Keep Calm and Scrum Down…
Riddle takes a look at the home nations in the upcoming 6 Nations
Analysis by Andy Barnham
With the Rugby World Cup mere months ago, the home nations now turn their attention to the 6 Nations. With such a high intensity competition finishing so recently all nations are feeling the pinch with many players involved in the RWC squads injured or just not playing up to normal standards; to expect everyone to peak again so soon is unrealistic with domestic and European competition adding to the injury toll. Indeed a glance at the European Champions Cup, which saw a dramatic final pool stage weekend, sees five English and three French clubs progress to the final eight knock out stages with no celtic representation in sight for the first time ever. To predict anything from this is tempting but from experience, unwise, with many believing the lack of Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams stems from their RWC with little time for club rugby to re-integrate players before the European competition kicked off. Historically Wales have won Grand Slams after the last two RWC and with the current, stable, coaching and player squad this could realistically happen again.
For sure the 6 Nations is an incredible event well attended by away supporters. Compacted into a short time frame due to one match between opponents the competition is virtually knock out rugby from the start. As such there is huge pressure to win, often resulting in arm wrestles between countries unwilling to risk free flowing rugby in fear of losing. Yet, given the spectacle of rugby witnessed during the RWC, what use of arm wrestles when the teams that impressed most and ultimately won scored more tries and the least amount of penalties than the 6 Nations teams….
For the first time, as part of a 6 year deal, the BBC is sharing terrestrial coverage with ITV with an approximate 50/50 split of matches.
Odds of winning Grand Slam: 10/3
Odds of winning 6 Nations: 13/8
Odds of Dylan Hartley being shown a red card in Murrayfield: 16/1
World ranking: 8th
Record: 2015: 2nd, 2014: 2nd, 2013: 2nd, 2012: 2nd
Fixtures: Scotland 6th Feb (A), Italy 14th Feb (A), Ireland 27th Feb (H), Wales 12th Mar (H), France 19th Mar (A)
Of all the home nations, England suffered the biggest fallout and are now coached by Australian Eddie Jones who has made the maximum number of changes to the squad allowed under RFU rules and injected youth with many more experienced players feeling the fallout. Issues such as No7 and the centre combination are being plastered over for now (Wasps No6 Haskell starts as open side and Saracen’s No10 starts at centre) while Jones works on long term solutions and he will be hoping his best players stay healthy; in the lead up to the squad announcement a dozen players were unavailable due to injury. After the head masterly tenure of Lancaster, players are likely to be shook up by Jones’ more abrasive and arguably more honest style, though training sessions have been few. Led by controversial hooker and new captain Dylan Hartley, who during his career has been banned from playing for over 52 weeks due to disciplinary issues, England’s 6 Nations opens in the hostile environment of Murrayfield. Having selected youth in the EPS squad, Jones starts his first 6 Nations with conservative selection of more experienced players, preferring reputation over form, presumably to slowly blood the younger generation as the matches and competition progresses. England have won the 6 Nations only once since 2003, which given the size and resources of the RFU is a meagre return. Some may look at the recent 2nd places as positive, while others will view it as not good enough.
Odds of winning Grand Slam: 9/1
Odds of winning 6 Nations: 10/3
World ranking: 6th
Record: 2015: 1st, 2014: 1st, 2013: 4th, 2012: 3rd
Fixtures: Wales 7th Feb (H), France 13th Feb (A), England 27th Feb (A), Italy 12th Mar (H), Scotland 19th Mar (H)
So long Paul O’Conner and with the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll still fresh, fans will be wondering who will be Ireland’s talisman moving on. To be sure, Ireland were the most successful northern hemisphere team at the RWC reaching the quarter finals, but the dumping out by free running Argentina and how quickly the ball was sped to the wide channels and away from the close and tight games Ireland love so much to play will have stuck in people’s minds. Leinster have had 17 players named in the Ireland squad of 35; quite how this translates to the national team will be seen, as experience shows this rarely guarantees success, but no matter what, fans will be hoping for the hat- trick. To do this Ireland start with Wales at home against whom honours have been shared evenly the last ten years and then face away games against the newly coached England and France.
Odds of winning Grand Slam: 7/1
Odds of winning 6 Nations: 5/2
World ranking: 4th
Record: 2015: 3rd, 2014: 3rd, 2013: 1st, 2012: 1st
Fixtures: Ireland 7th Feb (A), Scotland 13th Feb (H), France 26th Feb (H), England 12th Mar (A), Italy 19th Mar (H)
With club rugby doing poorly (although Scarlet sit top of the table, the other three sides sit in the lower half of the Pro12) Wales have managed to punch above their weight at international level for the last few years. Conceding only three tries all RWC, they were also guilty of scoring few themselves – most notably when they had superior numbers for over 10 mins when Australia were shown two yellow cards. Having battled injury for all the RWC, Gatland will be praying for good luck in the 6 Nations, though no one is expecting anything different from the route 1, Warrenball, physical over the gain line game Wales have played for the last few seasons. Having named 10 players plying their trade outside Wales in the squad and being allowed to play only two, non Wales playing wildcards, fans will be wondering quite how Gatland is going to juggle the players, though few will care as long as Wales win. Good news comes in the form of captain fantastic Sam Warburton back in action having been laid off injured since the end of November and ever the pragmatist, Gatland has dropped 124 cap prop Gethin Jenkins in favour of 3 cap, 23 year old Rob Evans for Wales’ opener due. Expected not to make the Wales’ next RWC squad in Japan in 2019 and Jenkin’s’ tendency t0 fall foul of French referees (Frenchman Jérôme Garcès is in charge of the contest against Ireland) Wales have opted to try and reduce the penalty count and use the opportunity to blood the younger Evans. Entering their ninth successive season the Wales management enter the competition the most stable; time will tell if this is the key ingredient this year.
Odds of winning Grand Slam: 33/1
Odds of winning 6 Nations: 14/1
World ranking: 9th
Record: 2015: 6th, 2014: 5th, 2013: 3rd, 2012: 5th
Fixtures: England 6th Feb (H), Wales 13th Feb (A), Italy 27th Feb (A), France 13th Mar (H), Ireland 19th Mar (A)
Scotland will still be smarting from their RWC exit where Joubert’s incorrect decision gave Australia the game, though throwing to the back of a line out in driving rain will always be a risky move. However that should not detract from the positive rugby played by Scotland and they should feel confident even if they have not won against England since a home victory in 2008, and there is every chance they could catch a new look England on the hop at home. To do so would consign the shame of last year’s Wooden Spoon to the history books, with both England and Scotland coaches trying to tag the other as favourites. Coach Vern Cotter’s 6 Nations’ squad is based largely around his RWC players with versatility key among his choice of 15 backs and 20 forwards. Indeed Scotland start Saturday’s game against the Auld Enemy with only a change of two players from their last outing against Australia in form of Matt Scott (33 caps) and John Barclay (45 caps) with newcomer 20 year old prop Zander Fagerson on the bench. Should Fagerson be called upon, he will be the youngest prop to represent Scotland for over 50 years. Having won the last ever 5 Nations and never won the 6 Nations (their best place has been 3rd in 2006 and 2013), a weak Scotland does the championship no favours and many will be asking if not now, when… ?