The first Six Nations after a World Cup is always fascinating, with plenty of new faces on and off the pitch. Jonathan Davies runs the rule over each country, assessing how things stand at the start of this new 4-year cycle.
A new era begins for the reigning Grand Slam champions with a new head coach at the helm for the first time in 12 years. New Zealander Wayne Pivac has the unenviable task of replacing arguably Wales’ greatest ever coach in fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland. In his final year in charge, Gatland oversaw a third Grand Slam along with a run to the semi-finals of the World Cup where they were narrowly edged out by eventual winners South Africa.
He leaves behind a side with a good blend of youth and experience and a side that have won 21 of their last 26 matches. The challenge for Pivac in the short-term is to maintain that kind of form and with a settled squad there is hope that the former Scarlets coach can carry on from where his predecessor left off. Yet perhaps Pivac’s most important task is to evolve the Welsh attacking game. Gatland’s Wales were solid but not spectacular. Of course there were a couple of barnstorming displays – the most memorable being the 2013 Six Nations title-clincher against England – but for most of his reign Wales were experts at chiselling out wins in tight test matches.
Renowned for their defensive resilience, under Gatland Wales often needed few tries to come out on top, such was the strength of their defence masterminded by coach Shaun Edwards. If there is one criticism of Gatland’s style it is that it lacked a spark and imagination in attack. Two qualities that ironically the Scarlets had in abundance when Pivac was leading them to a stunning Pro14 title win and European Cup semi-final.
With his right-hand man at the Scarlets, Stephen Jones, alongside him once more as assistant as well as several players familiar with their style having been coached by the duo at regional level, there is every chance he can provide a greater attacking intent and creativity out wide. Jon Humphries and Byron Hayward also join the new-look coaching set-up but Pivac may have pulled his biggest masterstroke in bringing former Lions and Wales skipper Sam Warburton in as a breakdown specialist.
Warburton’s appointment is a no-brainer; well-liked and trusted by the old guard of Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, a man who given his playing CV will command instant respect from the young newcomers and arguably the finest operator of his generation at the breakdown. Injuries to key men Tomas Francis, Gareth Anscombe and Jonathan Davies will offer hope to the opposition that this Wales team is more vulnerable but in the likes of Leon Brown, Jarrod Evans and Nick Tompkins there are young players eager to prove they belong at this level.
The return of Taulupe Faletau adds a greater dimension to what was already a top-class set of options in the back-row, although a spate of injuries at centre leaves them looking desperately short in midfield. A second consecutive Grand Slam seems a tall order given upcoming trips to Dublin and Twickenham but another title isn’t beyond this team’s reach.
One to watch – Nick Tompkins
Jonathan Davies’ injury has left a massive hole in the Welsh midfield at 13, and with the Scarlets man turning 32 in April Wales really need to find a long-term replacement. 24-year-old Saracens star Tompkins may just be the man. English-born, Wales done their research and found a grandmother born in Wrexham and swooped in to take the talented Tompkins from under England’s noses. A fleet-footed centre with an eye for the try-line, Tompkins is also a capable defender and when called upon by Saracens has often proven up to the task.
Key match – Ireland (a)
Not a happy hunting ground in recent years with their last Aviva win coming in 2012, but the Irish had a dismal year in 2019 and new coach Andy Farrell’s biggest job may be to lift squad morale and reignite the spark in his players’ games. Second game in, big opportunity to break their Dublin duck.
World Cup finalists and one of only two sides to have the same head coach as last year, England look the most settled side going into the tournament and look like the team to beat this year. Eddie Jones’ men got better as the year went on last season with a handful of encouraging performances in the Six Nations being followed by a storming run to the World Cup final, Australia and New Zealand blown out the way on course.
Ultimately it was disappointment as a match against the powerful Springboks proved one game too many, but a side containing players like Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi will always be the most formidable of opponents. Add in the likes of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson to name a few, and it is no exaggeration to say England have the strongest squad of any team in this championship.
The Saracens scandal may be something of an unnecessary distraction for Eddie Jones but with some clarity over the futures of key men such as Farrell and Itoje, that shouldn’t prove to be too big an issue. Jones will be more worried about replacing his talismanic Number Eight – Billy Vunipola’s broken arm a savage blow on the eve of the tournament. England have always had strength in depth but no other No.8 comes close to matching the Saracens star.
Jones has resisted the public clamour to throw in Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt, choosing instead to go for the slighter-framed Saracen Ben Earl. Without Vunipola and Dombrandt, England lack a big ball-carrier at Number eight but the ‘Kamikaze’ twins of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are no strangers to big hits and alongside Earl and Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam they look a more mobile threat in the back-row.
A total of eight new faces including exciting youngsters George Furbank, Will Stuart and Alex Moon should keep the older heads on their toes and ensure there is no hangover from Japan, as Jones looks to go again following the disappointment of Yokohama. The fixture list has not been kind however, back-to-back away matches in France and Scotland just six days apart a sizable challenge. Escape from those rounds with a perfect record and Jones’ men will be well-poised with home matches against Ireland and Wales followed by a trip to Rome. Yet both the French and Scots have points to prove and often raise their game when the English are in town and will take some overcoming if England are to bounce back in style.
One to watch – George Furbank
The uncapped full-back has been lighting up both the Premiership and Champions Cup with Northampton this season, playing a big part in Chris Boyd’s sides march to the summit of the Premiership. A player with a devastating turn of pace and an eye for a gap, the similarities with former Saints and England full-back Ben Foden are inevitable, but England might just have found their best attacking threat from full-back since Foden in the exciting Furbank.
Key match – Scotland (a)
Gregor Townsend has something of an Indian sign over Eddie Jones’ England. Two matches, no defeats. That coming after eight consecutive wins against the Scots for the English. Jones and Farrell will be desperate to reclaim the Calcutta Cup and everything is set up for an absolute humdinger at Murrayfield in round two. Finn Russell’s potential absence would be a welcome boost but England need to keep their heads having lost it in Edinburgh two years ago.
After the giddy heights of 2018, it was perhaps inevitable there would be a drop in form for the Irish last year, but not many would have predicted how Joe Schmidt’s final year as head coach would go. In 2018, England, Wales and New Zealand were all successfully swept aside as the men in green marched to the top of the world rankings.
A year later however those sides gained brutal revenge with Ireland suffering three heavy defeats to the same sides, the last of which seeing the All Blacks run riot in a World Cup quarter-final as Ireland crashed out of Japan without really showing what they are capable of. It was a sad end for Schmidt, but he leaves behind a great legacy of success both with his work at Leinster as well as his time in charge of the national side.
The baton now passes to his assistant Andy Farrell and having served his time as assistant coach with England, the Lions and Ireland, the former Rugby League legend has enough pedigree to suggest he is ready for the step up. Farrell’s biggest task may be lifting some of his more experienced men with Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton all suffering a dip in form last year.
Two home games represents a welcome start although both Scotland and Wales may sense this Irish side is there for the taking, and trips to London and Paris are about as tough as they come especially for a team low on confidence. Jordan Larmour should provide the spark that seemed missing for much of their play last year and youthful prospects such as Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris will provide energy to a squad that looked jaded in Japan.
In a championship with many new faces on the coaching front, Ireland may settle quicker into their stride than others given Farrell is a familiar voice for the players but it will be fascinating to see how he steps up to the top job at a tricky time for Irish rugby.
One to watch – John Cooney
The Ulster scrum-half has been in the form of his life this season, most notably in the Champions Cup where his tries helped Ulster progress from a tough pool containing Clermont, Bath and Harlequins. Was unlucky to miss out on World Cup selection but has earned his spot in this squad with some top-class displays. May struggle to dislodge Conor Murray from starting team but could cause problems for tiring opposition sides when introduced late on.
Key match – England (a)
A trip to Twickenham is always a daunting prospect and with England fresh from reaching the world Cup final in Japan this looks by far Ireland’s toughest match of the championship. Win their openers at home and this match could take on a different complexion with a potential Triple Crown in waiting but one way or another this contest should prove to be the defining match of Ireland’s tournament.
The honeymoon is well and truly over for Gregor Townsend and the chickens may come home to roost if fortunes don’t improve quickly for his side. Two and a half years into his reign and the jury is still out on whether he has taken Scotland forward after the solid foundations laid by predecessor Vern Cotter.
Highs include wins over Australia home and away along with a first Calcutta Cup victory in ten years. However there have also been some notable lows; heavy defeats in Cardiff, Dublin and Paris, defeat to USA in 2018 and a disastrous World Cup where the Scots were blown away by Ireland and hosts Japan. A fall-out with your star player is the last thing Townsend needs yet Finn Russell will be conspicuous by his absence when the Scots march out in Dublin for round one.
With the likes of Tommy Seymour, Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay calling it a day after the World Cup, Scotland have lost a great deal of experience just when it might be needed most. As one door closes however another opens, and in the likes of Darcy Graham, George Horne and Jamie Ritchie the Scots have a group of promising youngsters ready to step up and show they can handle the rigours of test rugby. The young players may have had a chastening experience in Japan but they will have learnt some valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. Expectations aren’t high amongst Scottish fans and this year’s championship may be more about restoring some much-needed pride back in the jersey starting at the Aviva in round one.
One to watch – Jamie Ritchie
The young flanker was arguably Scotland’s best performer in Japan and with John Barclay’s retirement should become a regular fixture in the Scotland back-row for the next few years. An abrasive forward with a strong work-rate and a real threat at the breakdown, Townsend will be looking for the Edinburgh youngster to step up once again and show his class at this level. Leads by example and looks a test captain in waiting.
Key match – Ireland (a)
Their record on the road in recent years has been shocking and if they are to mount any sort of challenge this year they must at the very least put in some good performances away from home with daunting trips to Dublin and Cardiff to come. Will be desperate to lay to rest the ghosts of that first match of the World Cup as well as their most recent trip to the Aviva in 2018, and in Andy Farrell’s first game in charge this could be their chance to grab that elusive scalp on the road.
With a new coaching team and a staggering 19 uncapped players in their squad, Les Bleus come into this year’s championship as an unknown quantity. Fabien Galthie will hope to do what so many of his predecessors have failed to do in merging a group of talented players into a well-organised quality team who can play with some sort of consistency.
He will be helped by the shrewd appointment of Shaun Edwards as defence coach. Edwards was the orchestrator of arguably the best defence in test rugby when running Wales’ defence and with him at the helm France will surely improve in defence and discipline. In Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack they have one of the most exciting half-back pairings in world rugby and with the duo having been running opposition ragged in the Champions Cup with Touoluse, they look in the mood to cause some damage in this year’s tournament.
With a home World Cup to come in 2023, Galthie is clearly looking to build his team early with so many youngsters thrown in at the deep end this year. A title challenge may be a tall order for such a young and inexperienced side but as always with France there is enough talent within the squad for them to beat any side on their day. Dangerous and not to be written off lightly.
One to watch – Demba Bamba
A powerful tight-head with a soft pair of hands, injury denied Bamba the opportunity to show his stuff at the World Cup but the Lyon-man is back and at 124kg offers a real presence in the scrum and yet has the athleticism to contribute around the park as well. At 21 and with just seven test caps to his name the best is yet to come from this prodigious talent.
Key match – England (h)
The French never lack for fight when England come to town and ‘Le Crunch’ is shaping up to be a key match for both sides even at this early stage of the tournament. Denied the opportunity to battle it out for top spot in their Pool by Typhoon Hagibis at the World Cup, France will also be gunning for revenge after a heavy defeat at Twickenham last season. With Italy at home to follow in round two, defeat England and things might open up for the Les Bleus.
Franco Smith has a big job on his hands to turn around the Azzurri’s fortunes. The Italians can no longer look to their iconic talisman Sergio Parisse with father time finally catching up with the great man, and without him a greater shared responsibility is needed from the entire squad, led by new captain Luca Bigi.
Trips to Cardiff, Paris and Dublin mean it is likely to be a long first campaign in charge for South African Smith with their only realistic chance of grabbing a win coming in round three when Scotland come to Rome. Laying some foundations to help Italy become a competitive force in this tournament may be Smith’s main objective this year, but he will still look to the likes of Tomasso Allan and Matteo Minozzi to inspire his team and turn around an abysmal record.
One to watch – Jake Polledri
The young Gloucester flanker has impressed in many of his 13 tests to date and offers great dynamism in the back-row. Without Parisse, Italy’s back-row will look considerably weaker but in Polledri they have a player who is growing into a fine test player who can mix it with the best both physically and athletically.
Key match – Scotland (h)
Hard to see them getting anything from their three away games, whilst an England side who reached the World Cup final will surely have too much class for them in Rome on the final weekend, so this match may represent their only realistic chance of victory. Scotland have had their struggles in Rome in the past and nearly came unstuck two years ago, something Smith should remind his squad as he looks to instil some much-needed confidence into the national team.
By Jon Davies