While the drama, tension and ultimately joy (for the South Africans amongst us at least) of the Rugby World Cup now appears firmly in the rear view mirror, the new year inevitably brings with it the arrival of the latest edition of surely the most storied tournament in rugby, and perhaps sport. Whatever the year, the Six Nations embodies the very essence of this great game, with its players and fans alike guaranteed to come together over the next 7 weeks in the spirit of friendly competition, while in doing so renewing rivalries that stretch back in some cases to the very beginnings of rugby itself.
The conclusion of the World Cup in November inevitably heralds this year’s tournament as a time for renewal – a time for finding a new identity as these nations plot their path forward over the next four years. Great upheaval, whether that be in the coaching or playing units, has been a theme for all teams in the lead up to this year’s commencement of hostilities and something that will make the competition all the more intriguing. Below lie my (undoubtedly flawed) attempts at predicting the fortunes of all teams as they begin on the long road to France 2023.
For the Red Rose, the intervening months since their dismal World Cup final showing against South Africa will have been the most painful for any team. Recrimination and soul-searching will have been a theme for many of the players in white so clinically vanquished by the Springboks on that heady night in Yokohama. Moreover, the fallout from the scarcely believable Saracens scandal that has affected a large proportion of their players will ensure morale won’t exactly be perfect as they begin their tournament.
That being said, they still boast on paper probably the most settled and talented side of any team in the competition. They are awash with talent across the board, from the fearsome flanker duo of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill to the deadpan kicking accuracy of skipper Owen Farrell. This is a team that is undoubtedly desperate to rewrite their ultimate failings of 2019, and if they can consistently produce performances similar to their masterpiece against New Zealand in the World Cup semis, a grand slam is definitely attainable. Prediction: 1st.
A new cycle brings almost inevitable upheaval for a French team that loves to ring the changes. Yet following the dismal decade, they have just endured this change was hardly surprising. Coaching-wise, in comes Fabien Galthie as head coach as well as the in-demand Shaun Edwards as defence coach, who will surely bring about much-needed improvement in that facet of the game.
Yet it is in the playing staff where the transformation has been most dramatic. Of the 42-man squad just below half are uncapped while they boast just 2 players over the age of 27. Galthie is clearly willing to put his faith in a young core that has won back-to-back Under 20 World Championships. While this plan is probably more geared to producing results in years to follow, don’t be surprised if this team is capable of producing hints of their potential over the next seven weeks. Prediction: 4th.
Of all the teams in the tournament, Ireland is perhaps the nation most in need of a revamp following on from a forgettable 2019. They were the ones to beat heading into the last calendar year and yet their tactics were made to look stale and repetitive by, most glaringly, Japan and New Zealand at the World Cup as, for all their success since 2015, they fell at the painfully familiar quarter-final hurdle.
Now it is the turn of former defence coach Andy Farrell to lead them into the tournament in his first-ever role as a head coach. They undoubtedly still boast world-renowned stars that have consistently proven their talent on the world stage like new skipper Jonny Sexton. Having said that it will be interesting to see how their younger call-ups fit into a side that has an undeniably ageing core. There is clearly much for Farrell to ponder over the coming months. Prediction: 3rd.
Another year brings more predictable debate for the Italians revolving around their place in the tournament and whether their Six Nations losing streak (now stretching into its 5thyear) can finally be nixed. This year also brings the retirement of stalwart Sergio Parisse, and new leadership under interim coach Franco Smith, who some believe has inherited a rather thankless task.
Behind the scenes though, there are signs the tide could be turning. Benetton and Zebre are no longer the whipping boys of the Pro14 while their under 20s side has gained notable scalps in recent years. A home tie against Scotland in the 3rdweek of the competition seemingly represents the most obvious chance for the Azzurri to end this undignified run. If they can do that, then maybe it can be used as a springboard for future success. Prediction: 6th.
Their miraculous comeback at Twickenham aside, 2019 represented a bitterly disappointing year for Scotland. A 5thplace finish in the Six Nations followed by a group stage exit at the World Cup ensured coach Gregor Townsend was arguably lucky to hold onto his job moving into another World Cup cycle.
Heading into the new decade, his job certainly hasn’t been made any easier. Gone into retirement most notably was Greg Laidlaw; it remains to be seen how much they will miss his leadership and consistency kicking for goal. Fly Half Finn Russell has also been axed from the squad for the first game of the tournament at Ireland after a regrettable late-night drinking session. While the mercurial Stuart Hogg is now the new captain, this team desperately need some morale-boosting statement victories to prevent sliding back into the familiar territory of serial underperformers. Prediction: 5th.
For the first time in 13 years, Wales will enter the tournament without their legendary former Head Coach Warren Gatland. The New Zealander’s impact on the wider welsh game during his 12 years at the helm cannot be overstated and it is perhaps wise therefore that his replacement, compatriot Wayne Pivac, has publicly stated his desire to maintain a similar ethos as he begins his reign.
Personnel-wise, there really isn’t too much difference from the side that came agonisingly close to a first-ever World Cup final last autumn. Cornerstones like Alun Wyn Jones and George North remain whilst new arrivals such as youngster Louis Rees-Zammit may offer a tantalising prospect of what the future could hold. If they can avoid a World Cup hangover and hit the ground running under Pivac, a clash at Twickenham against England in the penultimate week of the competition could well decide the destination of this year’s title. Prediction: 2nd.