In what many hope will be a defining year for Northern Hemisphere rugby, the test season gets underway this weekend with the beginning of the 2019 Six Nations Championship. Whilst most fans’ attention and focus may already be on the World Cup in Japan, this year’s European competition will be an important stepping stone for each of the six nations as they begin to fine-tune preparations for the global showpiece. So with that in mind what are the questions that need answering and what are we likely to find out about each team over the next eight weeks….
After a turbulent 2018 season that saw Eddie Jones’ men record their worst finish (5th) in Six Nations history, England will be looking to bounce back and find the consistency in performances that saw them win back-to-back titles in Jones’ first two seasons in charge. After an encouraging autumn that saw them deliver wins against South Africa and Australia – as well as a narrow defeat to New Zealand – the English start this campaign boosted by the return to fitness of some of their best players in the likes of the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi. Add to that the return to form of Maro Itoje and Jones will be quietly satisfied as to where his side are coming into this season’s tournament. After last season’s struggles, three matches at Twickenham this year will be a welcoming sight for a side who are so hard to beat at home, but trips to Dublin and Cardiff are daunting prospects with both Ireland and Wales enjoying fine runs of form of late. Things don’t get any tougher than a trip to the Aviva on the opening weekend to face the defending champions, and the outcome of this match may be key to deciding who comes out on top in March.
Can they find consistency in selection?
Most teams that are successful in World Cups have done so because they have a settled side. Consistency in selection was not a recurring theme in England squads in 2018 with Jones ringing the changes on several occasions particularly amongst the midfield and back-row. Having starred throughout the autumn, Sam Underhill was seen by many as the man who had nailed down that troublesome 7 jersey going into a World Cup year. However Underhill’s cruel run of luck with injury has returned with the Bath-man side-lined for the duration of the championship. In his place is likely to come Sale’s Tom Curry who himself had a promising autumn campaign brought short through injury last year. The return of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes will provide the necessary ballast needed from the back of the scrum, whilst Brad Shields and Mark Wilson are likely to battle it out for the blind-side jersey. In midfield, the return of Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph increases competition in a midfield that stuttered in the autumn with neither Henry Slade or Ben Teo looking totally convincing as a partnership. Teo’s lack of game-time may see Tuilagai or Joseph come in to play alongside Slade who must start to translate his club form onto the test scene if he is to become a regular fixture in England’s midfield.
Key Match – Ireland (a)
One to watch – Tom Curry
The Sale Sharks man has a great engine on him and often gets through a mountain of work, frequently topping the charts when it comes to tackling and carrying. Is also very proficient over the ball (an area where England have struggled in recent times) and in Sam Underhill’s absence has a great opportunity to stake his claim for a World Cup place.
After a year that included a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia and a first-ever win over New Zealand on home soil, ‘more of the same’ seems the only relevant instruction for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. Already being tipped by many as potential World Cup winners in Japan, Schmidt’s task is to keep his talented group of players grounded and focused in order to maintain the high standards that he has created during his memorable tenure as head coach. The clear favourites and the team to beat in this year’s competition, Ireland start this Six Nations with an epic clash at home to an England side who will be baying for blood having seen the Irish storm Twickenham last year to seal the Grand Slam. The visit of Eddie Jones’ side will be a significant acid test, and more are likely to come with tricky trips to Scotland and Wales to follow as the championship rolls on. Despite having built up a squad which contains great strength in depth, in half-backs Connor Murray and Jonny Sexton Ireland have world-class players who simply cannot be replaced and injury doubts over the two players could test out the credentials of those players lying in reserve. With New Zealander Schmidt returning home after the World Cup this campaign marks his swansong before he hands the reins over to Andy Farrell, and he will hope to add to his legacy by sealing a fourth Six Nations crown.
Will the Irish leave Celtic lairs victorious?
Two years ago Ireland’s title prospects came unstuck on the road with defeats to their Celtic rivals. This year’s set of fixtures sets up tantalising rematches with Scotland and Wales, both hugely significant for both team and coach. With the Irish and the Scots poised to meet in the pool stages in Japan later this year, the round-two match-up at Murrayfield is a dress-rehearsal for a key match at the World Cup which will likely decide who tops the pool and probably avoid world champions New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Whoever wins in round two will deliver a timely psychological blow and statement of intent in the build-up to Japan and with the Scots unbeaten at home in the Six Nations since 2016, Ireland will need to be on their game to leave Edinburgh with a win. The same could be said for the trip to Wales in round five, where Schmidt will look to break his duck and finally win in Cardiff at his third and final attempt as Ireland coach. Ever the perfectionist, you can bet Schmidt will be desperate to get the monkey off his back and with many suggesting the match could be a potential title-decider the outcome of this match may be crucial in deciding who goes to Japan as the kings of Europe.
Key match – Wales (a)
One to watch – Joey Carbery
The fly-half has greatly benefitted after his move from Leinster to Munster, where he has stepped out of the shadow of reigning World Player of the Year Jonny Sexton and emerged as a leading man for his new side. With Conor Murray beside him at half-back to guide him, the talented youngster has taken his game to a whole new level this year as evidenced with some top-class displays in the Champions Cup, culminating in a highly-mature display against Exeter where his three penalties proved decisive in leading Munster into the quarter-finals. Has had to bide his time at test level with just a handful of starts and substitute appearances but having shown his credentials at the top level in European club rugby, is he ready step up to the test arena? With doubts remaining over Sexton’s fitness coming into the tournament, Carbery may be given a chance from the start in a big match this campaign as Schmidt looks to see if he has the mettle to handle it on the big stage in test rugby.
After 11 eventful years in charge, 2019 marks the final year of Warren Gatland’s reign as Wales head coach. Few times during this spell have Wales ever come into a Six Nations campaign in such good shape, with nine test wins in a row after a highly impressive 2018 season that not only saw the Welsh rack up the wins but also included the emergence of fresh young talent to challenge some of the elder statesmen. So many times in the past a lack of strength in depth has proven to be Wales’ Achilles heel, but in 2019 competition for places is as great as it has ever been during Gatland’s reign with two or three players competing for each jersey. Even without the likes of Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny and Aaron Shingler the Welsh still have quality options to choose from players proven in test-match rugby. Wales will look to continue from where they left off in the autumn and will fancy their chances this campaign with games against their two closest rivals in recent times – England and Ireland – both at home. A trip to Paris to start off is a challenging start, whilst Scotland at Murrayfield in round four will be another tough match but with a settled side performing well, Gatland will be confident he can go out on a high this year.
Will Anscombe get the back-line firing?
Even though Wales enjoyed a solid campaign in 2018, many supporters remain frustrated at times by the Welsh side’s lack of creativity and imagination in attack. Under Gatland, Wales have always been hard to break down with a strong defence and have often come out on top in tense, tight matches where their physical intensity comes to the fore. Yet very few times over the past decade have Wales blown teams away with expansive attacking rugby, this despite having a backline that contains some of the most dangerous attackers in world rugby in the shape of George North, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams. There have been signs of late that Gatland is willing to adapt to a more creative attacking style of play with Gareth Anscombe replacing Dan Biggar as first-choice fly-half. A more natural footballer than Biggar, Anscombe has a better passing and running game and with him steering the ship from 10 in the autumn Wales looked more of a threat with ball in hand. With Anscombe now the main man at No.10, Wales must continue to show more creativity and imagination in attack to unleash the potential of players like George North, Josh Adams and Liam Williams, and provide the scoring opportunities that need to be taken if Wales are to go to Japan as genuine contenders.
Key match – France (a)
One to watch – Tomos Williams
Cardiff Blues scrum-half Williams enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018 marking his test debut with a try against South Africa on last season’s summer tour. Since then the youngster has continued to go from strength to strength and is now putting real pressure on Scarlets no.9 Gareth Davies for the starting jersey for Wales. A sharp and elusive runner with an abrasive edge, Williams also has a knack for try-scoring – like Davies – having already dotted down twice in just six test caps. With Gareth Davies only just coming back from injury, Williams has an opportunity to stake an early claim for the no.9 jersey when he makes his Six Nations debut at the Stade de France this weekend, and many will be keen to see whether he has the nerve – along with the talent – to flourish on the big stage.
Arguably the most exciting side to watch in the Six Nations over the past two years, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland have emerged as a genuine threat after years of disappointment. The Scots’ brand of expansive running rugby has thrilled neutrals for some time with players like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg displaying their attacking skills, scoring some wonderful tries in the process. Unbeaten at home in the Six Nations since 2016, with three of Scotland’s five matches this campaign taking place at Murrayfield Townsend’s team will fancy their chances of pushing the likes of Ireland, Wales and England for this season’s title. To do so however they will need to improve on their woeful away record. Scotland have not registered an away win in the Six Nations anywhere other than Italy since the last day of the 2010 championship, against Ireland in Dublin. They have only ever won six matches away from home in the tournament, four of which came in Rome. Heavy defeats in Wales (34-7) and Ireland (28-8) undone all the good work created by home victories over England and France, whilst only a late drop-goal saw them escape Rome with a narrow victory last season. The Scots will be keen to avenge their record 61-21 defeat from 2017, when they return to Twickenham in round five but a more likely cure for their travel sickness will come when they face the inconsistent France in round three who they have ran close on their last few visits to Paris. With both Scottish club sides – Glasgow and Edinburgh – making the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup playing a similar brand of rugby that the national side do, young stars like Adam Hastings, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham should come in and will add to the wealth of attacking options provided by players like Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Huw Jones, and if those players fire Scotland have every chance of success.
Can the Scots add defensive steel to the attacking substance?
If Scotland under Townsend have been highly effective in attack, the same can not be said for their defence. Striking the balance between defence and attack is often the key to success in test rugby and Townsend’s Scotland have yet to find that balance with a porous defence that has cost them dear on the rare occasions when their attacking game fails to spark. Any hopes they have of pushing for the title this campaign will hinge on improving a defence that conceded way too many tries last season thanks mostly to four-try defeats in Cardiff and Dublin. Their cause is not helped this season by injuries to key forwards like John Barclay, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson, but it is paramount that the whole team put more emphasis into shutting out the opposition as well as scoring tries themselves. The narrow autumn win over Argentina showed everyone that this Scotland side can win ugly and more of the same wouldn’t go amiss if it helps improve Scotland’s defence.
Key match – France (a)
One to watch – Darcy Graham
The Edinburgh winger has enjoyed a great season so far impressing in the Champions Cup where he scored in victories over Toulon and Montpellier. Despite his small size, Graham is not afraid to get stuck in physically and has a tenacity and bravery that marks him out along with his try-scoring ability. The 21-year-old only made his test debut off the bench against Wales in the autumn and has stiff competition with Hogg, Maitland, Seymour and Kinghorn amongst the options in the back-three for Scotland but the in-form Edinburgh winger could force his way in.
The great unpredictable that is the French national team. From the sublime to the ridiculous from one match to the other, Jacques Brunel’s side come into this campaign hoping that they can turn the narrow defeats of last year into wins. Two wins from five matches in 2018 tournament hardly paints a picture of a French team returning to the glory days of old but had Jonny Sexton not kicked that drop-goal in Paris and France not have missed a penalty shot at goal in Cardiff, two defeats could have been transformed into four wins and a possible title triumph. The fine margins that separate success and failure. Since the end of last season’s Six Nations, Les Bleus have suffered five defeats in six games – the last an embarrassing first-ever defeat to Fiji with the Pacific Islanders securing a famous 21-14 victory at the Stade de France. With the Top 14 flooded with foreign imports there can be no questioning that the strength of the club game has unintentionally hindered the prospects for the national side, with many young French stars’ path to the first XV blocked by a superstar signing from abroad. Home matches may represent an opportunity for Brunel’s men to gain momentum ahead of the World Cup but both Wales and Scotland will fancy their chances of coming to Paris and exploiting the same weaknesses that the Fijians did in the autumn, whilst trips to Twickenham and the Aviva could be categorised under ‘damage limitation’. Despite this, as ever the French side does contain some classy players especially amongst the backs with the experienced trio of Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana and Yoan Huget still capable of moments of magic able to unlock even the best of defences. Up front Guilhem Guirado is as strong a leader as you are likely to find whilst the bulk and size provided by the likes of Sebastien Vahaamahina and Uini Atonio is balanced out by the skill and dexterity of Louis Picamoles. Whether they can put all of their skills together and function effectively is another question, but as always with the French it will be fun to find out.
Can Les Bleus regain their swagger of old?
A quick glance at the French squads of recent times and it isn’t difficult to see what their go-to game-plan seems to be. A bruising set of physical forwards intent on bludgeoning their way through opposition defences, which even spills out in to the backline where Mathieu Bastareaud often looks to cause carnage. The last French side to win the Six Nations was the vintage class of 2010, a squad containing classy footballers such as Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc, a side poles apart from the current French team who seem to lack both the skill and intent of their predecessors. Despite this the return of the likes of Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana will offer hope to French supporters that their side can return to their traditional style of play. With a tough-looking World Cup pool containing both England and Argentina lying in wait, Brunel will hope his side can add a touch more style to their play in this Six Nations campaign before they head to Japan.
Key match – England (a)
One to watch – Romain Ntamack
The 19-year-old son of former France winger Emile will follow in his fathers footsteps this Six Nations when he makes his test debut against Wales in Paris. The Toulouse centre has impressed in the Champions Cup this season where his performances have helped the former European champions secure a quarter-final place. The inclusion of the talented youngster – who can also play fly-half – over the veteran Bastareaud suggests that Brunel is seeking more subtletly in his midfield to help ignite the French backline.
A lowly 15th in the world rankings, the Azzurri come into this year’s tournament simply looking to put up more of a fight than last year. Just two wins from eleven test matches in 2018, and a third consecutive Six Nations whitewash makes for grim reading for coach Conor O’Shea as he once again looks to pick up the pieces and restore some pride to Italian rugby. Victory over Georgia last year may have temporarily halted the talk of promotion/relegation but with USA, Japan and Georgia all ahead of Italy in the rankings, the debate over whether the Italians should remain at Europe’s top table will only intensify especially if the Azzurri are to continue suffering heavy defeats to their Six Nations rivals. So far is the disparity between O’Shea’s side and the rest that even three matches in Rome this season amounts to little hope of grabbing that elusive victory with Wales, Ireland and France the visitors to Rome. Injuries to young stars Matteo Minozzi and Jake Polledri only adds to O’Shea’s woes, whilst time will soon catch up with even the great Sergio Parrisse as the 35-year-old back-rower continues to lead a side who remain overwhelmingly reliant on his waning powers.
Can the Azzurri restore pride and put up more of a fight?
In four of last season’s five Italy matches, the Italians conceded more than thirty points. No win in 17 Six Nations matches, with their last win coming way back in 2015 at Murrayfield. The stats do not lie, unfortunately for the Italians. The ominous thought of New Zealand and South Africa to come in the World Cup is enough to make any Italian retreat behind the sofa even seven months in advance. Conor O’Shea must somehow find a way to pick up and inspire a fragile-looking squad to produce more battling displays, starting with their trip to Edinburgh on the opening weekend. The visitors can take hope from the fact that only a late drop-goal denied them their first Six Nations win in three years last campaign, but put it simply Italy just need to go to Murrayfield and be competitive in the hope that they can start to rebuild confidence and regain the old fighting spirit that was once present in the Italian ranks.
Key match – France (h)
One to watch – Michele Campagnaro
One of the few Italy players to be playing top-level club rugby, 25-year-old Campagnaro is a key man for Conor O’Shea and the Irishman will look to the Wasps star to create chances in attack. Ever since announcing himself with a brace of tries on his test debut in Cardiff in 2014, the centre has emerged as one of the few Italians backs capable of causing problems for opposition defences. A strong and aggressive tackler, Campagnaro is crucial to the Azzurri hopes and his team-mates are likely to look to him for inspiration throughout this campaign.
By Jon Davies