Sporting Life: Who will win the 2019 Six Nations?

Ahead of the Guinness Six Nations, Owain Jones predicts that Ireland will retain their crown – but they'll be pushed hard by England, Wales and possibly even Italy, based on recent results.

The Six Nations Championship is almost upon us and, over the next seven weeks, the compelling competition is sure to see us witness a heady mix of internecine battles, jaw-dropping skill and thunderous collisions.

A backdrop to the 138-year tournament is this year’s World Cup in Japan, which will provide a subtext to every storyline, starting off with the imperious Irish taking on a resurgent England in Dublin on Saturday.

Ireland

State of the nation

They’re hot favourites, aren’t they? Well, yes, thanks to Joe Schmidt – their departing coach – Ireland are certainly in majestic form. Beaten only once in 2018, they trumped the All Blacks at home for the first time in 113 years and are being backed to waltz to Six Nations victory before making an assault on the Rugby World Cup. Ireland’s only weakness appears to be believing their own hype, but with the perfectionist, Schmidt, at the helm, that’s unlikely.

Player to watch

Tadhg Furlong may be built like a monster truck, but the near 20-stone tighthead prop is redefining his position. In days of yore, a No 3 was expected to be a piano shifter, not a pianist, yet Furlong’s soft hands would make Chopin blush, as he offloads out of contact. The son of a farmer, he often reminisces about carrying buckets of slurry around the yard – now, it’s gargantuan locks he chunters backwards.

Likely outcome

Expectation is brimming over in the Emerald Isle as Schmidt’s men have outfoxed all comers with a mixture of guile, power and precision to batter opponents into submission. Marshalled by half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland have the world’s premier wing in Jacob Stockdale to finish off tries of beautiful simplicity and hot-stepper Jordan Larmour to inflict the coup de grâce as teams wilt.

Prediction: 1st

England

State of the nation

Expectations are at near-manageable levels at Twickenham with Ireland so heavily tipped, yet confidence is creeping back after Eddie Jones picked a squad full of adamantine bruisers. Flyers Joe Cokanasiga and Ollie Thorley will likely garner the headlines, but games are won up front and, with the muscle brothers Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge providing firepower at the coalface and Billy Vunipola exploding off the base of the scrum, England could surprise the nay-sayers.

England v Australia - Quilter International

England’s Henry Slade during the Quilter International match between England and Australia on November 24, 2018 in London, United Kingdom.

Player to watch

Henry Slade might be perma-tanned and boast the bone structure of a boyband member, but he’s proven there’s substance to his undoubted style. A languid runner, with a powerful ability to fend off the opposition, the Exeter Chiefs centre is a playmaker with a left boot like a traction engine and he routinely pegs opposition defences deep in their own territory.

Likely outcome

Eddie Jones will be acutely aware of the need to build momentum after a topsy-turvy 2018. The proverbial road block will be provided by visits to Dublin this weekend and a fiery Principality Stadium in Round 3 (February 23). If Jones’s squad can somehow manage to navigate the traps laid by their Celtic cousins, they can approach the Rugby World Cup later this year with renewed swagger. Getting England to play in a cohesive, expansive manner will be key to their success.

Prediction: 2nd

Wales

State of the nation

They’re in fine fettle. A clean sweep in the autumn made it nine wins on the trot and, with coach Warren Gatland bidding farewell in his 12th and final tournament, the management will be desperate to end their tenure with a first Six Nations title since 2013. What gives them signs of encouragement is meeting fellow heavyweights Ireland and England on home turf. With an almost impenetrable defence, no one relishes playing Wales.

RUGBYU-ARGENTINA-WALES

Aaron Wainwright celebrates after the International Test Match between Argentina and Wales at the San Juan del Bicentenario Stadium, on Saturday, June 9, 2018 in San Juan, Argentina.

Player to watch

Six years ago, Aaron Wainwright was 10 stone dripping wet, as he progressed through the age-grade ranks as a footballer. Now, on the cusp of the Six Nations, he stands as a 17-stone colossus, primed to make a shuddering impact. Although he’s just 21, Wainwright’s rise has been meteoric, given he only started playing professionally 18 months ago, but his work rate and appetite at the breakdown mark him out as a potential successor to Sam Warburton.

Likely outcome

There’s an innate desire in Wales to see their backline cutting a merry dash around prone defenders and, although there’s talent – Jonathan Davies and George North are stars on the world stage – they haven’t always utilised their strike runners in the best way. By bedding in fly-half Gareth Anscombe – named after the legendary player Sir Gareth Edwards – Gatland is aiming to make Wales a more free-flowing, fluid side. If Wales can hold firm and the stars align out wide, Wales could yet be sipping from the winner’s goblet.

Prediction: 3rd

France

State of the nation

You never know what you’re going to get with Les Bleus. In November, they came within four points of defeating a powerful South African side, before capitulating against an unfancied Fiji two weeks later. Coach Jacques Brunel has an uncanny resemblance to Inspector Clouseau and he’ll need all his powers of intuition to unearth the consistent, clinical match edge required to post the side’s first top-two finish in eight years.

Dublin , Ireland - 25 February 2017; Yoann Huget of France during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Yoann Huget of France during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin.

Player to watch

Yoann Huget looks like a hero of Dumas’s Three Musketeers, with his flowing black locks, perfectly coiffured goatee and sense of derring-do on the field of play. True, he’s played the villain on occasion, but the 6ft 3in Toulousain is a gifted broken-field runner with lashings of natural ability.

Likely outcome

With so much upheaval, a tilt at the Six Nations title is seen as a long shot, but there’s cautious optimism. Herculean young prop Demba Bamba is a star in the waiting, although any pack boasting Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado will be no pushover. One senses, however, that it will be another transitionary year.

Prediction: 4th

Scotland

State of the nation

Scotland resemble Wales a decade ago. Full of verve, they play an aesthetically pleasing brand of rugby, but possess a soft underbelly that can be exposed by the most pugnacious packs, as we saw against South Africa in November. What head coach Gregor Townsend will be looking for is consistency and, having turned Murrayfield into something of a fortress, he’ll be looking for an away-day victory to stir the loins.

Finn Russell during the NatWest Six Nations match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield on February 24, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Player to watch

Finn Russell joined Parisien superstars Racing 92 in the summer and his stint over the Channel has done little to dull his attacking instincts. The fly-half initiated Scotland’s first victory over the auld enemy in a decade last year, with an audacious 100ft pass off his left hand that bisected the English defence and his easy charm will be thrilling neutrals over the course of the tournament.

Likely outcome

For a wee while, Scottish rugby was in the doldrums – they’ve been without a Championship title win in 20 years – but there’s been a resurgence. A number of sellouts at Murrayfield have been reward for their ambitious style of play, initiated by Russell, the electric Huw Jones in midfield and the back three of Tommy Seymour, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, but, in order to be seen as real contenders, they’ll need to overcome Ireland or Wales at home (February 9 and March 9).

Prediction: 5th

Italy

State of the nation

Perpetual underdogs? Yes, they’ve only won 12 of their 95 Six Nations fixtures and haven’t won a game since 2015, but, despite those inglorious statistics, Conor O’Shea’s men will keep plugging away. Ranked at No 15 in the world, the Azzurri’s top-table credentials are often queried, with Georgia a coming force in Europe, but they fiercely protect their membership of rugby’s most coveted private member’s club.

Michele Campagnaro

Player to watch

Michele Campagnaro, a scorer against England on their last visit to Twickenham, has plied his trade in the Gallagher Premiership with Exeter Chiefs, before switching to Wasps earlier this season and he’s routinely tasked with the responsibility of unpicking the tightest of defences.

Likely outcome

It’s unlikely that the side will experience a gladiatorial renaissance. They’ve been hamstrung by injuries to their two most promising players: Jake Polledri, the bullocking Gloucester backrow, and snake-hipped full-back Matteo Minozzi, who scored four tries in five games last year. What’s left is a mixture of ageing warhorses, such as Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni, and fresh-faced youngsters hewn from their improving domestic teams, with Sebastian Negri the pick.

Prediction: 6th