European rugby’s most prestigious and anticipated tournament gets underway this weekend as the RBS Six Nations kicks off in Cardiff when Wales host Scotland. In the battle for Northern Hemisphere supremacy, Eddie Jones’ England, second in the IRB rankings, will start as favourites having lifted the famous title for the past two years. But this time around it’s expected to be one of the most closely fought contests ever.
Jones’ men have won 22 of their 23 matches under the tutelage of the firebrand Aussie, with their only defeat of his tenure coming in the final game of last season’s tournament as Ireland ended their hopes of two successive Grand Slams. Spearheaded by colourful and often controversial captain, 89-cap hooker Dylan Hartley, England’s credentials will be tested to the fore during this year’s campaign as they chase an unprecedented hat-trick of titles. They travel to Rome on Sunday, one of their three Six Nations away fixtures, before the daunting visit to the Stade de France cauldron and the Calcutta Cup clash with old rivals Scotland at Murrayfield on February 23. In a repeat of last year’s finale, England will face Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side on the final weekend, but this time will take on the world’s third best side at Twickenham in what looks set to be a rip-roaring and possibly decisive denouement.
England have the vast experience, but with an average age of 24, Schmidt’s young squad certainly have youth and strength in depth on their side. But despite in-form Ireland’s impressive run of seven successive wins, which included a record 38-3 win over South Africa, it’s Gregor Townsend’s resurgent Scotland side who have been tipped to pose the biggest threat to the more traditional tournament powerhouses.
Usually more accustomed to fighting to avoid the wooden spoon at the bottom of the table, the rejuvenated Scots come into this year’s championships in their highest ever position of fifth in the world rankings, leading many pundits and rugby experts to believe that this could the year they finally land that elusive Six Nations crown. The Scots last lifted the trophy in 1999, the year before the then Five Nations expanded to its current guise with the inclusion of Italy. In a fruitful autumn, Townsend’s team put 50 points on Australia and came within a Beauden Barrett tackle of a first ever win over the mighty All Blacks. Scotland enjoyed their finest ever campaign 12 months ago as they finished fourth after three wins, and they will be looking to hit the heights and go one better this time around.
The tournament begins on Saturday in Cardiff as Wales face the men from Murrayfield – led by captain John Barclay – before France, under new coach Jacques Brunel, host Ireland and England conclude the tournament’s first weekend against the Azzurri in the Italian capital on Sunday. With the newly installed head coach at the helm and a host of uncapped players, France seem something of an unknown quantity. After their second placed finish two years ago, Warren Gatland’s Wales were disappointing last time out and ended up fifth in their worst campaign since 2007.
The World Cup – scheduled for 2019 in Japan – may remain the grandest rugby spectacle of them all, but the Six Nations remains the biggest chance for Europe’s finest to throw down the gauntlet and show the rest of the world what the Northern Hemisphere has to offer. Bring it on!