BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2000, `01, `03, `11, `16
OUTLOOK: England has to be the pre-tournament favorite after its perfect 2016, although away games in Cardiff (Round 2) and Dublin (Round 5) mean a repeat title defense or even Grand Slam will be hard-earned. Injuries are testing the depth of Eddie Jones’ squad but England has a large pool of players to dip into and backups have flourished under Jones, giving him two players – at least – in most positions. Current form suggests the title could be settled in a Dublin shootout between Ireland and England in the final game of the tournament, a mouthwatering prospect given that the English could also be looking to clinch a world-record 19th straight win that day. It was Ireland, don’t forget, that brought to an end New Zealand’s record 18-match winning run in November in Chicago.
EYES ON: Maro Itoje. So impressive was his first season in international rugby that Itoje, England’s athletic and powerful lock, was voted the breakthrough player of the year at the World Rugby awards in November. The 22-year-old Itoje may need to show his versatility in the Six Nations, however, with Eddie Jones potentially deploying him as a blindside flanker now that Chris Robshaw is out of the tournament because of injury. Robshaw has been one of England’s best players in the Jones era but the mobile Itoje’s presence in the back row could give the team a new dimension.
QUOTE: ”If you get complacent, you get a kick up the (asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk). We are doing everything we can to ensure there is no complacency, but there is no magic solution because praise makes you weak, doesn’t it?” Coach Eddie Jones
COACH: Guy Noves
2016 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2002, `04, `06, `07, `10.
OUTLOOK: France should be a considerably more dangerous team in this campaign, but still likely to fall short. After the drudgery of last year’s Six Nations, where France was an average team with no running game – and scraped home wins against Italy and Ireland thanks to penalties – hopes have been raised that coach Guy Noves is striking the right balance. The old flair was glimpsed in November in home defeats to Australia (25-23) and New Zealand (24-19). All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was prompted to say ”it felt like the old French rugby team.”
But the harsh reality is that France still has some way to go. Noves noted France was the ”least efficient” attacking team in last year’s Six Nations. Despite regularly getting behind opponents and often to just meters from the try-line, poor finishing let the French down badly.
Key injuries could scupper France’s chances, too. Dynamic center Welsey Fofana – arguably France’s most important player and a rampaging runner in midfield – is out with a ruptured Achilles tendon while silky flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc is recovering from a broken arm. While France showed against New Zealand that its lineout play has improved, the rucking still needs to be much better and France must also limit the amount of turnovers. France has also been hit by withdrawals in the forwards, and the lack of depth could be a concern if games get tight late on.
EYES ON: Baptiste Serin. The 22-year-old scrumhalf has only five test caps, but has shown glimpses of his creative potential. In the narrow defeat to the All Blacks, he set up a try for No. 8 Louis Picamoles with an inspirational moment of magic, darting quickly into space and then fooling the New Zealand defense with a no-look reverse pass. He can kick, too, and has been working on that with former scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili, one of the most reliable kickers France has produced. Serin looks a very promising talent, although Noves is likely to start with the more experienced Maxime Machenaud. But with Trinh-Duc still sidelined, the waif-like Serin has a great chance to stake a strong claim as France’s chief creator, if Noves gives him a chance to show what he can do against England.
QUOTE: ”They know how to win by being efficient, a bit like New Zealand. They know how to suffer and still end up winning.” Coach Guy Noves on England.
COACH: Joe Schmidt
2016 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2009, `14, `15.
OUTLOOK: Not long ago, an injury to the likes of Jonathan Sexton would radiate doubt and panic in Ireland. Not anymore. Ireland has a Plan B, and a Plan C. If Sexton goes down, Paddy Jackson and Joey Carbery can step up. Sean O’Brien? CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier are good to go. Devin Toner? How about Ultan Dillane and Iain Henderson.
Ireland’s strength of depth was impressively revealed in November when the Wallabies came with Grand Slam ambitions. Already beaten and bruised after two epic matches with New Zealand, Ireland ruled out backs Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. CJ Stander carried a head injury. Sean O’Brien pulled up on the morning of the match with a hip flexor complaint. He was replaced by Van der Flier, who became man of the match. By halftime, backs Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, and Rob Kearney were off injured. Backup scrumhalf Kieran Marmion was on the right wing, flyhalf Carbery was at fullback, Garry Ringrose out of position, and yet remarkably it was the reserves who turned the tide.
It was a tribute to the players’ talent and high-class coaching that Ireland rallied to win, and for the first time beat the Springboks, All Blacks, and Wallabies in the same year. The rush of confidence spread into the provinces, where Leinster and Munster have earned home quarterfinals in the European Champions Cup.
Coach Joe Schmidt rates his squad as generally healthy, even after Sexton cried off injured for the first round. He’s replaced by Jackson, who showed his mettle in three tests in South Africa last June, and against the Wallabies.
Ireland’s title defence last year floundered; they didn’t win until the fourth round. This time the Irish go to Scotland and Italy, welcome France, go to Wales, and finish at home against England, in the match most anticipate will be the decider. On Schmidt’s watch, Ireland has not lost at home in the Six Nations.
EYES ON: Tadhg Furlong. John Hayes then Mike Ross made themselves indispensable for Ireland thanks to their supremacy in the scrum. But Furlong could be even better because he offers so much more as a tighthead prop. After backing up Ross and Nathan White for a year, Furlong made his mark in the two tests against the All Blacks in November, only his second and third ever starts.
Not only was the set-piece safe, but Furlong tore around Chicago and Dublin making a right menace of himself to the best team in the world. In Chicago, he added grunt in the mauls, turned over possession in rucks, and even ran almost the length of Soldier Field to chase down the world’s best fullback, Ben Smith. In the rematch in Dublin, he took the fight to New Zealand again and showed he’s not a bad ball-carrier either by tossing aside Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read like they were mannequins.
His sweat was still drying in Dublin when he said he wished they were playing a third test, a decider. That’s why he’s in the conversation for a British and Irish Lions ticket to New Zealand. He says that talk embarrasses him, because his test career is only just beginning.
But Furlong is young and good enough to be Ireland’s tighthead for the next decade. He turned 24 between the All Blacks tests. Hayes didn’t make his debut until he was 26, and he kept Ross from being a regular starter until Ross was 31. Ross was axed by Joe Schmidt because he believed Furlong was ready. He was more than ready. He was inspirational.
QUOTE: ”’Favourites’ is a tag that is external to our environment. We try to go less for prediction and more for preparation.” Coach Joe Schmidt.
COACH: Conor O’Shea
2016 SIX NATIONS: Last
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, `13
OUTLOOK: Italy is reinvigorated under Conor O’Shea and want to prove the historic victory over South Africa in November was not a fluke. O’Shea began his tenure in April, but the Irishman’s jovial manner has had a positive effect on the team after the reign of the dour Jacques Brunel. ”There’s a great harmony,” Italy captain Sergio Parisse says. ”Conor is a coach who is young, ambitious, intelligent, energetic and very motivated. Above all, he has clear ideas and manages to transmit his positive energy to the group. Recently, we had lost the feeling of togetherness, the happiness of being together in the national team. Now we’re working hard, but doing so is once again a pleasure.”
Italy has finished bottom of the table 11 out of 17 times, and lost all five matches last year, including heavy defeats against Wales and Ireland. The dismal showing had some questioning Italy’s continued participation. O’Shea has urged his players to end the debate over relegation and promotion.
”If ever promotion and relegation were the case, who knows who would be at the bottom by the time that comes?” O’Shea says. ”We just have to make sure we harness what is great and make sure we don’t have those conversations. Because Italy has earned every single right to be part of the Six Nations. We just want to earn people’s respect this year, and see where that takes us.”
Italy will have to sort out its problems with consistency and fitness. The victory over South Africa was followed by defeat to Tonga, and traditionally Italy has collapsed in the second half of matches. O’Shea thinks he’s turning that around. Italy trailed England last year only 11-9 after 50 minutes but went on to lose 40-9. Against South Africa, Italy was 12-10 down at the break before going on to pull off a famous victory.
EYES ON: Michele Campagnaro. He made a splash in his Six Nations debut against Wales in 2014, scoring two tries with a man-of-the-match performance in a 23-15 defeat. That was only Campagnaro’s third cap.
Injuries have strymied hopes he would live up to that early promise. He was out for nearly all of the 2015 tournament, but the 23-year-old center was Italy’s best player last year. He missed the humiliation against Wales because of a knee injury. A new hamstring injury delayed his start to this season, and cost him the November tests. He was called up for the final match against Tonga, but was not used in the 19-17 defeat.
In his first start of the season, for Exeter in December, he scored two tries. He scored another try in the next match at Clermont, and a hat trick against Wasps. Exeter skills coach Ricky Pellow says: ”It is a great opportunity to put his good performances here onto the Six Nations stage. From our perspective, it is a shame to lose him but it is exciting for him to be able to put the Italian shirt on and attack the Six Nations.”
QUOTE: ”We will have to work harder than our opponents, playing from the first to the last minute. That’s what I’m expecting from the squad.” Coach Conor O’Shea.
COACH: Vern Cotter
2016 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, `06, `13
OUTLOOK: Trying to rein in the high expectations in Scotland is difficult. Spirits are soaring because Glasgow, which fields a full Scotland side, has qualified for the Champions Cup quarterfinals for the first time. It recently destroyed Leicester by a head-shaking 43-0. Also, Edinburgh has earned a home quarterfinal in the Challenge Cup. Nobody’s talking about winning the Six Nations, but nobody’s talking about being happy with third again either. Jim Telfer and Alan Tait, the coach and captain of the last Scotland side to win the championship in 1999, regard this team as the best since then.
That’s hardly a compliment. Last year was the first time Scotland scored more points than it conceded in the Six Nations. It hasn’t won three games in 11 years. And it’s cracked the top three just once in the last decade.
There’s no doubt Scotland has vastly improved under Cotter. He arrived in 2014 determined to stop the Scots from being a joke, focused on skillsets, vision, fitness, and pride, and turned them into tough hombres to beat. Captain Greig Laidlaw credits Cotter for making him a better player and person. But milestone results still slip from their grasp. In November, the Scots couldn’t finish off an Australian side which was beaten by Ireland and England. The Scots aren’t title contenders until they break the mould of plucky opponents.
The trouble for the Scots is that their improvement has coincided with other teams. They host Ireland, Wales and Italy. They go to England, where they haven’t won since 1983, and France, where they haven’t won since 1999.
Added motivation for the Scots is holding on to their top-eight world ranking for a better Rugby World Cup draw in May, and giving Cotter an appropriate send-off before he departs for Montpellier. He’s given debuts to 26 players, 18 of whom are in this championship squad. But the fruits of his diligence and design will be plucked by someone else. Assistant coach Jason O’Halloran says Scotland will be at its peak when most players have 40-80 caps. He estimates in a couple of years, just in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
EYES ON: Jonny Gray. How can you keep your eyes off him? An unrelenting engine allows him to pop up all over the field. He attacks rucks, carries the ball, commits to lifting in lineouts, scores tries, and makes tackles: 24 against Australia alone in November. Few in his considerable reach get past him. He led the tackle count in the 2015 tournament with a record 84, missing only once. He’s reportedly missed less than 10 tackles since his debut. The former Scotland Under-20 captain and Glasgow co-captain leads the tackle count in the European Champions Cup, too.
Take into account how he rarely gives away penalties, and few doubt he’ll follow his older brother Richie into the British and Irish Lions. Richie, a Lion in 2013, may yet go with him. They have played 20 of Scotland’s last 27 tests together in the second row.
Richie is older by nearly five years but bows to Jonny on the field. ”He tells me where to go” Richie says. ”I just shut up and listen.” But Jonny pays credit to Richie, too. ”I have seen Rich growing up working really hard to get where he is on and off the pitch. I saw his work ethic, the extras he has had to do at home, his diet, his extra fitness, his extra weights. It was something I knew I had to do. Watching him was useful.”
QUOTE: ”There’s a buzz about the place but a sense of realism as well. This is going to be tough.” Coach Vern Cotter
COACH: Rob Howley
2016 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2005, ’08, ’12, `13
OUTLOOK: Wales has the pedigree but does it still have the prowess? It was the championship favorite a year ago but tripped up in the first round when it conceded a late penalty to leave Dublin with a draw. The decider at Twickenham was an anticlimax. Wales started woefully and gave England too big a 19-0 head start. Wales finished second, and was rated the biggest disappointment of the tournament. And the year only got worse. Drubbings in New Zealand mid-year were expected, but not the embarrassing displays at home in November. The Welsh were humiliated by Australia, scraped past Argentina, escaped defeat against Japan, and struggled to put down a rank Springboks side. They won three autumn matches for the first time in 14 years, but few celebrated.
For most of the year, the Welsh looked like robots. They seemed to be playing to instructions, and were slow to react. It was jarring by a team which used to feature some of the world’s most instinctive players. Slow to react, too, was Rob Howley, the interim coach again while Warren Gatland prepares the Lions. Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert were key to many of Wales’ successes, but they looked past their use-by dates in November and Howley dropped them.
Another big call was persuading the increasingly fragile Sam Warburton to focus on regaining his form by giving up the captaincy to the more vocal and still inspirational Alun Wyn Jones. The move could yet be a masterstroke by Howley. The last time he had interim control, Wales won the 2013 Six Nations. Wales isn’t rated a contender this year, but both favorites, England and Ireland, have to go to Cardiff.
EYES ON: Justin Tipuric. It is finally the flanker’s time to shine. His credentials are brilliant. He represented Wales all through the age grades, played a year for Wales Sevens, and made his senior debut in 2011. Unfortunately for Tipuric, who was considered also good enough to play in the backline, his arrival coincided with Sam Warburton, who became captain. It meant, more often than not, Tipuric was made to appear as a replacement. Of his 46 caps for Wales, only 20 have been starts.
But now Warburton has dropped the captaincy with big hints that he’d be better off at No. 6, and Dan Lydiate has faded, leaving Tipuric free to fill the No. 7 jersey. He’s also excited by Wales’ attempts to move away from Warrenball, the close-to-the-ruck approach, to give the ball more air. It suits Tipuric’s considerable speed.
”We try to spread the ball a bit with the Ospreys and there’s a bit more, how shall I say, enjoyment for me,” he says. ”We are getting there (Wales). It’s a bit tough because we’re not as fluid as we would like, everybody knows that. It has to be at the right time and in the right areas. It takes time. We have been used to a system for a long time now, and we’re going through a process and trying to get everyone on the same page. Hopefully, it doesn’t take much longer to get used to. We are getting there.”
QUOTE: ”We are not fancied to win it, and we have to show character and do something about that.” Captain Alun Wyn Jones