Six Nations 2018: England’s opposition

Finn Russell

The start of the Six Nations is just a couple of days away – standing in the way of English victory are a group of opponents steeped in centuries of rivalry (and Italy). Here is why England should be wary, what the various teams’ weaknesses are and a few players who could make the difference for their side.

Position last year: 2nd
Main reason to be wary

A lot of people’s favourites to knock England off their throne, Ireland have a formidable and settled side. The only northern hemisphere side to have beaten the big three of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the last couple of years, they will be buoyed by the form of their players during the Champions Cup and sense blood. Also the only team to have beaten England under Eddie Jones, Joe Schmidt is a smart and pragmatic coach; they have a sublime half back pairing in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, a brutish pack, and some young and electric backs such as Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour out wide.

Any weaknesses?
No glaring ones. They are missing a couple of key players due to injury and if Johnny Sexton also picks up an injury there is shallow depths to Ireland’s resources there. They do have to face England at Twickenham, which is a very different prospect to hosting them in Dublin.

Key player to watch
Iain Henderson is in the same mould of athletic modern day lock as England’s famed units Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. As comfortable on the flanks as he is in the row, Iain Henderson is one of the new cornerstones of the Irish pack. With some of their stars such as Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien out, a lot will fall on the Ulsterman to bully the opposition at the breakdown.

Position last year: 4th
Main reason to be wary

They came within a whisker of beating the All Blacks in the Autumn and downed Australia – Scotland are no longer here to simply duke it out with Italy for the wooden spoon. They have a great coach in Gregor Townsend, some star players and at Murrayfield are a match for anyone

Any weaknesses?
Their front row resources are being sorely tested by injury – they are without six frontline props and have Scott Lawson as replacement hooker; the 36-year-old last played for Scotland in 2014, while Edinburgh prop Murray McCallum awaits his debut from the bench. They will be challenged over 80 minutes by the other nations’ scrums.

Key player to watch
It is always tempting to look at Stuart Hogg – a candidate for a world XV – but it is worth remembering Scotland beat Australia without him on the field after he withdrew just before kick off. Rather, Finn Russell is the fulcrum around which Scotland have built their exciting attacking play and if he goes well, they will score tries.

Position last year: 5th
Main reason to be wary

Top 14 side Scarlets have been playing some simply beautiful rugby this season – Wales coach Warren Gatland has responded by picking 10 of their players for his test side. They have been playing a free-flowing brand of devil-may-care attacking rugby and if the national team approaches games in a similar manner we are in for a spectacle.

Any weaknesses?
Injuries are stretching the Welsh team arguably more than any other, simply because they do not have the same resources and have multiple injuries affecting similar positions. Both Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland are absent at flyhalf, leaving the relatively inexperienced Rhys Patchell to orchestrate things, while in the back row, perennially injured Sam Warburton and Taulupe Felatau leave big shoes to be filled by Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty. This will be a real test of the welsh understudies.

Key player to watch
With Rhys Webb another injury – and also because he is leaving for Toulon at the end of the season and so will be excluded from Gatland’s team – Gareth Davies has a chance to make the position his own. His livewire running threat is well known, however this will be a big test of his game management skills to see if he is ready to be Wales’ long term number nine. Also look out for Worcester winger Josh Adams.

Position last year: 3rd
Main reason to be wary

A new coach in Jacques Brunel, who replaced Guy Noves. Whether that will have the desired result of an adrenalin shot into the arm of a stagnant national side is anyone’s guess. It may be a cliché but if France ‘turn up’, they have the individual players to threaten the very best in the world. It is always prudent to be wary of France…

Any weaknesses?
A new coach in Jacques Brunel. Brunel has been in place for about a month – is that enough time to rejuvenate Les Blues, work out his best side and get a coherent gameplan together that everyone is familiar with?

Key player to watch
This was a little tricky as we still don’t know who Brunel will be playing in his first test XV – he has picked a number of exciting young talents, such as the two fly halves teenager Matthieu Jalibert and 21-year-old Anthony Belleau who would certainly bring something different to the French side. But I am going to go with monster Clermont lock Sebastien Vahaamahina. A powerful enforcer, he could be a real headache for England and will certainly test their second rows.

Position last year: 6th
Main reason to be wary

Conor O’Shea. The head coach is a canny operator – his infamous ‘fox’ (developed with Brendan Venter) tactics left England’s pack scratching their heads in utter bemusement. As O’Shea explained after the game, Italy can’t just turn up and play ‘normal’ rugby against the very best sides or they will be soundly beaten. Expect more cunning from O’Shea this Sunday.

Any weaknesses?
Beyond an ageing Sergio Parisse, Italy are short of world-class talent. They have a strong and competent side but are lacking that little extra with which to trouble the other sides in the Six Nations.

Key player to watch
Difficult, as always with Italy, to look beyond their one world class player, Sergio Parisse – still going strong despite his 34th birthday. However, I am going to pick out 20-year old prop Marco Riccioni as my player to watch this year. Italy has a history of producing some strong front rows, and the uncapped Riccioni is a powerful unit and a deft offloader.

Who do you think will be England’s biggest challenge and who are your players to keep an eye out for?

By Henry Ker

3 thoughts on “Six Nations 2018: England’s opposition

  1. Scotland Any Weaknesses: Yes they beat Australia and Yes they almost came within a whisker of beating New Zealand but look at the Samoa result Yes they won but their defence leaks like a sieve in the three AI’s they scored 114 points but conceded 84, this won’t have gone unnoticed.

    Comparatively England 99-28, Ireland 89-42, Wales 58-57, France 81-107 and Italy 40-76.

    Arguably, points wise they had the worst defence in the AI’s conceding an average of 28 points per game even Italy and France fared better at 25.3 and 26.75.

    The point I am making is that if any of the other sides turn up with a half way decent defence and half way decent attack Scotland will struggle.

      1. Thanks Henry even the spread doesn’t look favourable for them:

        England +23.7, Ireland +15.6, Scotland +10, Wales +0.3, France -6.5 and Italy -12.

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