It seems that every winter, as the dust settles on another calendar year of rugby, pundits turn their heads to the upcoming Six Nations and proudly declare that this one will be the tightest, most keenly-contested tournament in years. This is, in one respect, how I view the upcoming edition of the competition. However, I also feel that the opposite will be true; allow me to explain.
I begin my predictions for the tournament with a look at the foot of the table. This is, perhaps, the easiest to make. I expect the Italians to display the heart and passion that characterises their nation, but believe that this endeavour will ultimately prove fruitless. Eighteen members of their squad are provided by Benetton and this should certainly raise morale, with the Treviso-based outfit now holding their own in the Pro14. Unfortunately, I fear the national side will lack the clinical edge and durability to replicate this on the big stage.
The likelihood of this increases with the loss of diminutive fullback Matteo Minozzi, last year’s standout performer. His injury is compounded by that of Jake Polledri, who carried formidably for the Azzurri in 2018, providing valuable go-forward. This dazzler and bulldozer pair will be sorely missed, especially given the age of the eminent Sergio Parisse. As his powers gradually leave him, he could soon be retiring from the Stadio Olimpico and returning to Mount Olympus.
Beating Georgia in the autumn was significant for the Italians given that the former have been pushing for inclusion in the Six Nations. Resounding defeats by Ireland and the All Blacks aside, Italy at least managed to show doggedness and fight in their loss to Australia. Admittedly, the Australians have been misfiring of late, but then so have the French. The two clash in Rome on the final day, where the wooden spoon could rest on a knife-edge.
Recall France’s historic loss at the hands of the Fijians in November and it becomes clear why I place them here. The defeat was humbling for Jacques Brunel’s men after a narrow loss to a resurgent South Africa and an encouraging win against Argentina had raised hopes. It is a dark moment they will wish to rectify at the first opportunity.
An opening-day defeat at home to Wales could set the tone for a testing tournament for Les Bleus, though they view a home fixture against Scotland and the Italian trip as their best means of climbing the table. Neither of these are a given, however.
As usual, they will be relying upon a bruising pack; Guilhelm Guirado, Yacouba Camara, and Louis Picamoles will be the key men powering this machine. It is their customary tactic, though I cannot see it being enough to overcome any of their rivals from across the Channel. Then again, this is the French we are talking about – they are probably going to complete a Grand Slam!
This is where I think the competition intensifies. Despite being runners-up last year, I am positioning the Welsh in the bottom-half of the table this time around. None of their regions progressed to the knockout stages of either European competition this season, though they have long struggled in this department. Conversely, the national side had a convincing autumn campaign, with Josh Adams catching the eye on the wing; he has the potential to light up the 2019 Six Nations.
Like Adams, Lions trio Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, and Liam Williams will be expected to lead the Welsh charge. Additionally, Jonathan Davies – another tourist – forged a dependable, efficient centre-partnership with Hadleigh Parkes during 2018. This shows that Wales have an assortment of well-versed, highly-capable performers, making my prediction of a fourth-placed finish seem somewhat perplexing. However, this decision stems more from the strength of their competitors than any fault on Wales’ part. Scotland’s home-advantage and the formidable look of England’s squad will help edge out Warren Gatland’s side.
Eddie Jones will demand that his players make amends for their collapse last term. Recent results may suggest a resurgence, though I think this has been overstated. The Springboks ought to have left England in their wake, continuously failing to capitalise on a territorial and numerical advantage. Moreover, a different referee may have handed Handre Pollard an overtime penalty to snatch victory. The aforementioned deterioration of Australian rugby makes it difficult to properly characterise the significance of the hiding they received at Twickenham. Nevertheless, a single-point loss to the All Blacks is no mean feat, regardless of England’s failure to protect a healthy lead.
The squad that Jones has named is teeming with talent and they should prove worthy opponents for anyone. Unfortunately, they have lost the influential Sam Underhill to the side-lines. His absence will certainly be felt, though the loss of his breakdown-prowess is less worrying when one considers that Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje both excel here. Expect the immense figure of winger Joe Cokanasiga to draw attention for more than mere size, and England will be keen for him to return from injury before too long; the man is astonishingly agile and possesses lethal finishing skills.
Round 5’s Calcutta Cup clash could determine second-place and England will need to be reach peak performance to overcome their reinvigorated neighbours. Scotland have not won at Twickenham since before the Berlin Wall came down, but this record could topple in a similar fashion.
Gregor Townsend has led Scottish rugby out of the wilderness. A key figure in Glasgow Warriors’ remarkable progression, he now oversees the national side’s continued development. The armoury of mercurial talents provided by Glasgow in recent years has put Scotland on an upward trajectory, with the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell long-established in the national setup. Edinburgh’s transformation under the tutelage of Richard Cockerill has seen many players mature, such as hooker Stuart McInally and winger Darcy Graham. This leaves Townsend with an imposing squad of steely Scotsmen ready to fulfil the promise of recent years.
With lack of depth no longer an issue, the team could blossom in time for their Japanese World Cup adventure. Add to this the historic progression of Glasgow and Edinburgh – who provide thirty squad-members between them – in the European Champions Cup and Scotland could reach top gear this Six Nations. The momentum and optimism this provides are crucial elements in rugby and could potentially serve as catalysts for a Scottish renaissance.
There is now genuine belief in the Scottish camp that they can contest for the Championship, Glasgow’s Jamie Bhatti insists. Their mind-set that has arguably been their downfall in the last couple of tournaments, with collapses at Twickenham in 2017 and Wales in 2018 occurring partly due to the dropping of heads and a loss of focus. But, now the attitude has changed and they are assured in their game. That change in mentality could prove pivotal as they seek to amend their history of shaky performances on the road. Three home fixtures and a journey away to a reeling French side lead me to make the risky prediction of Scotland finishing as runners-up.
I’m sure I’m not alone in forecasting a second-successive Irish triumph. Off the back of a decidedly-green 2018, that also featured Leinster running riot domestically and in Europe, Johnny Sexton was crowned as the best player in the world. He will demand nothing less than domination from his teammates and I expect him to receive it. Schmidt and his men know the importance of maintaining their electric form as the World Cup looms on the horizon; no one will be letting standards slip.
Ireland did what the English could not in November, capitalising on their advantage over New Zealand to secure a convincing first win in Dublin over the Kiwis. I need point to little more than this and the host of outstanding performers at Joe Schmidt’s disposal to justify my selection. He has exceptional options available in almost every position, with the evergreen Sexton, Conor Murray, last season’s top try-scorer Jacob Stockdale, and Bundee Aki but a handful of those decorating the backfield. Amongst the many others, forwards Tadgh Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, and James Ryan will provide the firepower to give this diamond-encrusted backline an excellent platform from which to operate.
Ireland’s credentials are well-documented, they have a world-class coaching setup (how England will rue letting Andy Farrell slip away), and I envisage them heading to Cardiff on the final day with another Grand Slam in their sights. Don’t be surprised to see them take it.
By Ed Alexander