Analysis: How Six Nations hopefuls fare ahead of 2017 renewal

Greig Laidlaws leadership will be vital to Scotland when the Six Nations kicks off in February. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Greig Laidlaws leadership will be vital to Scotland when the Six Nations kicks off in February. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
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Iain Morrison takes the temperature of the Northern Hemisphere rivals ahead of next year’s championship.

ENGLAND

It’s hard to pick too many holes in a team that have won 14 straight Tests going all the way back to last year’s World Cup when they hammered Uruguay in what proved to be Stuart Lancaster’s last outing as England coach. England could match the All Blacks’ recent record of 18 straight wins against Scotland at Twickenham in the fourth round of the Six Nations, although there is plenty of rugby to be played between then and now.

The side has been reinvigorated by Eddie Jones’ upbeat and confrontational approach, which in some respects echoes the same unapologetic tone that Clive Woodward adopted over a decade ago.

The team is playing with such self-belief that they can give the Wallabies a ten-point start and still cruise to victory with a sublime second-half performance.

Pitfalls

Not too many in all honesty but George Ford is no more an international kicker than my aunt Agnes and if Owen Farrell isn’t there to take points off the tee that could bite England in the future.

The back three don’t have the skills of their southern hemisphere opponents and Mike Brown is short of a yard of pace, better in defence than attack. In the forwards Dan Cole needs better back up at tighthead but just imagine what this England pack could produce with an authentic openside.

Sure to make a splash

Elliot Daly didn’t have a great autumn but he has an abundance if skills, which is not true of all his team-mates.

FRANCE

Admittedly France lost two of their three autumn Tests but not all the news was bad. Les Bleus were seriously competitive against Les Blacks, losing 24-19, which was a result of sorts given that France conceded 62 points the last time the two teams met in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Guy Noves is trying to change the team, freshen the thinking and broaden a few horizons and has had some limited success. His side cut loose against Tonga, scoring seven tries, fell short against what was largely a Wallaby second string team but played their best rugby against the world No.1s.

The French kept the ball in hand and looked for the offload, something you could never say about the ancien regime, troubling the All Blacks defence from time to time with the help of wingers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa. The small but speedy full-back Brice Dulin, seen in Racing’s colours yesterday against Glasgow, is the polar opposite of his predecessor Scott Spedding in every respect.

Pitfalls

France’s structural problems remain in place, an overly long Top 14 season, an over-emphasis on the club game at the expense of the national team and a host of foreign players clogging up the clubs at the expense of local talent.

Sure to make a splash

Breakaway Kevin Gourdon is a speedy and athletic player with a soft pair of hands, a genuine link man between forwards and backs and a hint as to where this team is going.

ITALY

I don’t know the Italian national dance but it is certain to involve taking two steps forward and another three steps back. For the first time that anyone can remember the Azzurri featured on RAI’s 8 o’clock news bulletin after beating the Springboks for the first time in history and they did so with a prop, Sami Panico, who plies his trade for Calvisano in Italy’s Eccellenza, the league below the Pro12! In fairness that result said more about South Africa than it did about Italy, which was bourne out one week later.

The heroes went to zeros, losing to Tonga, thanks to a penalty conceded by Glasgow’s Simone Favaro, captain for the day, right in front of his own posts. The aptly named Panico had conceded two penalties and earned himself a yellow card. Well, coach Conor O’Shea always said it would be a long, hard road.

At least Italy now has some serious hitters on the coaching staff, Mike Catt and Brendan Venter assisting the Irishman, and if the FIR listens to their advice on the game’s structures the long-term future of Italian rugby should take an upward turn.

Pitfalls

The usual ones, not enough strength in depth, an obvious lack of consistency and an over-reliance on “Super Mario” Parisse who missed the Tonga game through suspension.

Sure to make a splash

Edoardo Padovani was reserve stand-off behind Carlo Canna at Zebre until some bright spark stuck him at full-back where he now stars for Italy.

IRELAND

If you go back to include the summer tour in June, Ireland have now beaten South Africa (in Cape Town), Australia (in Dublin) and New Zealand (in Chicago) in the space of six months, which is a handy trio to topple, especially after losing to England and France in the last Six Nations.

That famous victory over the All Blacks last month was well deserved and they did pretty well in the re-match at the Aviva, even if Ireland failed to match the (over) physicality of New Zealand on the day.

Even when struggling with a long injury list Ireland still had enough in the tank to see off Australia which speaks volumes for the squad that Joe Schmidt has put together. The emergence of Devin Toner, outstanding against the All Blacks, alongside twin props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong has some anticipating a healthy Irish showing in next year’s Lions pack. And Schmidt has committed to his adopted country, which is probably the best news of all.

Pitfalls

The biggest setback for Ireland was a serious injury to the kidneys of Jared Payne which could keep him out for three months. Conor Murray is in rude good health with his running game on display in Chicago but there isn’t much behind the starting nine.

Sure to make a splash

Joey Carbery is the real deal, equally comfortable at full-back or stand-off, an astonishingly mature talent at just 21 years old.

SCOTLAND

Whatever else you say about Gregor Townsend you have to admit that the next national coach has a good sense of timing because this Scotland squad appears to have stepped up a division.

In the absence of at least four starting forwards, including both first choice props, the Scots outscored the Wallabies in tries and only lost to a mistake in the final few minutes of their opening autumn Test. They beat the Pumas in an old fashioned arm wrestle that doesn’t suit them, while Georgia, who nearly beat Scotland at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, were lucky to come second in Kilmarnock.

Get a few injured forwards back on the paddock, take your pick from any two of four outstanding centres and Scotland are looking in reasonable Six Nations shape, particularly with three of their games at home.

Pitfalls

The Scots will be competitive but that is not to suggest they are Grand Slam material and, with Joe Schmidt’s Irish giant killers first up at Murrayfield on 4 February, Vern Cotter cannot bank on any help from his friend on getting off to a winning start.

While there are locks and centres to spare, the whole campaign would implode were anything to happen to stand-off Finn Russell or captain Greig Laidlaw, the former for his play, the latter for his leadership.

Sure to make a splash

Huw Jones adds to the embarrassment of midfield riches at Cotter’s disposal.

WALES

The epiphany came, not in the autumn, but during last year’s World Cup when a 15-man Wales played against a 13-man Australia for eight odd minutes and failed to score a try. Wales knew then that “Warrenball” wasn’t going to win anything on the global stage and have been trying to adapt ever since. But when an oil tanker changes direction it can be timed with a sundial, a bit like Jamie Roberts, who found himself benched for the first time in years.

Wales won three from four in the autumn series but they were comprehensively beaten by Australia and needed a drop goal in the last minute from replacement fly-half Sam Davies to beat Japan.

The 27-13 win against South Africa saved the series but you have to put that into context because this Springboks side were the weakest to have visited these shores since the invention of the jet engine.

Ross Moriaty was one of the plus points, his displays at No.8 meant that the injured Taulupe Faletau was not missed.

Pitfalls

Coach Warren Gatland is away with the Lions and stand in Rob Howley appears to be drowning, not waving.

Sure to make a splash

Pick a stand-off… any stand-off. Davies dug them out of a hole against Japan but many think that Leicester’s Owen Williams is an even better bet if Wales want to revert to their traditional pacy, passing game.