International rugby takes center stage again next weekend as the 2020 Six Nations commences. The World Cup seems like a lifetime ago as the club season hit full stride over the winter. Now, the Northern Hemisphere teams will go head-to-head in one of sports greatest annual showpieces. On the back of the World Cup, what is the state of the nations?
Wales vs Italy
It’s a new era for Wales with Warren Gatland finally calling time on his 12-year stint as head coach, while key lieutenant Shaun Edwards has also moved on. Into the hot seat comes former Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac, who has been dealt a double injury with Gareth Davies and Liam Williams likely to miss at least Wales’ opener. Captain Alun Wyn Jones has shrugged off retirement rumors and is staying on for now, while Pivac has called up an exciting newcomer in winger Louis Rees-Zammit. Pivac is expected to adopt a more open style of play, but how quickly Wales evolve remains to be seen.
After a miserable 2019 tournament and frustrating World Cup, Italy begin this year as favorites to pick up another Wooden Spoon. The World Cup saw Italy bid farewell to coach Connor O’Shea, while the legendary Sergio Parisse won’t be in the Cardiff lineup; neither will Leonardo Ghiraldini. In comes interim boss Franco Smith to try and build a new Azzurri. The World Cup demonstrated that he has a key building block already in place in back rower Braam Steyn.
If Pivac could have handpicked his first game, he would probably have gone for Italy under the roof in Cardiff. Italy have a solid starting lineup and may keep the game tight for 60 minutes. However, their old problem of lacking depth will prove telling in the final 20 minutes and Wales should pull away for a comfortable win.
Prediction: Bonus Point Win for Wales
Ireland vs Scotland
This time last year, Ireland were on top of the rugby world. From there, a painful loss to England in Dublin resulted in a downwards spiral that ended in a defeat to the All Blacks at the World Cup. That brought the curtain down on Joe Schmidt’s six-year tenure and Ireland are now under the stewardship of Andy Farrell. The new coach has the job of renewing a team that grew too old at the World Cup. Rory Best has retired while Rob Kearney and Jack Carty are prominent names among those dropped. Farrell has named Johnny Sexton as captain, but his fitness remains uncertain going into the tournament.
The dominant form of Leinster in both the Pro14 and the Champions Cup has provided Ireland with a timely boost. Farrell picked five uncapped players in his squad, including Leinster duo Caelan Doris and Max Deegan.
Scotland return to the fray after their humiliating failure to reach the World Cup knockout phase. Gregor Townsend has plenty to ponder, but can take some comfort from two shutout victories at the World Cup. Greig Laidlaw has called time on his 76-cap Scotland career and Ali Price is likely to start. Townsend has named Stuart Hogg as his new captain, but with just five uncapped players in the squad, Scotland are looking to get more out of their World Cup players. The last thing Townsend needed was Finn Russell being sent home for a breach of protocol; an incident that has only added to a gloomy outlook.
The last time these two met, Ireland handed out a 27-3 World Cup drubbing and have never lost to Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Scotland need to get quick ball to release their backs, putting pressure on Price to give them a platform. For Ireland, they need to get their ruck working again if they are recapture the form of 2018.
Prediction: Ireland by 12 points
France vs England
Remarkably, it has been 10 years since France last won the Six Nations, after winning five of the previous eleven. However, a better than expected World Cup may turn out to be a turning point for French rugby, as they build towards hosting the tournament in 2023. Fabian Galthie has named 19 uncapped players in his initial squad and sprung a surprise by appointing Charles Ollivon as captain. Ollivon will command the respect of his teammates, but remains a risky choice, given the 26-year old’s back row has just 11 senior caps.
Having made the World Cup final, Eddie Jones’ England have gone for evolution rather than revolution. Jones has retained 26 of his World Cup squad, with Jack Nowell a notable omission alongside the injured duo of Billy Vunipola and Henry Slade. Of the eight new faces, Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley looks the most likely to make an impact. Surprisingly, Jones has opted against picking Ben Spencer; instead sticking with veteran scrum-half pair Willi Heinz and Ben Youngs.
Preparations for England have been dogged by the Saracens salary cap scandal. Jones will have to iron out any tension between the sizable Saracens and Exeter Chiefs contingents in his squad. England will also have to face up to their poor performance in the World Cup final. With both the Ireland and Wales games at home, victory in Paris will put England in pole position for the title.
England will play their usual game, looking to dominate with their pack and trying to control at the breakdown through Sam Underhill and Tom Curry. France will look to scrum-half Antoine Dupont to dictate play and need to get the ball into the hands of Virimi Vakatawa if they are to open England’s tight defense. How France’s inexperienced side cope with England playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell will be pivotal in Paris.
Prediction: England by 5 points
Final Table: 1. England, 2. Wales, 3.Ireland, 4. France, 5. Scotland, 6. Italy
Top Try Scorer: Jacob Stockdale (Ireland)
Top Points Scorer: Owen Farrell (England)
Breakout Star: Louis Rees Zammit (Wales)
Featured Image: Getty