This weekend sees the return of one of the world’s greatest rugby union tournaments – the Six Nations. England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy have been preparing for the last couple of weeks since naming their squads, and it’s almost time to see what they can do. Here is my full preview of each of the six teams, with some people to look out for, and some thoughts on how they could do this year.
Head Coach: Eddie Jones (AUS)
Captain: Owen Farrell
Look Out For: Amongst all of the usual names you would expect to find, Worcester youngster Ted Hill has been included in the full squad, as has Saracens back row Ben Earl, who has been on electric form in the Premiership this season so far. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry will be a force to be reckoned with, if they play together. There are also inclusions for some other exciting players who have yet to appear for England, such as Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley, Exeter centre Ollie Devoto, and Northampton full-back George Furbank, who has been a huge part of the Saints’ excellent form this season.
v France (Stade de France, Paris), Sunday 2nd February, 3pm
v Scotland (Murrayfield, Edinburgh), Saturday 8th February, 4.45pm
v Ireland (Twickenham Stadium, London), Sunday 23rd February, 3pm
v Wales (Twickenham Stadium, London), Saturday 7th March, 4.45pm
v Italy (Stadio Olimpico, Rome), TBC
How They Could Do: They will be one of the favourites for the title, and with some really exciting players in the squad, it is hoped that they could (and, in all honesty, should) challenge for every match. Last year, there were some surprising results, such as the second half collapse against Scotland, but their reasonable excuse was that they were really keeping their eyes on the World Cup. This year, we might find them holding nothing back.
Head Coach: Gregor Townsend (SCO)
Captain: Stuart Hogg
Look Out For: Hogg has been named the new captain, with John Barclay having announced his retirement after the World Cup. Wing Tommy Seymour has also left the international fold, so there will be more space for the likes of Darcy Graham and perhaps Blair Kinghorn to play in those areas. However, Kinghorn is more likely to be competing with Hogg for the full-back position each round. Other notable names are lock Jonny Gray, who will join Hogg in Exeter next season, and Worcester Warriors back row Cornell du Preez, with the Warriors flying high in the Premiership at the moment. Finn Russell will miss the first match against Ireland, after a disciplinary enforcement from Gregor Townsend, so Adam Hastings, son of former Scotland player Gavin, and nephew of former Scotland player Scott, is likely to start in that one. Centre Sam Johnson has been a standout player in the last year or so as well.
v Ireland (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), Saturday 1st February, 4.45pm
v England (Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh), Saturday 8th February, 4.45pm
v Italy (Stadio Olimpico, Rome), Saturday 22nd February, 2.15pm
v France (Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh), Sunday 8th March, 3pm
v Wales (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 14th March, 2.15pm
How They Could Do: Scotland could struggle, in all honesty. They always go in fighting, but come up short against the likes of Ireland and Wales, despite battling all the way. However, don’t bet against them getting a few surprising results and stealing losing bonus points off a few other teams. Against Italy, and probably against France as well, they should win, so it won’t be all doom and gloom for them.
Head Coach: Andy Farrell (ENG)
Captain: Johnny Sexton
Look Out For: It’s all change for Ireland, with a new captain, Johnny Sexton, in possession of the metaphorical armband. Rory Best retired after the World Cup and Barbarians fixtures. Joe Schmidt also announced his retirement from coaching after the World Cup, so Andy Farrell, father of Owen, is now in charge. Some names to watch out for include Ulster duo John Cooney and Billy Burns, who have both been impressive for their province this season, and lock Devin Toner, who returns after being omitted from the World Cup squad. Burns and Ross Byrne will be Sexton’s backups in the fly-half position. Wing Jacob Stockdale, who lit up the tournament a couple of years ago, is included and will definitely be one to watch. A big omission this time around is long-serving full-back Rob Kearney, with Jordan Larmour and Will Addison being selected for the no. 15 position. Other notable names left out include Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty and Jordi Murphy.
v Scotland (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), Saturday 1st February, 4.45pm
v Wales (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), Saturday 8th February, 2.15pm
v England (Twickenham Stadium, London), Sunday 23rd February, 3pm
v Italy (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), TBC
v France (Stade de France, Paris), Saturday 14th March, 8pm
How They Could Do: Again, like England, they will be expected to challenge. However, I wonder whether, with so many changes and alterations to the squad from the World Cup and last year’s Six Nations, will this count against them? It might against a team like Wales, perhaps, or England if the Roses are playing well, but I don’t think they will finish below 3rd whatever happens. They will be an interesting team to watch though, with Andy Farrell having been on Joe Schmidt’s coaching staff since leaving England in 2015, just how much tactically he changes, and what he keeps the same.
Head Coach: Wayne Pivac (NZL)
Captain: Alun-Wyn Jones
Look Out For: Sale Sharks prop WillGriff John has been included, and has yet to play for Wales, but has been a big part of Sale’s good play over the last year or so. Bath back row Taulupe Faletau has recovered from injury to make the squad, having missed the World Cup because of it. 25-year-old Cardiff Blues scrum-half Tomos Williams has been an able backup over the last year or so, and could be in line for starts this year. Fly-half Gareth Anscombe will miss the tournament with injury, after also missing the World Cup, as will Exeter prop Tomas Francis. Wasps lock Will Rowlands is uncapped, but was Wasps’ player of the year a couple of seasons ago. Two other brilliant players to watch are Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit and Saracens centre Nick Tompkins, who are also both uncapped. Flying winger Josh Adams, now with Cardiff Blues, is likely to be up there with the tournament top scorers.
v Italy (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 1st February, 2.15pm
v Ireland (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), Saturday 8th February, 2.15pm
v France (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 22nd February, 4.45pm
v England (Twickenham Stadium, London), Saturday 7th March, 4.45pm
v Scotland (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 14th March, 2.15pm
How They Could Do: The defending champions will be everyone’s favourite to win again and defend their title, and they are also my backing for the title at the end of the tournament. The reason for that is the quality of player they are able to call upon when another is injured or left out – take, for example, Ospreys prop Nicky Smith, who has been left out, so WillGriff John has come in. When you have Josh Adams on the wing, you are also guaranteed at least two tries, because of his pace and eye for the try line. Louis Rees-Zammit is also a really exciting young talent, so overall it is a strong squad and one that I am really looking forward to watching. New head coach Wayne Pivac, previously in charge of Scarlets, replaced Warren Gatland after the World Cup, and that is a difficult reign to follow, but I don’t see any problems for them.
Head Coach: Fabien Galthie (FRA)
Captain: Charles Ollivon
Look Out For: Back row Charles Ollivon, who has only won 11 caps for France thus far, has taken over the captaincy following the international retirement of hooker Guilhem Guirado after the World Cup, and Fabien Galthie has taken over as head coach after Jacques Brunel left his post at the same time. There have been a few surprising omissions for this squad, with Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget, two of France’s best players in the tournament last year in my opinion, both left out. However, other star names such as scrum-halves Baptiste Serin and Antoine Dupont, fly-half Romain Ntamack, who was another star of the 2019 Six Nations, and full-back Thomas Ramos have all been included in the squad. I am also very pleased to see another young French star, Damien Penaud, the Clermont wing, included, as he was one of the best players in the tournament last year. Another wing who shone before his injury was Racing 92’s Teddy Thomas, and with these two players in the team, France will be hard to stop this year.
v England (Stade de France, Paris), Sunday 2nd February, 3pm
v Italy (Stade de France, Paris), Sunday 9th February, 3pm
v Wales (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 22nd February, 4.45pm
v Scotland (Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh), Sunday 8th March, 3pm
v Ireland (Stade de France, Paris), Saturday 14th March, 8pm
How They Could Do: There is always one phrase that goes around where the French are concerned: never count them out until the final whistle has been blown. They may not have been very successful in recent years, but they are still a very dangerous side to underestimate. They are likely to finish 4th or 5th, depending on their performances, but don’t be surprised to see them take losing bonus points off other teams, just like Scotland. The game between those two is going to be very interesting, given that they will be fighting for 4th place in all likelihood.
Head Coach: Franco Smith (RSA) (interim)
Captain: Luca Bigi/Sergio Parisse
Look Out For: To explain the above, Sergio Parisse will be retiring from international rugby after this tournament, and will only be playing in home matches this time around. Luca Bigi, the Zebre hooker, has been chosen as his replacement as captain. Italy are also under a new coach, with Conor O’Shea having resigned after the World Cup. Franco Smith is in interim charge, but will oversee this tournament. Italy have included some of their standout players from last tournament, such as lock Dean Budd, Gloucester back row Jake Polledri, who missed the start of the tournament, Tommaso Allan, who is their kicker-in-chief, and full-backs Jayden Hayward and Edoardo Padovani. Padovani in particular did very well on the wing and provided a threat in the absence of star wing Mattia Bellini, who missed the tournament through injury. Another who missed the tournament was another who usually plays at full-back, but can operate as a winger, Matteo Minozzi. Minozzi was signed by Wasps before this season, to help fill the gaping holes in the Ricoh Arena side’s defence, because of his excellent displays for Italy. Both Bellini and Minozzi were missed by Italy last year, despite the good form of Hayward throughout.
v Wales (Principality Stadium, Cardiff), Saturday 1st February, 2.15pm
v France (Stade de France, Paris), Sunday 9th February, 3pm
v Scotland (Stadio Olimpico, Rome), Saturday 22nd February, 2.15pm
v Ireland (Aviva Stadium, Dublin), TBC
v England (Stadio Olimpico, Rome), TBC
How They Could Do: Realistically, despite what I have said about their good players, I can’t see them finishing anywhere other than last place, sadly. With Bellini and Minozzi back to help protect their defence and give more threat on the wings, they might score more tries than last year, but I don’t think that will lead to a win at all. The one match they might get something from is when they play France, or perhaps Scotland, but against Wales, Ireland and England, unfortunately I see nothing other than a hammering.
Cups Awarded During the Tournament
Calcutta Cup – contested between England and Scotland.
Millennium Trophy – contested between England and Ireland. Named as it was given to celebrate Dublin’s millennium in 1988.
Centenary Quaich – contested between Ireland and Scotland.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy – contested between France and Italy. Named because of Garibaldi’s links to his birthplace, Italy, and his service in the French Republican Army against Prussia.
Auld Alliance Trophy – contested between France and Scotland. Named to remember the war dead of both countries.
Doddie Weir Cup – contested between Wales and Scotland. Named after former Scotland international Doddie Weir, who is a sufferer of MNS and who has a foundation supporting research into the disease.
Grand Slam Trophy – awarded to the team who wins all their matches in the tournament.
Triple Crown – awarded to the team out of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland who beats all of the other three Home Nations.
Wooden Spoon – awarded to the team who finishes last in the tournament.
I will be writing weekly pieces of analysis on each side, and publishing them here on this blog. Come back each week if you want to read what I thought of each match in this year’s tournament.
Hope you enjoy the 2020 Six Nations!!