WALES – Jack Boyce
A valiant effort during the 2015 World Cup will put Wales in good stead ahead of what could prove the most competitive Six Nations Championships yet. Gatland’s side will hope to better last year’s third place having missed out on the title in heart-breaking circumstances on a memorable final day.
The biggest strength that Wales brings to the Championships comes from a set of forwards filled with players that have enjoyed continued success for the national side over the years. Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris will almost certainly have the second row locked down, with captain Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate making up a powerful back row alongside Number 8, Taulupe Faletau. Factor in other regulars like Justin Tipuric and Gethin Jenkins too; and Head Coach Warren Gatland can be very happy with the make-up of his forwards.
Wales will be slightly concerned about their depth on the wings, however. George North certainly has the ability to cause a big threat, but his history with concussions is worrisome to say the least. Alex Cuthbert, who had a horrid time at the World Cup and has copped criticism from Welsh fans in recent years, has begun a return to the previous good form that lead Wales’ wing-duo to be the envy of many national teams. The prospect of the inexperienced Hallam Amos in the side, once he returns fully from his injury, also has fans drooling.
The biggest absence from the squad is undoubtedly Leigh Halfpenny, who has not yet recovered from rupturing a knee ligament during the World Cup warm-up match against Italy in September. Dan Biggar, who took over Halfpenny’s kicking duties during the World Cup, will want to continue his extraordinary form that saw him capture the hearts of many Welsh fans.
The newly anointed Principality Stadium will welcome Scotland, France and Italy and whilst Wales should expect to secure three home wins, nothing can be taken for granted. Their true tests will come in the games away from home, with Gatland’s side visiting Dublin to play current holders, Ireland, on the opening weekend. On 12th March, they will hope to repeat history, as they travel to Twickenham to take on England for the first time since that historic 28-25 victory in last year’s World Cup.
This is certainly not the best squad Wales have put out at the Six Nations, but it is definitely not the worst. There are still many strong components for Gatland to draw on and he will also look to bring the best out of some younger and more inexperienced players, like scrum-half Aled Davies.
ITALY – Rachael Hutchings
Since entering the Championships in 2000 to create the “Six Nations” as we know it today, Italy have not enjoyed the best of successes. Last year’s results table saw them finish in fifth place, only in front of the winless Scotland, and this year things could be just as tough.
One of the highlights each year is the opportunity to witness the sheer courage and strength of the Sky Blues, but their biggest test will again be converting that in to results. The Italian’s take on a young France side in Paris for their Six Nations opener on 6th February, which many have tipped as a crucial clash in deciding which side might avoid the dreaded wooden spoon. The Italians, still under French coach, Jacques Brunel, beat Les Blues in 2013 when they finished a record high 4th place, so will hope for a similar start this weekend. This year could be a very important for Italy to finally show some comeuppance and retaliation to the four home nations as well. In doing so though, they will at the very least have to deliver in the Stadio Olympico against England and Scotland. The Italians will end their campaign in difficult style though, as they travel to the Principality Stadium on 19th March to take on Warren Gatland’s Wales side in a reverse of that famous final day clash in Rome last year.
Brunel named his 31-man squad last month and an important factor to note from his selection is the inclusion of ten uncapped players and the absence of 15 from his World Cup group. With so many young players, Italian fans are sure to hope for further excitement and flair in their attacking play, with the likes of fly-half Carlo Canna, centre Michele Campagnaro, and scrum-half Edoardo Gori, all worthy of keeping an eye on.
However, no Italian Six Nations clash would be complete without Martin Castrogiovanni or team captain, Sergio Parisse. The pair have a collective 229 caps for their country and are both entering a staggering fifteenth year on the international scene. Elsewhere in the squad, many of the familiar faces have been retained, including Wasps’ prop Lorenzo Cittadini and Leicester’s Leonardo Ghiraldini, as well as Sale’s Luke McLean.
Although Italy’s squad are slightly more auspicious than in previous years, it simply is too early to tell at this stage how our romantic European friends will fare throughout February and March.
ENGLAND – Dan Heard
Following the complete disaster that was England’s Rugby World Cup campaign, where dreams of a victory on home soil were dashed before they had ever really begun, a mass overhaul began with Stuart Lancaster, his entire coaching staff, and a number of players paying the price for dismal results and performances.
Eddie Jones, mastermind of Japan’s stunning win over South Africa during the same tournament, was appointed, becoming the first foreign coach to take charge of England- and will be looking to emulate the success of the likes of Warren Gatland with Wales and Joe Schmitt at Ireland.
The biggest call he’s made so far? Undoubtedly, stripping Chris Robshaw of the captaincy and handing the responsibility to Dylan Hartley: a player with as chequered a past as they come, following numerous bans for various disciplinary offences which have seen him miss nearly 12 months of action in total.
Despite naming a young looking 31-man Elite Player Squad, Jones resisted the temptation to blood the in-form duo of Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje to his final 23-man group for Saturday’s opener with Scotland. The pair had been in great form for Wasps and Saracens respectively, and many had tipped them to earn a start in Edinburgh this weekend.
Three of the seven uncapped players are in Jones’ final 23 however, including Northampton’s 20-year-old tighthead prop Paul Hill, Harlequins back-rower Jack Clifford and the Bath inside-centre Ollie Devoto.
The trio are likely to start on the bench, with the versatile Owen Farrell and last years Six Nations hero, Jonathan Joseph, the probable centre pairing. James Haskell is in line to start in an experienced back-row alongside former skipper Robshaw, and Billy Vunipola. The likes of Itoje, Daly, Josh Beaumont, Matt Kvesic, Marland Yarde, and others, have all been released back to their clubs, but should still play some part for England in the next seven weeks.
After the trip to Murrayfield on Saturday, England visit Rome’s Stadio Olympico to take on Italy before Warren Gatland’s Wales side return to Twickenham for the first since ‘that’ game in the World Cup. Matches against Ireland and away at France will also prove difficult tests for what is now a young squad still finding its feet under new leadership. With a new coach, and undoubtedly a new desire to prove their many doubters wrong following the World Cup, England will need to start strongly, and sustain that momentum if they are to stand any chance of securing an unlikely Championship victory.
FRANCE – Jim Harris
There is a fresh feel around the French camp following a disappointing World Cup and a series of poor Six Nations camaigns, but can Les Blues really begin to turn things around?
The Six Nations have not been a happy hunting ground for the French in recent years. The 22-times champions have not won the biggest prize in Europe since 2010 and the once feared powerhouses of international rugby appear now somewhat less powerful.
The French are never a team to take for granted though and under a new coach in Guy Novès things are beginning to seem refreshed around the team camp.
The 31-man squad, named last month, still looks slightly weaker than certain others though- that despite boasting some of the biggest names in World Rugby like Wesley Fofana and Louis Picamoles. The group, unlike many before it, strikes a much greater balance between youth and experience, with Novès opting to include no fewer than eight uncapped players this year.
Of key significance, though, will be the absences of 80-time and 77-time capped Thierry Dusautoir and Frédéric Michalak respectively. The pair’s retirement from international rugby at the end of 2015 will have left a massive hole in the French changing room. Their influence on and off of the field will be sorely missed, so French fans will have a keen eye on this year’s group to establish who might be able to step up and fill the void in the coming years.
The omission of Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud from Novès’ squad took the headlines last month, with the French coach hinting that the sturdy outside centre is no longer a part of his plans. The disappointment of last year’s World Cup, and in particular that humiliating 62-13 defeat to New Zealand in Cardiff, is said to be well behind them, however when they visit the Principality Stadium for the first time since 26th February, no doubt the hosts will be quick to remind them of their horrific evening in the Welsh capital.
With new coaches and new players brings new horizons, yet, whilst the long-term future of Les Blues might be rosier, at this point in time- and in the next seven weeks- we may not see any trees pulled up. A crunch clash with Scotland at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield might determine whether France can claim the 4th place spot which has been theirs in three of the past four years, but matches in Cardiff and against good looking Irish and English outfits could prove too much.
IRELAND – Jamie Smith
Following yet another World Cup quarter-final capitulation, this time at the hands of Argentina, Ireland will be eager to bounce back and repeat their Six Nations success of 2014 and 2015.
The Irish had obliterated Canada and Romania during the group stages of last Autumn’s tournament, before labouring to victories over Italy and France to secure progression through to the last eight of the competition. But, against all odds, they were completely outplayed in a 43-20 demolition by The Pumas inside Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Now, Joe Schmidt’s side must continue the progress they have made over the past two or three years. They will, however, have to do so without former captain Paul O’Connell, who retired from international rugby after the World Cup.
There have been numerous changes to the Ireland squad. Rory Best, captain of Ulster, has taken O’Connell’s place as skipper and Schmidt has called up several players who have never previously featured in the Six Nations.
Ultane Dillane, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier are just a few players to have been selected, and with Ireland’s mounting injury problems, they may have a strong chance of featuring. Props Cian Healy and Mike Ross, who are suffering with respective knee and hamstring problems, will be absent for Ireland’s first two games against Wales and France. Joining the pair on the sidelines for those two fixtures is flanker Chris Henry, who is struggling with a shoulder injury, Meanwhile, Peter O’Mahony is still in the process of recovering from a knee injury.
There is, however, some good news on the injury front. Star kicker, Jonathan Sexton has been declared fit after suffering another head injury in Leinster’s recent European Champions Cup defeat to Wasps. The 30-year-old has accumulated a total of 239 points in Six Nations history, so his presence is obviously highly valued.
That is not the only cause for optimism, though. Assessing Ireland’s fixtures, they will be pleased to welcome Wales to Dublin after their solitary defeat in last year’s Six Nations arrived at the Millennium Stadium, eventually proving to cost them their Grand Slam crown.
Challenging away trips to France and England follow but Ireland end the competition with home ties against arguably the weakest teams in the group in Italy and Scotland. If they can win two of their first three games, which is certainly achievable, then they will put themselves in an extremely strong position to win what would be a very impressive third successive Six Nations title.
SCOTLAND – James Lloyd
O’ flower of Scotland! ‘That fought and died for’ seemed to be what spurred Scotland on at the end of 2015. And what a year a difference makes for the Scottish Rugby Team. Last year, Scotland finished stone-cold last in the Six Nations picking up the unwanted wooden spoon and, more worryingly Vern Cotter’s men didn’t pick up a single win.
But, onto the World Cup and the Scots won over the hearts of many across the world for their spirited performances and gritty ‘never say die’ attitude. Newly appointed England Head Coach, Eddie Jones, has even said that Scotland are favourites for the Calcutta Cup opener at Murrayfield on February 7th.
In a tough World Cup group which included South Africa, Samoa and giant-killers Japan, Scotland progressed, very much against the odds. They dismantled a confident Japan side 45-10 playing fast, free flowing rugby and were only just beaten by The Springboks a few days later. In the must win game against a brutal Samoa outfit, the Scots showed tremendous character and resolve to progress to the Quarter-Final.
A rampaging Australia side awaited but it became a bridge too far for Cotter’s men as they fell to an agonising 35-34 defeat. The game will be forever marred by referee Craig Jouber who’s poor display consequently cost Scotland a historic semi-final spot.
Momentum is big in sport, especially in rugby, and Scotland are certainly carrying the most thrust heading into this tournament. Experienced Kiwi, Cotter, has selected a well-balanced squad, combining both experience and youthful flair. Greg Laidlaw is blossoming into perhaps the best scrum-half in the northern hemisphere with exciting young prop, Zander Ferguson, looking set to make his Six Nations debut.
The creativity of Stuart Hogg and the experience of Sean Lamont will be crucial in carrying the hopes of the Scottish nation. The big question then is: can they really repeat their World Cup heroics? Centres Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett are both doubts for the opening clash with England, giving Cotter his first real selection headache in the midfield.
Fixture wise, it’s not a pretty picture for Scotland. Away fixtures at Wales and Ireland will prove extremely difficult considering the Principality and the Aviva are amongst the toughest stadiums to visit. However, Scotland should be aiming for a big result in Rome as well as picking up at least one home win against either France or England. Cotter and co. will eye a top three finish, and combined with a settling squad and the addition of defence coach, Richie Gray, Scotland could be real dark horses for the Six Nations crown – watch this space.