The omens announce a great Six Nations. Last year’s edition took place behind closed doors and the great northern hemisphere rugby juggernaut returns with renewed vitality and verve. Buoyed by increased ruck ball speed and a generation of offensive innovators, five viable contenders for this year’s crown each arrive with a mix of ambition and enterprise, emboldened by encouraging and even more spirited falls. as the Six Nations find their color off the pitch after a campaign and a half behind closed doors.
“It could be the most competitive and open Six Nations ever,” Roma’s Kieran Crowley said at the kick-off last week. “Everyone looks strong. You look at the November results and the best rugby is played in the northern hemisphere.
After a disastrous 2021 edition, England stumbled upon a chaotic build-up to their tournament opener against Scotland at Murrayfield. Eddie Jones lost two captains, faced yet more Covid positives and injuries, and spent an unplanned night in a Brighton tavern after a fire forced England out of his hotel.
With Owen Farrell out for the tournament and Courtney Lawes recovering from a concussion, Tom Curry steps into the captain’s breach. Curry, compared to Richie McCaw by his coach, has returned to the open side and is England’s youngest male skipper since Will Carling in 1988.
The new English approach developed in the fall should continue. A backline multiplex is once again made up of interchangeable parts: Joe Marchant, fresh out of solitary confinement, is allowed to start on the wing; Elliot Daly starts his first game against England at the outside center since 2016.
Nick Isiekwe is also back in favour, adding spring and smarts to a mobile attacking pack in the absence of Jonny Hill – who is unlikely to be fit until the end of the tournament – and Lawes. Sam Simmonds and Lewis Ludlam start alongside Captain Curry and will have a lot of troubleshooting work to do against Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson.
Jones’ suggestion that Scotland are ‘red favourites’ may be another of his regular attempts at performative underrepresentation, but Gregor Townsend’s side will certainly be confident after ending the drought of Twickenham last year. The challenge for Scotland now is to build on the solid foundations of an established squad and become regular contenders at the Six Nations.
There is more talent available for Townsend than ever before, with no room in the 23 for Cameron Redpath, Scott Cummings or emerging back row dynamo Rory Darge. An established selection have an attacking flair, always accentuated by the presence of Finn Russell, who will meet a fly-half of similar persuasion to Marcus Smith.
Like modernist creatives Gertrude Stein, Townsend spoke of the pair as kindred colleagues on the Lions’ UK and Ireland tour. “The quality of last week, with the way Marcus and Finn were training, was incredible,” Townsend said. “They have a lot of shared vision and skill in how they play the game.”
The predicted inclement weather won’t necessarily dampen Russell or Smith’s natural expression, but it may be an opportunity for concreters rather than conjurers, just as their individual duel fascinates. Freddie Steward’s high-ball bond will be tested on his first away start in an England 15 shirt; the same goes for that of Stuart Hogg, so influential at Twickenham last year.
“We don’t consider it poor conditions, we consider it conditions and you don’t take your board shorts and sunscreen to Edinburgh,” Jones joked ahead of his seventh Calcutta Cup. “If you go to the Maldives it might be a different matter, but we are going to Edinburgh for a Six Nations match, so bring your scrum, mayhem and kick-hunting spirit. Win the payline and you will go far to win the game.
“We have all of these elements in our arsenal and we intend to use them to ensure we are on the front line. Sometimes players are ready to play those big games and we think young players are ready to play those big games.
Jones is expecting another hostile reception at Murrayfield, but England survived a miserable day in Edinburgh on their final trip north. After taking swift steps towards their coach’s new 2023 vision in the autumn, it will be a very different task – and England may have to tame the storm again.
Ireland v Wales
The Six Nations begin in Dublin, where there is cause for optimism for Ireland after an unbeaten autumn that saw them beat New Zealand and perhaps discover their identity under Andy Farrell. Thirteen of those who beat the All Blacks do it again against Wales, with former Australia Under-20 international Mack Hansen earning his first cap on the wing after a sensational start to life at Connacht.
Having come so close to an unlikely sweep 12 months ago, it would be foolish to write off Wayne Pivac’s spring bloomers even with a long list of injuries. Although it could take a year for Pivac to rebuild, an injured Wales with little to lose will pose problems for Ireland. Ireland may again look to set their own tempo, but with Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham, and a flying back line, Wales have the horses for a fast lane. A classic Six Nations encounter should be the perfect start.
France against Italy
France’s pre-tournament preparation has also been far from smooth, with no less than 14 players isolated until the start of the week, including captain Antoine Dupont and much of Toulouse’s backbone running through the team.
Fabien Galthie will therefore be grateful for a favorable opening match, with Italy in Paris, even if the French coach will be absent after his own positive test. While new Italian counterpart Kieran Crowley has done a good job at Benetton, he has a tough job ahead after his elevation to the national team. An average fall didn’t suggest it would be a breakthrough year for the Azzurri, just as a revamped defense briefly frustrated Crowley’s New Zealand native in November.
A Six Nations title would be a logical next step in France’s evolution into potential favorites for their home World Cup. With Ireland and England also due to travel to Paris, Grand Slams are the most likely, but the pressure is on the side of unlimited potential to now deliver tangible success.