With the 2017 Six Nations set to kick off on the 4th of February, we take a look at some of the major talking points surrounding the teams taking part in this year’s tournament.
Do Ireland deserve the ‘favourites’ tag?
After beating New Zealand for the first time in their history, Irish rugby has sought to maintain the feel-good factor – with Munster and Leinster looking to win silverware in the Pro12 and EPCR as well as the national team looking forward to what could be a historic Six Nations.
Joe Schmidt has continued to develop Ireland into world-beaters, claiming the scalps of South Africa, Australia and the All Blacks in 2016. His squad boasts some of the most in-form players in European rugby as well as plenty of experienced warriors.
Ireland’s biggest issue is arguably its backline balance – with Jonny Sexton consistently getting injured early on in matches, Jared Payne out of the tournament with injury and Rob Kearney struggling through a patch of so-so form. Joey Carberry, Garry Ringrose and Tiernan O’Halloran may be Ireland’s long term fixes in these positions, but it will take time to adapt these players to international test rugby and develop the 1st XV backline into a cohesive and effective unit.
This may seem like nit-picking as Ireland have one of the most settled, experienced squads in this year’s Six Nations and finished 2016 strongly. Their match with England at the end of the tournament is touted as being a grand slam decider and with it being in Dublin, Ireland probably deserve to be favourites to win a third Six Nations title in four years.
Can England continue their impressive form despite injuries to key players?
Six Nations champions and grand slam holders, England whitewashed Australia in a series down under and equalled their previous record of fourteen wins in a row, scoring 424 points along the way and conceding 232 against – it doesn’t get much better for Eddie Jones.
He faces his second year in charge of England and despite their impressive 2016, Jones wants more from his men and is eyeing up another Six Nations title. Injuries to Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola, Joe Marler and now Anthony Watson are issues which have pushed Jones to include uncapped players such as Nathan Catt and Mike Williams in England’s training squad ahead of the Six Nations. Combined with the ongoing issues surrounding Dylan Hartley as England captain, the ‘Red Rose’ are expected to face intense media scrutiny during the tournament – especially if results don’t go their way.
England have a more settled and experienced 1st XV under Jones than they did under Stuart Lancaster and are expected to challenge for the title this year. Recent injuries to some of their top players will impact the way Eddie Jones wants his team to play their rugby, but it shouldn’t derail their Six Nations campaign before it’s even started.
Can Wales once again challenge for silverware after being labelled as underdogs?
Caretaker manager Rob Howley has the unenviable task of guiding a Welsh team in transition through what is expected to be a tough Six Nations. Howley’s Wales squad consists of 7 uncapped players (the highest number in any squad named for this Six Nations tournament) and they coming off the back of an Autumn series which included a hammering at the hands of Australia and only a narrow win over Japan.
The Welsh national side’s rugby during the Autumn internationals was dire at some points and “WarrenBall” has seemingly come to it’s demise. However, Wales have often been tagged as underdogs in recent years but continue to challenge and over-perform compared to these expectations. Semi-finalists in 2011, they knocked England out of their own Word Cup in the pool stages and made up the core contingent of the 2013 Lions squad – the first to win a series since 1997. Out of that Lions tour, nine players are still being selected for Wales and now have years of experience under their belt, highlighting the fact that this Wales squad has vast amounts of experience.
Despite the current issues surrounding the captaincy switching hands, Wales’ poor form on the pitch and the fact that Gatland is not in charge for this Six Nations, the Welsh national rugby team have provided many surprises over the past decade, especially when they are labelled as underdogs. They are expected to fight tooth and nail in the upcoming Six nations, but based on their results in 2016, Howley and his men face a tough couple of months and they are expected to finish in the bottom half of the table.
Will this Scotland squad fulfil it’s potential?
At 46%, Vern Cotter has the highest win percentage as Scotland head coach since Ian McGeechan’s tenure between 1988 and 1993. Whilst he has been in charge of the national side, Gregor Townsend has been working some magic of his own at Glasgow – making them the first Scottish team to win the Pro12 Championship and make it to the knockout stages of a top-tier European competition.
16 of Cotter’s 37-man squad for the Six Nations play their rugby at Glasgow and with the club challenging for a playoff spot in the Pro 12 and in the quarterfinals of the EPCR, many feel that the national squad could be poised to challenge the perennial top three of Wales, Ireland and England. There is undoubted potential in this current crop of players to compete with and challenge the established rugby hierarchy in the next few years – highlighted best by the two narrow losses to Australia in 2015 and 2016 as well as the win over South Africa in the recent Autumn internationals.
Scottish fans will know not to get too hopeful when it comes to their national team (who haven’t placed higher than third since 1999), but Cotter has developed a core leadership group after two years in charge, consisting of highly talented and relatively young players. With Townsend set to take charge of the national side at the end of the 2016/17 season, Scottish rugby is looking forward to what could be an exciting couple of years.
The upcoming Six Nations may be too early for this group of players to realistically challenge for the championship title, however.
What is happening in France?
Despite beating Ireland in last year’s Six Nations, France ended up in 5th place in the final standings behind Scotland – not a brilliant start for Guy Noves as head coach. This was followed by a win and a loss on France’s summer tour of Argentina and two narrow losses (against Australia and New Zealand) out of three matches in the recent Autumn internationals.
Four wins out of ten matches highlight the troubles of the French national team in recent seasons, as they have failed to finish above 4th place in the Six Nations since 2011 (where they finished 2nd) – finishing last in the 2013 Six Nations.
Noves has named four uncapped players in France’s Six Nations squad, with the average number of caps held by the 30-man group being 19, the most experienced player being Louis Picamoles with 57 test caps and the average age of the squad being 28. The French head coach faces the tough task of strengthening the national team’s squad depth by blooding fresh talent and developing promising youth whilst actively challenging for silverware.
With Bernard Laporte announcing that France would only select future debutants if they have a passport, ignoring the current three-year residency rules in place in French rugby, Noves must seemingly juggle the politics of French rugby with the task of re-building the national side. Established French players like South African born Scott Spedding and Kiwi Uini Atonio will be allowed to represent France as they have done so in the past, meaning that the national squad will not be unnecessarily unsettled over the next few seasons.
Whilst there are whispers of promise surrounding France’s national side, they are expected to struggle to break the top three of this year’s Six Nations and will most likely be in a scrap between Wales and Scotland for third. Noves’ years of experience within French rugby and his uncompromising approach to player management are signs of change and promise for the national side’s fortunes. But there are numerous underlying problems in French rugby regarding the current culture of the national squad and Noves cannot afford to ignore these if he wants to turn France into consistent contenders.
What effect will Conor O’Shea have on Italy’s performances?
After six years as the Director of Rugby at Harlequins, in which time the London based club won the English Premiership, the European Challenge cup and the LVE Cup, Conor O’Shea agreed to become the head coach of the Italian rugby side. Since his appointment, Italy have lost three out of five games but managed to beat South Africa for the first time in their history as well as secure a 20-18 win over Canada.
Despite beating the Springboks in a physical and forward dominated encounter, the Italians lost to Tonga the following week – highlighting the inconsistency of performance which plagues the side.
This inconsistency at international level can be partly explained by Italian rugby’s top clubs Zebre and Treviso. Zebre managed to beat Edinburgh for this first time since they joined the Pro12 earlier this season, but lie bottom of the Pro12 one place behind Treviso. Italian clubs are continually the bottom two in the competition, with Treviso’s highest placed finish being 7th in the table in the 2012/13 season.
With Italian club rugby comparatively poor compared to its’ major European counterparts, the national sides’ stars like Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini ageing and facing retirement, Conor O’Shea faces an uphill task to rejuvenate and to some extent reinvent Italian rugby.
His experience at Harlequins and London Irish will serve him well and initial signs during his brief time in charge seem positive. This may be the last tournament for players such as captain Parisse, meaning O’Shea has to develop new leaders within the Italian squad over the coming seasons. Italy have never finished above 4th in the Six Nations and this year is unlikely to be any different. However, O’Shea has the drive and ambition to change the fortunes of the Azzurri and challenge the established rugby hierarchy.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena
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