The RBS Six Nations makes its timely return with the Northern Hemisphere sides looking to banish painful memories from last year’s Rugby World Cup in which all four semi-finalists came from below the Equator.
Any post-World Cup campaign comes with changes and this year’s annual European contest is no different.
Here we take a look at all six sides – five of which can all count themselves as genuine contenders for the title as they look to close the gap between themselves and their Southern Hemisphere rivals.
After a desperately disappointing performance in an otherwise hugely successful hosting of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the inevitable raft of changes have come as little surprise. Eddie Jones, in charge of 2015’s surprise package Japan, has been instated as head coach after Stuart Lancaster stepped down and a subsequent backroom culling soon followed.
Dylan Hartley’s appointment as captain is seen as something of a risk, with well-documented disciplinary problems leaving a huge question mark, but can be taken as a sign of Jones’ uncompromising and often abrasive approach.
Many Lancaster stalwarts have been moved on – deposed captain Chris Robshaw a rare survivor having performed admirably for club side Harlequins after reverting to blindside flanker where his natural game flourishes. He is joined in the squad by seven uncapped players, including Saracens’ Maro Itoje, who for some time has been tipped as a future captain himself.
Usual suspects include Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell and Mike Brown and their experience will be needed as Jones looks to blood the youngsters. They won’t have the luxury of being eased in, with England kicking off their tournament away to Scotland and facing a further two away trips in Rome and Paris either side of home dates against Ireland and Wales.
The Welsh experienced a bittersweet World Cup, with the ecstasy of beating England at Twickenham countered by a late quarter-final defeat to South Africa.
With Ireland, they are the most stable of the home nations and in Warren Gatland they have a coach who has won the Six Nations three times, including two Grand Slams. The playing squad is practically unchanged and if they can avoid the injury problems which have decimated their team of late they will be confident. The absence of Leigh Halfpenny and Scott Williams is offset by returning Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and – for the later rounds – Rhys Webb.
The fixture list, however, has not been kind with Wales facing both Ireland and England away. With an improved Scotland to contend with, I have a feeling they might struggle this year.
Scotland put in the most respectable of World Cup challenges from the home nations, succumbing to eventual finalists Australia in large part to an awful refereeing decision one minute from time with a place in the semi-finals heartbreakingly close.
With Glasgow winning last season’s Pro12 competition Scottish rugby was undergoing resurgence and with Kiwi Vern Cotter at the helm, they would have backed themselves as credible winners in the tournament. However, with Glasgow struggling badly this season and with several star performers either out of sorts or injured, coupled with a tough fixture schedule, their optimism will have been tempered slightly.
While still contenders, they’ll need to see a serious upturn in form of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell and will need some luck along the way to trouble the big boys.
The luck of the Irish has been in short supply since they won their second successive Six Nations title last year and they were blown away by Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals after losing Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien to injury.
Talismanic captain, O’Connell has since retired from international rugby and Johnny Sexton’s fitness is a worry ahead of their opener against Wales in Dublin. His outstanding kicking game would be sorely missed in a close encounter and with domestic clubs Leinster and Munster both struggling to hit their usual heights I’m expecting a third crown on the bounce to be a step too far for head coach Joe Schmidt’s men.
The unpredictability of the French is the great cliché of international rugby. The reign of Philippe Saint-André saw the flair disappear from their game amidst accusations that their megabucks domestic league makes it difficult for youngsters to get game-time ahead of illustrious foreigners – sound familiar, England football fans?
Guy Novès has since taken charge and has been quick to bring an end to the Saint-André era with several young charges brought in to replace ageing underachievers and the retired Thierry Dusautoir passing the captaincy to Guilhem Guirado.
If exciting backs like Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding and Gaël Fickou are given licence with ball in hand they could be some prospect. It’s a big ‘if’, but I’m backing the French for this year’s championship – it won’t be a Grand Slam though: they have a poor record against England and will be denied a clean-sweep in the final game of the tournament at the Stade de France.
Perennial strugglers Italy are in a strange place. Fireworks were hardly expected at Rugby World Cup 2015 and a predictable group-stage exit ensued. An ageing squad is led once more by the outstanding Sergio Parisse, whose talent far outweighs his compatriots and would be worthy of a place at Number 8 in any other international squad.
Their constant search for a quality fly-half shows no signs of stopping – ever – and their backline is lacking in world-class talent. Passion is guaranteed but with head coach Jacques Brunel announcing his departure after the tournament, I can’t see Italy troubling any of the above now the Scots have upped their game.
RBS Six Nations 2016 begins on Saturday 6th February and concludes on Saturday 19th March.