France: By Mark Wyatt
France will be hoping to carry their confident performances from the Autumn Internationals into the 2017 RBS 6 Nations and I can’t see why they can’t do well if they start with a good result, but their injuries are their biggest problem at the moment.
Nobody ever really knows which France will turn up at the Six Nations, they could turn up and pull out some good results or they could follow another mid-table path of uncertainty.
The 2017 tournament will test France from the off as they travel to London in round one to face England who, under Eddie Jones, will be hoping to secure back to back Grand Slams. France won’t be a walkover for England however, they’re physically powerful and have improved a lot over the past two years.
France will be without Wesley Fofana through injury which is a big loss for them and his replacement Henry Chavancy has pulled out through injury too, with Toulon’s hard hitting Mathieu Bastareaud taking his place.
The injuries seem to have piled up for the squad over the past week as it was announced hooker Camille Chat and back row Raphael Lakafia will both be absent from the tie in London. Toulouse hooker Christopher Tolofua will come in for Chat, while Lakafia will not be replaced in the squad.
The list of injured players is worrying for the French and Guy Noves will have to reply on his players making a big impact to see off games and finish off opponents, something they failed to do in their close defeats to the All Blacks and the Wallabies in November.
The French front row is arguably their best asset and this is where I expect the match against England to boil down to, with Dylan Hartley and Guilhem Guirado coming face to face as opposing captains at hooker.
Having Louis Picamoles in the side will be a huge boost against an England side who have an injury-hit back row and the game could be won here if Noves chooses to start him alongside Damien Chouly.
Unfortunately for France the fixture list isn’t on their side, after facing England they host Scotland before visiting Ireland. This means their hopes of a first title since 2010 could vanish before they even begin. I wouldn’t write them off just yet but don’t hold out for the French, it could be a bumpy campaign.
Ireland: By Philip Marsh
Ireland go into the 2017 Six Nations off the back of a successful Autumn Series. Victories against the mighty All Blacks and Australia will give the Irish team real confidence boost approaching the Six Nations.
Ireland’s victory against New Zealand back in November was their first against the All Blacks in 111 years. Although the Kiwi’s avenged their defeat a few weeks later, winning 21-9, the encouragement gained from their monumental 40-29 victory will help carry them through this Six Nations.
Ireland’s fixtures get harder as the Six Nations progresses. Scotland and Italy are their first opponents, followed by a home game against France before a trip to Cardiff and the Principality Stadium to face Wales. Should the Irish win all four games, everyone’s attention will turn back to Dublin for the final week.
The final game sees Joe Schmidt’s All-Black-conquerors take on Eddie Jones’s England, who won every single game in 2016 and are favourites to win the Six Nations. Many believe the winner of this year’s Six Nation will be decided by this final game. The Irish team will most likely have started preparations are for their meeting with England on March 18th.
Realistically, Ireland will believe second place is the minimum requirement going into this Six Nations. Wales are out-of-sorts, France and Italy are rebuilding and whilst Scotland are undoubtedly improving, the Irish possess more quality and experience in their squad.
Ireland will be anxiously observing Johnny Sexton’s recovery process. The fly-half was substituted with a calf injury last Friday against Leinster but has been selected for the Ireland squad nonetheless.
The Irish coaching staff are confident their talisman will be fit for their opener against Scotland, but the recent injury no doubt concern Joe Schmidt who knows how important Sexton is to the team.
Two surprise inclusions in the Ireland squad were brothers Niall and Rory Scannell. The pair play their club rugby at Munster and have been two of the few players at the club to impress despite the club’s poor form.
Although neither is guaranteed a start during the Six Nations, Rory Scannell is perhaps the most likely to get some game time. The centre was in the squad for Ireland’s 27-24 victory against the Wallabies in November.
That being said, hooker Niall Scannell will be competing with James Tracy from Leinster to prove he is the best substitute for veteran Rory Best when substitutions are needed.
Scotland: By James Lloyd
You get the feeling something special is happening way up on the brisk hills of Scotland. A heroic World Cup in 2015 had many people daring to the dream, but the meteoric rise was brought to an abrupt and rather humbling halt after a lacklustre Six Nations campaign last year.
Scotland are the team on everybody’s lips. Peering out of Murrayfield, this Six Nations campaign could well define the Vern Cotter era and will undoutedly go a long way in shaping Warren Gatland’s Lions side.
But there is no point getting ahead of ourselves. Scotland still have a spring campaign to get through and will be targeting beating last year’s effort of fourth place as an absolute minimum.
An opening fixture against the in-form Irish, who toppled the mighty All Blacks in the autumn, makes things slightly tougher, but a trip to France a week later might prove to be a change in wind.
For the second time in just over a year, Scotland ran Australia close in November, before edging Argentina a week after in the autumn series.
Cotter’s men are inches away from banishing the demons of being known as the nearly men. They nearly reached a World Cup semi-final, they nearly had a perfect autumn series last year, they nearly shocked Wales in Cardiff – can this year be known as the year Scotland were released from the shackles of being so close, yet so far?
Cotter seems to have depth, experience and form in his squad selection. Stuart Hogg is dicing to be one of the best full-backs in the world, with Finn Russell emerging as a reliable stand-off from the trusty boot of Greig Laidlaw at half-back.
Jonny Gray is reportedly being watched by French giants Toulon, whilst centre Huw Jones is being lined up for a starting Lions role. On paper it is ferocious, but they will need the cogs to click if they are to find success.
Scotland, though, have a reignited dream, a point to prove and they ceratinly have no fear. And if domestic club form is anything to go by, it could well be their year.
Glasgow Warriors boast a large core of the national side and they are amongst the teams to beat in Europe this season following the 43-0 dismantling of two time European champions Leicester Tigers on January 21.
There are hints that this could well be a successful Six Nations for the Thistle of Scotland. If it wasn’t for a trip to Dublin in the opening round, then many would pencil them in as an outside shot for glory. But for now all Laidlaw and Co. have to do is show patience, take risks and above all, believe.