bari, yet Italy’s star turn enjoyed his rugby education in Bristol. Although he does have a paternal Italian grandmother to thank for his Azzurri bow and his point of difference is his ball-carrying, which is akin to a baby rhino on the loose. With the magisterial Sergio Parisse retiring, crowds have a new gladiator to behold.
This picnic is ideal for the rugby international.
Over the course of the next year or so Japan will host both the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics
These crisp and golden cheese twists are perfect for munching in front of the final Six Nations rugby games this