It’s that fantastic time of the year again when passions run high and London, Paris and Rome are the destinations of choice for many. And if you think I’m talking about Valentine’s Day, sorry to disappoint, but I’m obviously referring to the Six Nations.
Last year England clinched the Grand Slam to get Eddie Jones’ reign as coach off to a flying start and after an unbeaten year in 2016 – including four wins over Australia home and away – they go into this year’s contest as favourites. Ireland, who beat Australia, New Zealand and South Africa during the course of 2016 are expected to present England with their biggest challenge yet and the whole tournament could come down to their meeting in Dublin on the final day.
France, Italy, Scotland, and Wales will have plenty to say about that, however, and with a Lions tour to New Zealand coming up later in the year, there is plenty to play for among the home nations at least. We also have bonus points for the first time including an additional three points for any team winning the Grand Slam.
England’s unblemished record under Jones has to end at some point and they will face bigger tests than they did in last year’s post-World Cup tournament. They have injury concerns with both Mako and Billy Vunipola sidelined along with Chris Robshaw. How they cope with that will be crucially important. There were occasions in the autumn where Owen Farrell’s kicking radar wasn’t quite working and England will need that to be back in shape too.
Ireland, on the other hand, are in good spirits and are boosted by the news that Jonny Sexton will play some part in proceedings. They are beginning to develop the sort of strength in depth that means as and when they do lose players to injury they have replacements lined up to come in and do a job and they have kicked on massively from what was a disappointing World Cup exit in 2015.
Wales are rarely off the pace in the Six Nations but their form in the autumn was far from inspiring, labouring to a win over disinterested Argentina and needing a last-minute drop goal from Sam Davies to see off Japan. With Warren Gatland on Lions duty and Sam Warburton having stepped down as captain, just how much can they raise their game? The Rhys Webb-Dan Biggar axis is back together and they are a different team when those two combine effectively.
France, meanwhile, are beginning to look dangerous under Guy Noves and an early strong performance – particularly if they win – against England could set them up for a good run, although they too, like England, have to travel to Dublin. They’ll take some confidence from coming close to beating New Zealand in November and could just make it into a three-way battle for the title.
Scotland always seem on the verge of making a breakthrough but never quite get there. They’ll fancy winning home games against Wales and Italy and might run Ireland close this weekend but fourth place would be a decent achievement overall. They will rarely put a team to the sword but they could be dramatic to watch, if a late defeat to Australia followed up by a last-minute penalty win over Argentina in the autumn is anything to go by.
Italy are just beginning life with Conor O’Shea as coach, hosting Wales this weekend. They claimed a decent win over South Africa in the autumn but followed it up by losing to Tonga, which is the sort of thing that we have come to expect from Italy. The flair is there, and on their day they are genuinely capable of beating almost anybody, but the question remains whether they can instil the discipline and consistency required to take that next step up.
For what it’s worth, I think it will come down to the final weekend, and I’m going for another England win but it could be the most competitive competition for years and that would be a fine thing indeed with that Lions tour around the corner.
Who do you think will win this year’s Six Nations?