The ‘Six Nations Championship’ is a sporting event steeped in rich history and tradition. Moulded from the original ‘Home Nations Championship’ dating back to 1883, the ‘Six Nations’ has developed into one of the most viewed and eagerly anticipated competitions in the sporting calendar. Perhaps this year’s tournament takes on even greater significance, as nations seek to improve and develop their teams ahead of the ‘World Cup’ in September. Central to the hype and excitement surrounding this upcoming edition is the splendid form of the leading European rugby nations. Recent championships have demonstrated the improved standards across all of the participating countries, which has culminated in matches amongst these fierce rivals becoming increasingly close and unpredictable. Amidst this backdrop, the 2019 ‘Six Nations’ is poised to be the best one yet. The standing and ambition of each participating country heading into the Championship can be classified as follows:
2018 was undisputedly the greatest year in Irish rugby’s history. The national side won eleven of their twelve matches, a run which guided them to a third ever Grand Slam, an historic series win in Australia and a first win over New Zealand on home soil. Inevitably, concerns have been raised as to whether Ireland have peaked too soon in the World Cup cycle and that that golden year will prove an impossible act to follow. Joe Schmidt and his players are making a conscious effort to remain grounded and stick diligently to the processes which have hitherto taken them to the practical summit of world rugby. A crucial ingredient of the Irish juggernaut involves taking each game on its merits and staving off any notions of complacency. Ireland will view this upcoming ‘Six Nations’ as pivotal to maintaining the momentum they have built over the last 18 months and building confidence levels further heading into Japan. Should Ireland win their opening game against England in Dublin, they will rise to number one in the world rankings for the first time in the country’s history.
France finished a disappointing fourth place in last year’s ‘Six Nations Championship’, in keeping with what has been a very difficult few years for their national side. However, victories against England and Argentina offered some encouragement that the French team are making progress under Jacques Brunel and his coaching staff. Moreover, their recent performance against South Africa, where they came within a whisker of beating the Southern Hemisphere giants in the November Internationals, indicates that a revival may just have been sparked. France have a habit of peaking during the World Cup year, and this championship will strongly indicate their prospects of replicating this tendency. The Stade de France faithful will be expecting home wins over Wales and Scotland at the very least.
Following an almost impeccable first stanza as England head coach, Eddie Jones has seen his side’s form plummet over the past eighteen months. Defeated three times in last year’s ‘Six Nations’, England fell to a series defeat in South Africa followed by losses to the Barbarians and New Zealand in November. But this upcoming championship offers England the ideal platform to rebound from this trough and rebuild confidence and momentum heading into Japan. There are few better places for them to ignite this process than against Ireland at the ‘Aviva Stadium’ on 2 February. Taking down the reigning champions on their home turf would undoubtedly give England a massive psychological boost for the remainder of the year.
Following years of struggling alongside Italy at the bottom of the ‘Six Nations’, Scottish rugby has been on a remarkable upward trajectory in recent times. In the last two editions of the championship, they have defeated every side in the competition and the brilliant foundations laid down by Vern Cotter have been cleverly built upon by Gregor Townsend. Now an impressive seventh place in the world rankings, Scotland will probably be aiming to replicate their three victories from last year’s tournament and secure a top-half finish in the league table.
Italy has found the significant improvements made by their fellow ‘Six Nations’ teams difficult to cope with. In fact, the last few editions of the Championship have seen somewhat of a chasm emerge between the Italians and their opponents. Nevertheless, they have a very well-respected and reputable head coach in Conor O’Shea, who is adamant that significant progress is being made in transitioning the Italian team from their more traditional physical game to a more nuanced, expansive style. Success for the Italian side in this upcoming tournament will be benchmarked more against performance levels than results, and they will hope to at least remain competitive for much of their matches.
Warren Gatland has a remarkable knack for ensuring his Welsh side peaks in the final year of the World Cup cycle. Judging by the remarkable upward trajectory that Wales is currently on, this trend looks set to repeat itself in 2019. Following a runner-up finish in last year’s tournament, Wales will be confident of going one better this time around – they enter this tournament off the back of four straight victories in the November Internationals, augmenting a clean-sweep of wins in the Summer tests. With Ireland and England both having to travel to the Principality Stadium this year, Wales will be very hopeful of securing a first 6 Nations title in six years.
By Jack Stokes – Sports CoEditor