rates the six teams vying for Six Nations glory this spring.
The tournament favourites beyond doubt. I was in the ground in Japan to see them demolish the All Blacks in the RWC semi-final and it was the rugby performance of 2019. Ireland’s demise in Japan had the end of a cycle feeling to it, but England’s is not. Eddie Jones has freshened things up and though he has lost Billy Vunipola, the depth chart remains very strong. Forget the Saracens thing, it’s not an issue. All that ever takes is one good meeting. Playing for your country is bigger than anything.
Another new dawn? Well, this time there may be something to the talk. It’s the first Six Nations that they’ve had proper prep for. Fabien Galthie has had two weeks with the squad down in Nice, and France look far more organised than usual. I await the team for Sunday’s Le Crunch with real interest. If they get off to a winning start in Paris, watch out.
Andy Farrell struck a chord this week: He wants to play a brand of rugby that the Irish public will like and can get behind. He wants a good buzz about going to the Aviva and watching the national team. Little details will emerge tomorrow. What way will they ruck, how will they go about keeping the ball alive. There is a honeymoon period now. A lot will depend on whether the Irish support likes what it sees. But as Munster are finding out, patience doesn’t last forever.
There’s more focus than normal on Italy. And not because they have South African Franco Smith as interim head coach. Treviso have made themselves decent Champions Cup performers, but the step to test rugby is undeniable. We will know a lot more after the opening Wales game. There’s a different story every day now about the future shape and seasons of international rugby. I’d personally love to see Japan in the Six Nations, whether that involves relegation or not for one of the existing nations. Italy are perennial favourites for the wooden spoon, and sooner rather than later they must change that.
They might have a new captain but Gregor Townsend starts on the back foot and under unnecessary pressure. That’s huge. It may not quite be Saipan, but Finn Russell is one of the best players in Europe at the minute. One wonders how things will settle when he returns. After all, Scotland’s second game is the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. They may be 0-2 after that.
May suffer a little bit of the post-Gatland blues. And that has nothing to do with their new coach Wayne Pivac. So many Welsh players played for and delivered for Gatland. That’s a great skill in a coach. Pivac will probably start with a win against Italy, but a win in Dublin in Week 2 would really put him on the pig’s back.