Leo Callaghan: 21/02/17
This Saturday the annual rugby Union tournament The Six Nations returns. The competition is one filled with tradition and history, with rivalries such as England vs Scotland who play for the prestigious Calcutta cup. The tournament comprises of the six major European sides: England, Ireland, Wales, France, Scotland and Italy, following the expansion in 2000 to include the Italians. Since then, there has been some debate as to how the championship should be formatted, but it has stayed almost unchanged with the exception of the addition of a bonus point for try scoring. As with every year, there will be upsets, but there are two front runners for the prestigious title in 2017.
Last year England didn’t only go unbeaten in the six nations in order to with the grand slam, they went unbeaten in all 14 of their matches, including a 3-0 whitewash over Australia. This impressive form took them to being ranked 2nd in the world rankings, and therefore making them favourites for the competition. However, with injury setbacks, in particular to star player Billy Vunipola, England will be weaker than they were this time last year. This could be viewed as an opportunity to give debut caps to younger players in the hope that they can fill the shoes of their experienced counterparts, or as a hindrance to the campaign, especially with the Irish side coming into the tournament in such impressive form.
Ireland, meanwhile, will also be hot contenders for the title. Last Autumn they won an historic victory against world number one side the All Blacks, and in doing so sent a message that they were to be taken seriously. Much like England though, Ireland have an injury problem, specifically, to their best player Jonny Sexton who has long been the standout performer at fly half. They may, despite this loss, still challenge for the title this year with their famed defence and ever improving attack.
This tournament marks a special occasion to Italy who appear to have stagnated in terms of developing in recent years. They appointed ex-Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea last year and under his stewardship, they won an impressive victory against the Springboks. With him encouraging a more expansive game than the Italians have adopted in the past, they may be more threatening to the “bigger” teams. This is made all the more possible due to their captain and by a long way best player, number 8 Sergio Parisse, deciding to continue with his international career despite considering retirement last year.
Wales and Scotland are both teams struggling for form and confidence, which won’t be aided by both having temporary coaches for the tournament. Regular Welsh coach Warren Gatland is taking charge of the British and Irish Lions in the summer so has been replaced by assistant coach Rob Howley, while Scotland are parting ways with Vern Cotter after the Six Nations is over. Both coaches will be looking to leave the side in a better condition than they found it, but expectations are low by fans and pundits alike.
With bookies putting England as strong favourites to win the competition, this year may be the double for Eddie Jones and his team. They kick off on Saturday away to France, who have been inconsistent at best in recent history. The biggest clash of Ireland vs England will take place on the last Saturday of the tournament, the day after Irish patron saint Saint Patrick’s day of celebration. This could lead to England establishing themselves as the best in the Northern Hemisphere undisputedly, or Ireland challenging them for the top spot.