Two weeks out from another glorious instalment of the Six Nations, all but Italy have announced their squad for the first pair of fixtures and if nothing else, the respective squads make for very interesting reading.
Coming off the back of a blistering November Test Series that saw England, Ireland and Scotland deliver strong and, at times, emphatic, performances, things are now poised for an equally exciting Six Nations tournament as each side looks to capitalise on their good form.
As Wales look to improve on something of a mediocre showing against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa during their Autumn series and with France well and truly in a period of rebuilding from the ground up, an intriguing seven weeks of rugby awaits.
While England go for a third championship in a row, it is no secret that there is more than half an eye looking ahead to next November when they will finally welcome New Zealand to London for a clash that they hope will determine just which nation is the best in the world.
If they wish this to be indeed a clash of the top two sides, however, they would do well to focus on the immediate task at hand as should they slip up against their Six Nations neighbours this spring, their desire to be named the world’s top side will come to nothing.
Another target coming into view for each nation and their respective coaching staff is the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Now firmly inside the two-year lead time to the event, building strength, depth and experience is the name of the game.
As such, the squad announcements this week are a balanced mix of gnarly old dogs and young pups, from an experience point of view at least.
|Total Caps||Squad Size||Avg Caps||New Faces||< 10 Caps|
Looking at each squad from a high level, it is clear that Wales boss Warren Gatland has many an experienced operator to call upon. With a combined 1041 caps from 39 players, Gatland’s side averages 26.69 caps, despite the inclusion of two uncapped players.
The two-time British and Irish Lions coach has also leaned heavily on what will be Wales’ next generation of stars, with 12 players yet to reach double digits in the red jersey.
Building towards Japan in the Autumn of 2019, this is a telling number and one that could serve Gatland and co well.
Scotland, under Gregor Townsend, have shown no ill-effects of the departure of Vern Cotter last season. Many feared the northern nation could stagnate following a period of positive growth under the Kiwi, but with Townsend at the helm, they have only gone from strength to strength.
Their Six Nations opening victory over Ireland last season put paid to their neighbour’s title ambitions and reminded everyone that Scotland is not a side to be taken lightly.
Looking to build on a November series that saw them destroy Australia and take the world champion All Blacks to the brink, the 2018 Six Nations is Scotland’s best chance at glory in two decades.
Naming a squad of 40 for a total of 744 caps, Townsend has called up four uncapped players to the panel. With the exception of France, who are a side in the early stages of renewal under new coach Jacques Brunel, Scotland is the least experienced squad named.
While Conor O’Shea might similarly name a new and youthful side, they are not considered for table-topping consideration, Scotland most certainly is.
With 18.60 caps on average and nine players with less than ten, Townsend could find himself a little low on experience as the championships progress.
As his side have shown this past November, however, they have the ambition and skill to challenge and beat the best, experience be damned.
With a record-breaking third consecutive Six Nations title the target this year, England head coach Eddie Jones has had the luxury of calling upon some of the best players in the world.
Naming a squad of 35, for a total of 898 caps, he boasts the second most experienced side, behind Wales, with 25.66 caps on average.
Most telling, however, is the inclusion of eight uncapped players and a further eight that have yet to reach ten international caps, it is abundantly clear that Jones, who only just extended his contract until 2021, has been steadily building a squad that can well and truly take on the might of Steve Hansen’s New Zealand in November.
More importantly, Jones is creating a squad of depth and quality that will be expected to challenge the All Blacks for world supremacy in Japan next year.
First up for England is the Six Nations, where records are there to be re-written. Against experienced and in-form neighbours, Jones’ new boys will gain the kind of experience they will need if they wish to be called world champions in 2019.
Looking to avoid another opening day slip up, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has named a 36 man squad that is a fine balance of world-class experience and youthful exuberance.
Quietly building a record of 12 wins from their last 15 encounters, dating back to November of 2016, Ireland are now seven games without a defeat.
Most notably, every other country in the world ranking top ten has fallen to Ireland in that period. This includes both England and New Zealand, who have both seen their 18-game unbeaten runs ended by Schmidt’s side.
Throughout this period of success, the coaching staff have awarded a multitude of new caps and now, 18 months out from the Rugby World Cup, it is fair to say that Ireland has a squad that has more strength and depth than ever before.
Schmidt’s initial 36-man squad share a combined 920 caps for an average of 25.56 per player. With only one uncapped player named, less than every other nation, Ireland, conversely, boasts the most players with less than ten caps, with 15.
Most telling about this number is that many of those in this group have already tasted victory over the southern hemisphere ‘Big Three’ of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Long considered bogie sides for Ireland, they are now just another opponent for Ireland’s new generation.
Going into the 2018 Six Nations as favourites alongside England, the title could well be decided by the last game on the last day of the Championships, when the two favourites face off on St. Patrick’s Day.
For France, a steady period of decline has finally come to the point where it’s a case of ‘all stop’ and starting over.
A series of retirements following the 2015 Rugby World Cup saw Les Blues scrambling to reinvent themselves but after two years of trying, the results have shown nothing short of utter failure.
For a nation known for it’s flamboyant and often irresistible rugby, a losing record now approaching double digits underlines the stark reality facing the once rugby superpower.
The replacement of Guy Noves with Jacques Brunel before Christmas has been seen as the catalyst for a rebuilding process so badly needed.
The former Bordeaux Begles head coach has firmly taken the bull by the horns and, in the spirit of rebirth, named perhaps the most inexperienced French squad in a generation.
Calling upon 32 players, with a meagre 402 caps between them, Brunel has ripped off the plaster that has festered for the last number of seasons.
Naming six uncapped players and including a further 13 with less than ten caps each, it is no wonder the average cap count is only 12.56.
While a number of experienced generals are included, the overriding emphasis for France this coming spring is one of rebirth.
Brunel has 18 months to rebuild from the ground up. It may take some uncomfortable moments during the looming Six Nations but with the ultimate goal being the 2019 Rugby World Cup, growing experience and depth will be far more important than table position come March.
So, on review, with the exception Italy, who will name their first Six Nations squad on January 24th, each nation has shown their initial hand.
While each side has put their best foot forward in terms of fighting for the title, the respective head coaches have also shown their recognition of the World Cup next year with the inclusion of so many new faces and newly capped future stars.
With an end to the long winter finally in sight, the Six Nations is the harbinger of spring. With four nations able to stake a genuine claim for honours this year, fans look set to be rewarded with an absolute feast of rugby.
It all kicks off on February 3rd with Round 1, when Wales take on Scotland and France host Ireland, before England travel to Italy on February 4th.