By Oscar Lucas and Caitlin Parr | Contributors
With an aim to improve on their third-place finish in the 2020 Championship, Ireland are planning a strong start to the tournament by looking to maintain their winning streak against Wayne Pivac’s Welsh squad at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium during Round 1 on Sunday 7th February.
In last year’s Championship Ireland beat Wales 24-14, and also won their most recent clash in the Autumn Nations Cup 32-9.
Anticipating the pandemic ongoing into the 2020/2021 season, Ireland founded a COVID-19 Committee back in April 2020 and are now successfully residing in a bio secure team bubble base that should protect the squad and their supporting team through all upcoming training and clashes.
There is also optimism within the camp that many key players will be fit to return from injury in time for the opening match in Cardiff — especially Tadhg Furlong who is in contention to play his first game in 11-months this week following calf, back and hamstring injuries; as well as captain Johnny Sexton who could win his 100th Ireland cap this tournament should he overcome an ongoing hamstring injury in time for facing Wales.
Speaking at the virtual Six Nations launch on January 27th, the fly-half reassured viewers that he will captain the side during this campaign, noting that “It’s nothing major; hopefully I’ll be back training by the end of the week and be fit for the Wales game.”
Andy Farrell also issued the update that Jacob Stockdale could reportedly be back in time for the third round of the Championship at Stadio Olimpico. The Ulster player suffered a knee injury when playing for the club earlier in January.
This comes after the Ulster back was initially deemed to “not be available” to them by the Head Coach during the original squad selection process.
Ones of watch: An uncapped duo, Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Ulster prop Tom O’Toole, have also been named in Farrell’s squad. Casey, 21, was part of the 2019 Ireland Under-20s team who took home the Grand Slam after defeating Wales Under-20s, 26-17, at Stadiwm Zip World (Parc Eirias), Colwyn Bay.
By Caitlin Parr
Gregor Townsend has picked a largely inexperienced side for his squad this year, with just five of the 35 having appeared 50 times for Scotland. The Scottish squad is exciting and possibly the strongest squad they’ve put together in the past few years, they have great strength in depth and will look to make big strides in 2021.
Having Finn Russell back fit is massive for the team and Townsend, having missed the Autumn Nations Cup Semi-Final against Ireland, the team missed his talent and ability to change a game at any moment, the Scottish fans will be hoping that key players Russell and Stuart Hogg will be able to perform at their attacking, fluent best if the Scots want to improve on their fourth position last year.
The addition of Richie and Johnny Gray will add experience to the forward pack, with the loss of both frontline hookers, Stuart McInally and Frazer Brown, the pack will look to the Gray brothers for leadership and much-needed level-headedness.
Hamish Watson in the back row will provide the grit and power needed to win the tough physical battles on the pitch. In the backline, Cameron Redpath, James Lang, and Duncan Taylor, there’s three talented players battling it out for the two centre positions in the team.
Captain Stuart Hogg is joined by Edinburgh Rugby trio Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham and Duhan van de Merwe and Saracens’ Sean Maitland in the back three, all with as much dynamism and match-winning ability the team will need.
Scotland travel to Twickenham to contest the Calcutta Cup against England in their first game, however, they travel knowing they haven’t won in England since March 1983. Ireland and Scotland, while both formidable opponents are probably going to end up fighting for third and fourth place, will it come down to the game at Murrayfield against Ireland?
One to watch: Cameron Redpath, has made an excellent start for Bath Rugby this season, playing all 400 minutes in each of his five starts, scoring two tries. The Bath centre had been selected in Eddie Jones’s England squads in the past, but did not win a cap. Redpath comes from Scottish rugby heritage, his father captaining Scotland on several occasions. He’s a phenomenal player, who has an extremely bright career ahead of him, he’ll add a lot of spark to the back line.
By Oscar Lucas
The French team are arguably the most exciting in the Northern Hemisphere right now. It is a squad full of young, talented players, and last year arguably should have won the Six Nations. They beat England in Paris, playing attacking rugby which oozed class compared to England’s more defensive approach, but just were not clinical enough.
They only lost last year’s campaign on points difference, but losing to the opposition you beat would have been tough to take for the French who are still searching for their first title since 2010.
Fabien Galthie has picked a team full of talent with enough star quality to make any team nervous, however, the loss of Romain Ntamack is massive. Antoine Dupont’s quality should shine through and playing more with Louis Carbonel and Matthieu Jalibert will improve the squad’s confidence and chemistry.
Exciting young winger Romain Taofifenua has been rewarded for his eight tries in 11 matches this season with a place in the squad and will provide another entertaining option in the backline. While the power of Virimi Vakatawa and the agility of Gael Fickou at the centre spots will cause problems for even the strongest of defenses.
In the forwards, captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt feature in a powerful backrow with the young prop Georges-Henri Colombe looking to make his first France appearance. If they can maintain Cameron Woki’s fitness, he will add pace and strength to the forward pack. Woki sets the tone for the rest of the team to follow, showing this against England in the Autumn Nations Cup final, dragging Anthony Watson into touch at the first kickoff.
With that added spark the French team looked hard to beat. The away trip to Twickenham seems to be the crunch match of this years’ tournament as it pits the best two sides against one another. It will be interesting to see whether the English tactics change to counter the French attacking prowess.
One to watch: Reigning Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship Antoine Dupont is one of three scrum-halves picked in Galthie’s squad, but Dupont showed his class last year and helped the French step up to compete for the title. Antoine has been praised for his ability to foreshadow the play; this has helped the Toulouse player to quickly rise from rookie to team leader in the French ranks. Dupont was the first French player ever to win the Player of the Championship last year which shows his pedigree and will certainly be in the running for the award again this year.
By Oscar Lucas
The Azzurri are aiming to end a 27-match losing run in the championship that dates to 2015, having finished in 6th place for the past five years. Franco Smith has urged his team to approach the impending Six Nations with courage and leadership and has repeatedly outlined his vision to help the Azzurri become more competitive against the Championship’s biggest hitters.
Several youngsters will be provided valuable game time over the coming weeks as he tries to expand Italy’s talent pool- Daniele Rimpelli, Marco Manfredi, Riccardo Favretto and Juan Ignacio Brex are the latest uncapped players to receive call ups, looking to follow fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who impressed on his Six Nations debut in October.
Being tasked with tough clashes against France and England in this year’s opening two rounds, the Italians might already be low on confidence going into round three. As it looks like Wales might be the next weakest team this year, it would seem far too difficult to overcome the 42-point deficit against the much stronger Welsh team.
One of the issues with the Italian squad is the weakness of the forwards. Skipper Luca Bigi will have to play an important role in the team’s success, having leant on fellow hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, Bigi will need to pass on his experience to help his younger teammates thrive.
The backline has the capacity to cause some damage to the bigger teams with Paolo Garbis at fly half and utility back Tommaso Allan, two players who can spark the match alive. But the biggest test will be whether the backs can maintain defensive structure and discipline against the bigger and stronger teams. The loss of Gloucester back row Jake Polledri and fullback Matteo Minozzi is a shame as they add some match winning potential to the squad.
One to watch: Paolo Garbisi, the 20-year-old started 2020 playing for Petrarca in the Italian league and finished it as Italy’s fly-half. He captained his country in World Rugby’s Under-20 Championship, and he inspired them to victory over Scotland. He made a try-scoring debut in Dublin in October and has started every Test since, one of a crop of bold, young players the Azzurri’s head coach, Franco Smith, believes will change the nature of a team renowned for their set pieces and little else.
By Oscar Lucas