England: Effective but a hard watch at times
Six Nations champions and Autumn Nations Cup winners and yet something is missing. England are not what you would call easy on the eye. The general trend in the game for kicking and defence has not passed Eddie Jones by.
The England coach answers his critics with a mix of defiance and menace but admits there is room for improvement.
“It’s called a Championship because there’s a champion at the end. It’s abnormal to win, we want to be abnormal because there’s only one team out of the six that can win,” Jones said.
“The one thing we were disappointed about in the autumn was that we never played as well as we could and that’s what we are always striving to do.
“We want to dominate the opposition and find a way to dominate for every minute of the game, so that’s what we are looking at.”
They open their campaign against Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday in a match that could define the Championship for both sides.
England go into the tournament without five frontline forwards in Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Launchbury and Sam Underhill but their player pool is deep.
The new face in the squad is Wasps’ Paolo Odogwu, a powerful winger of Nigerian and Italian descent who likens himself to an NFL running back.
France: This should be their year
They finished second last year but were the most impressive side in the eyes of many. It’s remarkable to think France haven’t won the Six Nations since 2010 but coach Fabien Galthie looks to have found a way to harness his players’ formidable talents within a disciplined structure.
The French laid down a marker by beating eventual champions England in the opening match of the 2020 tournament before being pipped on match points difference following a loss to Scotland at Murrayfield, never a happy hunting ground for them.
Galthie thinks his youthful side can take the next step.
“We hope to do better than we did in 2020 by continuing to try to develop our rugby, our game, to grow the team,” Galthie said.
They are missing Virimi Vakatawa due to a knee injury but showed in the autumn they have strength in depth when their B side ran England close in the Nations Cup final at Twickenham.
Ireland: O’Connell can galvanise the pack
Like Scotland, Ireland won three and lost two last year and pipped the Scots for third place on points difference. Andy Farrell has since recruited Paul O’Connell to his coaching team and the rugby great has been charged with sorting out the Irish pack.
Captain Johnny Sexton hopes to be fit to lead his country in Cardiff in Sunday’s opener after insisting his latest injury is “not major”. The 35-year-old stand-off, who suffered hamstring problems at the back end of last year, limped off during Leinster’s Pro14 win over Munster.
Farrell expects Ulster back Jacob Stockdale to miss the opening two games of the tournament with a knee issue but feels he may be ready to return for the trip to Italy in round three.
Experienced Leinster prop Tadhg Furlong was perhaps a surprise selection, having not played for almost a year due to back, calf and hamstring problems.
Ireland will play big guns France and England in Dublin this year which should help their cause.
Italy: Hard to see where a win is coming from
They have finished last in 15 of the 21 previous Six Nations campaigns, including each of the last five seasons. They have had their moments in the Championship but their last win was in 2015, against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Head coach Franco Smith’s 32-man squad is short on experience, with only former Scotland under-20 fly-half Tommaso Allan having won more than 50 caps.
South African Smith declared the forthcoming Championship a fresh start for the Italians who open with a home game against France.
“It is clear to us that there is big expectation in the first game,” Smith said.
“We want to win consistently, we want to be sustainable. We don’t want to have one-off games – this is a new start for Italian rugby.
“It is not a one-game process, it is not a one-year process. We want to really set the standard and encourage the young guys.”
Scotland: Russell’s return can be key
A six-game winning streak which included a first victory in Wales in 18 years seemed to have Scotland flying last year but deflating defeats by France and Ireland brought Gregor Townsend’s side back down to earth.
The head coach signed a new contract before Christmas which will see him remain in charge for the 2023 World Cup. He has produced some notable results but Scotland continue to lag behind their main rivals in the Six Nations. The Scots have never finished higher than third since the Championship was expanded to include Italy in 2000 but this year’s team looks strong, with Finn Russell back in harness and Cam Redpath an exciting addition.
Scotland begin at Twickenham where they have not won since 1983 but Townsend reckons the absence of fans can be a leveller. It works both ways, of course, and Murrayfield will be an empty shell when Wales, Ireland and Italy come calling.
Richie Gray is also back, having not played in the Six Nations for four years but there are concerns at hooker with both Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally ruled out with neck injuries. Step forward, George Turner.
Wales: Pressure on Pivac
Wales in the post-Warren Gatland era seemed to shed their cloak of invincibility with alarming haste. From Grand Slam champions in 2019, the Welsh finished fifth under Wayne Pivac in last year’s Six Nations.
The new coach emerged with just three wins from 10 games - and they were against Italy (twice) and Georgia.
Six Nations defeats against England, France, Ireland and Scotland were tough to take for the Welsh rugby public.
“We got ourselves into some good positions in those games, but we weren’t able to capitalise because of a malfunctioning set-piece,” said Pivac.
“That’s clearly a big drive for us, to improve in that area, as well as across the board, to be honest.”
Although Wales will return to Cardiff’s Principality Stadium after playing their Autumn Nations Cup games in Llanelli, their fixtures will again be behind closed doors.
“We get the 16th man at the Principality Stadium with our fans, who are fantastic. But you take that away, and it’s a different challenge,” admitted Pivac who knows he can’t afford a repeat of last year’s dismal campaign.