Six Nations Countdown

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It’s almost here. Richard Mulligan looks at all the teams ahead of the Six Nations kick off on Saturday. Click on each tab below for his thoughts, coach interviews and tournament predictions.

Confidence is high for strong Ireland showing.

Can Ireland push on from an impressive November Test series and raise the bar again to deliver on the Six Nations front?

Confidence is there and expectations are certainly high for a solid performance from the men in green which will see them as serious contenders for the 2022 Guinness Six Nations title.

And this is also the time to be thinking about a World Cup coming up in 2023 – from here on in it has to be in the mind.

For Ireland to show continued growth and improvement Andy Farrell needs to be finishing in the top two.

Many have the French tipped to win a first championship in 10 years and just as many see Ireland as being the side who can deny them.

Both defeated New Zealand during the November Test series, shooting their credentials high as the Six Nations approached.

They are due to meet in Paris on February 12, which is round two, so, if results go as expected in round one, one of the two’s Grand Slam hopes will be gone early, but championship chances will still remain such can be the unexpectancy in this competition.

In terms of expectancy and confidence, Farrell said:“We will see if we have the courage to kick on and get better because that is what is going to be needed.

We want to be living on the edge of where we are at and keep pushing the boundaries to get better.

If we have a single focus then, as the saying goes, the scores will take care of themselves.”

There are a few new faces included in the squad announced previously but, at the time of writing before the first team announcement, you can probably expect Farrell to adopt the cautious approach and go with tried and tested for the opening game at least against Wales in Dublin.

It makes sense to do that with building momentum in mind and making a solid start, which as Wales showed last year, is so important to a side harbouring ambitions of being right in the mix come the final round.

With three games at home, Ireland are expected to be there or thereabouts, the tricky fixtures of course come in Paris and London – but they have achieved Grand Slams in similar circumstances.

A successful Six Nations campaign will continue that build-up to the World Cup in 2023 particularly on that November showing against New Zealand, Argentina and Japan – but fans will be praying the Irish are not up to their old trick of peaking too early.

Prediction: A strong second placed finisher. A win in Paris sets them up for a fall at Twickenham, or worse, a loss to Scotland at home in the final round of fixtures.

Red Rose not expected to blossom for Jones this time around.

For all the talent and resources available in England, it is somewhat surprising that there are concerns regarding a plethora of injuries ahead of the Six Nations for coach Eddie Jones.

Some would jest – probably in Wales, Scotland and Ireland – it is a case of getting the excuses in first.

England finished a wayward fifth last year and Jones has already installed France as the ‘red hot favourites’ for the championship this year.

It is not to say he expects the Red Rose not to flower again, and they do come into the championship having beaten world champions South Africa in the Autumn Test series.

As for those injuries Owen Farrell and Jonny May – both out of the campaign – are two of the key absentees while Courtney Laws and Johnny Hill miss the trip to Scotland for the opener on Saturday.

But Jones, whose biggest criticism of his tenure would be not building cohesive depth within the squad, believes it creates opportunities for others.

That is how most coaches would see it, but others will have seen their charges in action a little more often in the international colours.

At the time of writing, the big question was would it be George Ford or young pretender Marcus Smith who would make the start at 10.

Listening to Jones at the Six Nations launch, one felt he would go with the latter (as it proved out to be when the team was announced on Thursday).

Smith is a huge prospect. He has been instrumental in helping Harlequins to the Premiership title last season – and he has continued in his rich vein of form this season, pivotal to big wins in the European Champions Cup as the London club secured a last 16 place.

Of Smith, Jones said: “What I enjoyed most was that against South Africa, which was one of those games that we were going to have to win two or three times, he showed a lot of courage and attacked the space which is not easy to do against South Africa.

He showed a lot of courage during the Autumn and a lot of composure and skill. He’s only going to get better during the Six Nations.

Opening against Scotland in Murrayfield, on the back of having lost to the Auld Enemy in their own backyard for the first time since 1983 is a big challenge for the English.

With a trip to Italy to follow, Jones knows a win over the Scots would set his side on their way to building some momentum before the first rest week and then the challenge of Wales at Twickenham.

The aim will be to win the title they last secured in 2020, but Jones will at the least expect a better place finish than fifth.

Prediction: France v England is the last of the championship on March 19, expect Les Blues to be challenging for the title, maybe even a Grand Slam, but England’s challenge will be over by the time they get to Paris. Third or fourth place for Jones.

High expectations French can end 10-year itch for glory.

It is remarkable that France has not won the Six Nations Championship since 2010!

Then they swept all before them to claim the Grand Slam and as the countdown ticks down to the 2022 edition the current crop of Les Bleus are tipped to end that long wait to take the title – and quite possibly with a clean sweep as well.

However, it was a similar thought just 12 months ago, but the French lost two games and finished runners-up to Wales.

With a World Cup being staged in France next year, there is huge expectation on the nation from within.

For coach Fabien Galthie, now in his third term, the pressure will be felt. French revolutions have been heralded several times since the last Six Nations success in 2010, but they proved false dawns – probably reflected in last year’s competition.

But an impressive November Test series, which included a superb win over New Zealand, points to the French being the side to beat this time around.

The fixture list is arguably in their favour with matches against Ireland – who also beat the All Blacks impressively in the Autumn – and England at home.

Both Ireland and England are above the French in the World Rankings, but the Six Nations Championship rarely complies with the formbook.

Certainly, from the recent Guinness Six Nations launch, the other five coaches certainly are aware of what France can bring to the table based on recent performances.

England boss Eddie Jones remarked that the French were ‘red hot favourites’ while Italy’s Kieran Crowley described Les Bleus as the ‘team of the moment’!

Galthie acknowledged that, but he pointed to Andy Farrell’s Ireland as being a ‘strong adversary’ to his own.

Galthie said: “They have been on a very positive drive, undefeated since February 2021 and they defeated the All Blacks in November.

“Their provinces have been at the top level in tournaments and they’ve been on a highly positive dynamic, their elite level teams and also the national team.

They are a very strong adversary, a very strong team.

Obviously we are very happy and very proud to be considered the team of the moment. It touches us and we find that very moving.

But talking about Ireland, which will be our second game, they have a great ability to achieve wonderful things.

They are also ahead of us in the IRB World Rankings, they’re number four.

Also, other teams have had great performances. Scotland, Wales won (the Six Nations) last year, England won it two years ago, and they all have great ability, great players and are highly competitive.

“They all have the ability to win this tournament.

With the current best player in the world, scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, pulling the strings and the likes of Gael Fickou, Julien Marchard and Cyril Bailey on form, if France can produce their form from November again they will be hard to stop.

Galthie can argue the competition is good, but even he knows that it is time for France to deliver. France expects it!

Prediction: To win outright, or second behind Ireland.

Pivac and Wales faces tough hurdles in title defence

Fortune may have shone on Wales last year as they secured a Guinness Six Nations Championship title for the sixth time.

They were denied an unexpected Grand Slam at the death, losing 32-30 in Paris to the French.

The red cards in the first two games for Ireland and Scotland did, in my opinion, skew the championship and I am on record on a podcast stating that.

Ahead of the Welsh game against England I also predicted Wayne Pivac’s side would come unstuck. The Red Dragon produced one of their best performances to win 40-24!

I am not expecting Wales to defend their title successfully this term – unless fortune favours them again – but also writing the Welsh off is hazardous.

There is also some background noise in the shape of criticism of the failing regions and that a system built from the top is about to cave in on itself.

Wales are even less fancied this time around than they were last year and a first hit out against Ireland could well set the tone for Pivac.

Getting a good start is key, it builds confidence and momentum, and Wales got that last year against the two sides they bat off against in the opening two rounds again, Ireland and Scotland.

Pivac said: “Momentum is everything. If you look at last year’s competition, we got that all-important win over Ireland, a tough opponent in Round 1 and then there was the Scotland game away.

Those two games were so important to us. We got that momentum, we got the points on the board, teams were chasing us and you grow in confidence with the time together in camp.

“You expect things to improve and last year they did. We came out playing some really, really good rugby and probably some of our best rugby in our only defeat in France.”

Wales have their injury concerns, missing five of the pack that started in Stade de France last March, including talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones, while George North and Leigh Halfpenny are also absent.

Pivac has turned to Dan Biggar as his new skipper who brings the same sort of will to win spirit that Jones has done previously.

He said: “We have a good group of boys who are young, energetic and keen to learn and make sure we get right for Saturday.

If you want a prediction, even with my track record, Wales will fall at the first hurdle in Dublin and fourth place overall could be, at best, their final standing. 

Gregor Townsend’s squad have enough quality to make an impact

Gregor Townsend was instrumental in guiding Scotland to an era ending Five Nations Championship success in 1999.

A year later Italy had joined the competition to expand it to the Six Nations and Scotland are yet to lift the title.

This is Townsend’s fourth term at the helm and he has certainly turned fortunes to a degree.

I usually suggest Scotland are the dark horses and given their performances last season and their showing in the November Test series, there is reason to be upbeat that they could throw off the shackles of history.

Scotland have won three of their five games in three of the last four championships.

Beating England in Twickenham last year for the first time in 38-years and France in Paris for a first success in 22 years reflects the progress made – but even those results saw them finish a meagre fourth in the standings.

Scotland have three games on the road in this campaign, but they still remain hugely optimistic given the rising depth of talent now at Townsend’s disposal.

First up will be the visit of Eddie Jones’ England to Murrayfield, the oldest fixture in history and retaining the Calcutta Cup will send out a message to the other nations as well as giving Scotland a good platform to build on ahead of facing Wales in Cardiff a week later.

Captain Stuart Hogg cautiously believes the squad can make that next step in getting through the three-win barrier.

He said: Hogg: “I believe so. The boring answer is, we have to take every game as it comes and we can’t look too far ahead because if we do that that’s the time you’ll slip up.

I know I speak on behalf of Gregor and the rest of this camp when I say we are fully focused on England next Saturday and that’s it. Once that game’s done, we’ll learn from it and move on.

We’d love to be in position to be competing for trophies at the end of the campaign but it counts for nothing unless we kick off in the best possible way.

The Scots are still outsiders to break their Six Nations title duck, but there is no doubt that Townsend’s squad have sufficient quality to make an impact.

Prediction: Potential for third spot if they beat the Auld Enemy first up.

Too soon for Kieran Crowley to buck Italy’s dismal trend

New Italian coach Kieran Crowley believes this season’s Guinness Six Nations Championship will be one of the most open.

But the Kiwi, who took over the reins ahead of the November Test series, knows that Italy are not likely to be challenging at the top.

The Azzurri have finished last on 17 previous occasions and are currently on a streak of 32 straight losses in the championship – their last win coming in 2015.

Crowley’s expectations are much different from any of his counterparts. He wants to see his team challenge strongly, play well and as he said himself during the Six Nations launch “if we get over the line in just one of those games, then that will be a tremendous achievement.”

Crowley came into the coaching role after what was a successful stint with Benetton. 

The Italian club surprised everyone last year by going the entire PRO14 season without a win and then lifting the Rainbow Cup when they produced a huge shock in defeating The Bulls in the final.

Crowley is a World Cup winner with New Zealand, he was also an All Blacks selector, so he knows what it is to be top of the game.

But there is no hiding from the huge challenge he has as Italy boss.

Improving discipline will be a key target for the Italians and being more ruthless in defence will also help their cause.

Facing France on the opening weekend of the Championship in Paris is followed by a home game against England before they travel to Dublin to face Ireland.

As the other nations talk about getting momentum early doors, Crowley will be on a damage limitation exercise as he aims to improve some sorry stats from not just last season, but in recent years.

Italy have enjoyed wins over every other nation, with the exception of England, since joining in 2000, but for 2022 the trend of losing all five games looks set to continue.

And that will of course spark calls for them to be replaced – but in all honesty, the next best side, Georgia, would find the same challenges Italy have done recently.

With Crowley at the helm, however, expect his charges to at least show improvement – and look out for a potential return from a familiar star, 38-year-old Sergio Parisse, that legend of Italian rugby who wants one final hurrah.

Prediction: A competitive sixth!

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