Six Nations Preview: Wales, Italy and England

Wales: By Gareth Axenderrie

Four years since Rob Howley last stepped in for Warren Gatland and guided Wales to a Six Nations Championship, this year an atmosphere of pessimism cloaks the Wales camp. Wales won three of their four autumn internationals in November, but three average victories felt a little hollow in the absence of creativity and free flowing rugby.

With England and Ireland taking the international game by storm over the past twelve months, many feel Wales have been left behind, at times looking void of confidence. With Gatland now on his Lions sabbatical, it falls to Howley once again to attempt to reignite the Dragon’s roar.

The admission of English based stars Thomas Young and Owen Williams in the squad is, to many observers, overdue. The inclusion of youngsters like Olly Cracknell, Steff Evans and Ashton Hewitt add to a sense of optimism and excitement. The squad seems to have a greater balance of old and new, and the dropping of Sam Warburton as captain implies a vision focussed on the future.

So, what of Wales’ chances? A quick look at recent history suggests they perform well in cycles when they play France, Italy and Scotland away from home. Right now they’ll be grateful to play Ireland and England on their own patch as opposed to away from home. However, bookies have Wales as third favourites, and their lack of recent creativity may haunt them as the Championship adopts bonus points for the first time in its history.

This year, there’s a feel the squad doesn’t choose itself for a change. There are quandaries about who should join Alun Wyn Jones in the second row. How the back row should look, and who plays in the centre and back three. Howley must now take his ambitious squad selection and pick players in the match day squad on form. A balance must be struck between being more free-flowing whilst maintaining elements of their successful resolute style.

Will Howley pick Scott Williams in the centre of a midfield void of expansive substance? Will Tipuric finally make the seven shirt his own? Will Sam Davies be given an opportunity to prove his creative worth at fly half? Howley may or may not know these answers, but one thing is more certain: a Six Nations title this year would surpass any of Wales’ previous successes. To do so, they must be brave in squad selection.

Italy: By Rich Jones

Italy are preparing for another basement battle entering the 2017 RBS Six Nations.

They will once again enter the tournament as underdogs – although with new head coach Conor O’Shea at the helm they certainly have the potential to make an impact.

Former Ireland full-back O’Shea is preparing for his first Six Nations in charge after taking over the job from Jacques Brunel after last year’s dismal tournament.

He led them to a historic 20-18 win over struggling South Africa in the autumn, but a shock defeat to Tonga just a week later showed there is still a lot of work to do in terms of consistency before they can become a real threat in the Six nations.

There is certainly plenty of leadership within the camp; O’Shea has quickly stamped his authority on the side, in-demand defensive coach Brendan Venter has committed his future to the Azzurri whilst the on-field achievements of Mike Catt mean he can command respect early in his coaching career.

In skipper Sergio Parisse, Italy have one of the most iconic figures in the history of the game and a true superstar capable of grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck.

One thing Italy are always guaranteed to bring to the table is physicality. Experienced front row pair Leonardo Ghiraldini and Lorenzo Cittadini should give them a solid base at the scrum, and new call-up Federico Ruzza will aim to make his presence felt in the second row.

Scrum half Edoardo Gori, Exeter centre Michele Campagnaro and Newcastle winger Giovanbattista Vendetti have the potential to cause problems with ball in hand.

But they are ultimately likely to be outclassed by the majority of their opponents, particularly given Scotland’s encouraging form heading into the tournament.

The bulk of their side are plying their trade for Pro12 outfits Zebre and Benetton Treviso, both of whom are languishing at the bottom of the standings with only three wins between them this season.

Italy’s best opportunity perhaps comes in their first game against a struggling Wales side in Rome. If they can come out firing against their Welsh counterparts and grind them down they could potentially earn a shock victory early on.

But anything other than another wooden spoon campaign would be viewed as an unexpected success for the Azzurri, who remain a significant distance behind the other sides in the competition.

England: By Sam Saunders

What a difference a year makes. Going into the 2016 Six Nations, despite the appointment of a new head coach and captain, England were not expected to win the tournament, let alone the Grand Slam. However, following a disastrous exit from the group stage of their home World Cup in 2015, England now enter this tournament as defending Grand Slam champions, on the back of 14 successive wins, equalling the English record of the legendary team that went on to win the 2003 World Cup in Australia.

The Autumn internationals gave England another chance to shine after the 2016 Six Nations and their 3-0 series whitewash of Australia last summer, and they didn’t disappoint. A first win against South Africa for 10 years followed by convincing victories over Argentina and Fiji were only surpassed by one of the most impressive second-half performances in their final match against Australia. England frankly looked worse than sub-par during the first half of that game, going in 16-13 down at half time. But a presumably stern team talk by Jones prompted the team to push on and they eventually won the match by 37 points to 21.

This victory only serves to highlight the huge improvements that have been made under Eddie Jones, with England’s team now built around the 10-12 partnership of George Ford and Owen Farrell and superb performances by Ben Youngs in the number 9 role. Injury is one of the major areas of concern for the England team in this Six Nations, as they are without Robshaw and both Billy and Mako Vunipola, with Jack Clifford and James Haskell (who only recently returned from a toe injury that saw him sit out the Autumn Internationals) injury concerns for the first match against France on the 4th of February.

The returning faces of Kruis, Nowell and Itoje from injury should boost confidence, as England have already proved their strength in depth during the Autumn Internationals and Jones should feel positive that his team can still perform. And why should they not? Only Ireland look strong enough to truly stand in the way of England, but it’s always difficult to rule out Wales and Scotland against England, and the same can be said of France. England expects, and Jones will be all too aware that his mission to turn England into a side that can challenge for the 2019 World Cup in Japan depends upon continued success here.