With the Six Nations back on February 4th, sports editor Conor Lynott tries to predict the final table of this year’s instalment of the Six Nations, which sees the addition of a new bonus point system. So how will the Northern Hemisphere teams fare this time round?
A first Grand Slam since 2009 might be a bit too much of an ask, but with both Munster and Leinster on fire from the Champions Cup, expect Ireland to be a force to be reckoned with. They won’t have it all their own their way as England are a very difficult last home fixture after a punishing four consecutive test matches. However, if the performances of Munster and Leinster are anything to go by, the skill sets of the Irish backs and the excellent ability of their forwards to create secure set pieces are a class above everybody, bar maybe England. Joe Schmidt will need to look after Ireland captain, Rory Best, given the injury to Sean Cronin. But in other divisions, Ireland look well stocked in attack and defence to secure a third title in four years. Buoyed after a historically vanquishing the myth of New Zealand’s invincibility, there seems nothing this team under Schmidt can’t achieve.
Predicted Position: 1st
A few weeks ago, they would have been tipped to win. However, the English coaching team has been forced to deal with a nasty spate of injuries in recent weeks. Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler, Billy Vunipola and Joe Launchbury are big losses of experience and muscle for English Head Coach, Eddie Jones. Additionally, England have the most difficult of openings away to France and Wales. One of these teams will surely fancy their chances against an undoubtedly weakened England outfit. They should have far too much firepower for the other nations. The underperformance of the defensive units of top English Clubs in Europe is in contrast to the Irish provinces demonstrates that on current form Ireland might have the edge in defence. This is important as teams go looking for bonus points. For this reason, if the competition comes down to points difference England’s leaky defensive line may hurt them and see the Three Lions fall just short. Having said that, it’s the nature of Test rugby that club form does not necessarily play a decisive factor.
Predicted Position: 2nd
Playing Ireland: 18th March. In Dublin, Kickoff: 17:00
A feel-good factor has been slowly returning to French rugby since Guy Noves took over from Philippe Saint-André. Much like Ireland, one of the barometers of progress is performance levels against the All Blacks. France put up an admirable fight against the All Blacks in a 19 – 24 loss, one week after Ireland’s historic afternoon in Chicago last November. With a coach who appears to allow players to play in their natural positions, players with the pace of Teddy Thomas and a forward line that, used correctly, can do serious damage. What’s more, signals from the French camp suggest that Noves has cultivated a high performance training routine that will improve the fitness of French players. Europe needs France to stay strong and this year just might see one of the big guns fall to a renewed French flair.
Predicted Position: 3rd
Playing Ireland: 25th February. In Dublin, Kickoff: 16:50
Scotland have been knocking on the door for the past few seasons. With Glasgow winning the Guinness Pro12 in 2015, followed five months later by the heroics on the international stage as they unfairly missed out on a World Cup Semi Final due to a dubious decision by Referee Craig Joubert. Scotland’s recent form would also suggest they have the ability to beat one of their big rivals in a game other than a scrap with Italy. Only last November, it was the Scotsmen who led for almost the entire eighty minutes against a Wallabies side pushing for a Grand Slam European Tour. However, this is as good as it gets. The almost routine concession of a late try suggests that they will struggle for fitness against sides like England and Ireland. They do have an attacking zeal about them and one can expect one big win (along with a comfortable dispatching of Italy) if they can put teams away early and keep the foot on the pedal and retain focus.
Predicted Position: 4th
Playing Ireland: 4th February. In Murrayfield, Kickoff: 14:25
Some may be surprised to see a prediction placing Wales in 5th position. Indeed, Wales have been regular champions in the last five years and supplied the bulk of the Lions team that secured a 2 -1 series victory over Mike Deans’ Wallabies team. However, their recent Test form since last March has been shocking. They failed to win any of their Test matches against the All Blacks last summer and put in a meek performance against Australia. What is more, the fact that Welsh great, Sam Warburton, was dropped because he needed to “focus on his (own) game”, suggests that there might be a sharp decline in form and discipline within the Wales camp that may lead to disorganisation on the pitch. In addition, the support of the public is important to any team and it’s well known that Rob Howley does not share the popularity of the man he is temporarily replacing, Lions Coach, Warren Gatland. It will be interesting to see how these factors play out, but the result could see Scotland leapfrog Wales in the 6 Nations final table if the Wales fail to turn up again in February.
Predicted Position: 5th
Playing Ireland: 10th March. In Cardiff, Kickoff: 20:00
Expect Italy to finish bottom of the pile once again. While it should be acknowledged that Italy have an excellent new coach in Conor O’Shea from County Clare, who oversaw the historic Springboks victory, this victory was immediately followed by a defeat to lowly Tonga. There is no doubt that O’Shea is the kind of man who makes a difference and Italy might well prove to be a more competitive than last year. However, it is too early to expect any sharp deviation from the status quo as far as Italian rugby is concerned, given their desperately low skill levels and their aging stalwart, Sergio Parisse. Conor O’Shea will improve Italy in the long term, but it may be some time before we see its effects. The news that Zebre Rugby, one of only two professional Italian clubs, is set to leave the Pro12 does not help matters in the slightest, and O’Shea knows he does not have an easy job on his hands.
Predicted Position: 6th
Playing Ireland: 11th February. In Rome, Kickoff: 14:25
Conor Lynott | Sports Editor