Six Nations preview: All bets are off

by Craig Wright

Here’s a tip for anyone looking to have a small flutter on the final outcome of this year’s Six Nations:

Don’t.

Anyone in attendance at the official launch of the 2018 edition of Europe’s premier rugby tournament would have drawn the same conclusion after spending time with each of the six coaches. Placing a bet on the Six Nations at the most predictable of times is still a risky business. This year? You may as well throw your money in the air and hope for the best.

Take England, for example. The defending champions, and the nation with by far the largest player pool to choose from. Yet Eddie Jones, in his inimitable style, is continuing to play down any suggestions that his side will once again start as favourites.

Why? Because of injuries.

It’s a topic that has dominated the lead up to this year’s competition, with every side suffering their fair share. The assertion from the English camp that they have it worse than their competitors is one that has generally been met with scorn, however, with Jones still able to name a team containing eight British and Irish Lions for the tournament opener against Italy in Rome tomorrow.

Ireland, meanwhile, have largely been installed as the bookmakers’ favourites at the tournament’s outset. Led by the canny figure of Joe Schmidt, the men in green have been slowly building, introducing the likes of Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and the uncapped Jordan Larmour into the squad with potentially explosive effect.

Yet for all the youth in the squad, it will once again be the experienced heads in the Irish setup that will hold the key to any possibility of success. The half-back axis of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton is one of the best in world rugby when the pair are on form, with Rory Best once again leading the side from the front. Injuries to any one of that trio could derail hopes of glory for Schmidt’s side.

Meanwhile, it’s a new dawn for France. The reign of Guy Noves as head coach was ended in mid-December, with former Italy boss Jacques Brunel installed at the helm. A new start means fresh hope and stability. Or it would, were it not for the famous French unpredictability and a tendency to throw many a spanner into the works.

Yes, it’s been far from a quiet build up for Les Bleus. A three-week ban for juggernaut centre Mathieu Bastareaud for a homophobic slur caught on television cameras during a European Champions Cup match, a raid by police on French rugby HQ on the eve of the official press launch and a lack of preparation time for Brunel with his new squad comprise just a short selection of the problems facing the French, yet there is still a sense of cautious optimism. In short, this is down to the exciting talent of 19-year-old Mathieu Jalibert, the Bordeaux fly-half tasked with controlling the ranks. All eyes will be on the teenage sensation on opening weekend.

Italy once again go into the tournament as rank outsiders, with very few pundits giving the Azzurri a chance in an unforgiving competition. Yet, as always, any team that has the talisman that is Sergio Parisse in their ranks cannot be fully discounted. With 126 caps and counting, the number eight is the most experienced player in the competition, let alone one of the best leaders in world rugby.

This time though, Conor O’Shea’s side are pinning their hopes on more than the sizeable shoulders of Parisse. Carlo Canna and Marcello Violi have both caught the eye in the Pro14, whilst uncapped flanker Jake Polledri is included following impressive displays in the Premiership. It would be a surprise to see the Italians near the top of the leaderboard come Super Saturday, but anything is possible.

Arguably the most exciting matchup on opening weekend, however, is between two sides with fortunes almost impossible to predict. Wales have, like their five counterparts, been struck with an alarming run of injuries. Sam Warburton, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar are amongst those on the sidelines for at least part of the championship, frustrating head coach Warren Gatland on his return to the championship following his Lions sojourn.

Injuries, however, offer opportunities. Josh Adams, top scorer in the Premiership this season, is afforded a chance to showcase his talents on the wing, whilst the impressive Rhys Patchell has been handed the reins at fly-half. Much was made of the new, expansive Welsh style of play in the autumn; the Six Nations will prove to be the acid test for Gatland’s side.

Facing them on Saturday will be a resurgent Scotland team, coming off the back of arguably their most successful autumn series in recent years. As a result, a number of experts are tipping Scotland as potential dark horses for the championship, a fact that both Gregor Townsend and John Barclay are downplaying at every opportunity.

Yet with some of the most exciting players in the tournament at their disposal, it’s easy to see why Scotland are exciting the pundits. Stuart Hogg’s electrifying return to action, coupled with Finn Russell pulling the strings at 10, means every defence has reason to be fearful. If Scotland can keep a full front row fit for a sufficient length of time, their fans are daring to dream.

One thing is for certain, though – with five rounds of free-flowing rugby in front of us and the teams too close to call, we’re in for one memorable campaign…

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