2018 Six Nations Preview

Key Stats:
• Since becoming the Six Nations in 2000, no side has won three championships in a row
• The new bonus point system would have affected only one championship table since 2012 where England would have been crowned champions in 2013 instead of Wales
• All of the last 18 championships have had a goalkicker as the Top Points Scorer with 10 of them being from the tournament winning side
• All 18 championships have had an Outside Back as the Top Try Scorer and half the Top Try Scorers have been from the tournament winning side

Six Nations 2018
There are two clear front runners in the race for the 19th title of the Six Nations championships – England and Ireland – however, only three out of the last 10 titles has been won by the highest ranked side which shows the competitiveness of the tournament. England will be aiming to become the first team in the Six Nations era to win three championships in a row and continue their fantastic record under Eddie Jones. Ireland are the in-form team off the back of seven consecutive victories. Scotland continue their rapid rise under new coach Gregor Townsend with their most exciting side since the 1999 champions. Wales are hoping their transition period is over and are building for the World Cup in 2019. France are looking for success under new management while Italy continue their resurgence under Conor O’Shea.

Team Analysis

England – 2.08 (Ranked 2nd in the World)

(All records since 2000 in Six Nations)

Italy (A) – W9-L0

Wales (H) – W7-L2

Scotland (A) – W5-D1-L3

France (A) – W3-L6

Ireland (H) – W6-L3

England enter this tournament as favourites for the third successive year but are interestingly a bigger price than they were 12 months ago following an Autumn where they were unbeaten without playing scintillating rugby. They are two out of two in this tournament under Eddie Jones and have lost only one of his 24 games in charge, so are still worthy favourites.

However, Jones will have to deal with a host of injuries and suspensions coming in to this championship. With a total of 13 players being unavailable for the opener the no.8 spot is up for grabs with Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes out injured and potential backup James Haskell banned for the two opening games meaning either youngster Sam Simmonds or Zach Mercer will get a start, though neither will have the same impact in the ball-carrying department. The other major area of concern is back-up for Mako Vunipola at loosehead with Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan and Beno Obano out injured and Joe Marler set to miss the opening two games through suspension, leaving an opening on the bench for first time call-ups for either Lewis Boyce or Alec Hepburn.

With only eight out of the 20 forwards selected from the 2017 Six Nations included this time around it appears Eddie Jones has had to make some serious adjustments to his pack, but in the back-line there is less to worry about. 12 out of the 14 backs from last year have been selected again with Elliot Daly is the only notable absentee and so much of their success this year will be down to the George Ford-Owen Farrell axis sparking their back-line into life.

 

Ireland – 2.88 (Ranked 3rd in the World)

France (A) – W2-D1-L6

Italy (H) – W9-L0

Wales (H) – W5-D1-L3

Scotland (H) – W8-L1

England (A) – W3-L6

In 2013 when Joe Schmidt took over the Ireland job from Declan Kidney after they finished fifth in the Six Nations, he turned around a declining side to one of the most consistent in the northern hemisphere. Under the Kiwi, Ireland have a 70% win-rate and look to be in their best form yet, ending England’s 18-match unbeaten run last year and sparking their own winning run.

As a result, there is an aura of optimism in the Ireland camp with their provisional teams displaying some great performances in Europe and the Pro 14 and a number of their players at the top of their game. Ireland can also feel fortunate that they have fewer injuries to worry about with the only major concerns being flanker Sean O’Brien, who’s set to miss the opening couple of rounds and Gary Ringrose, who will miss the whole tournament, but the Connacht centre Bundi Aki, who only gained residency last October looks a useful replacement.

Jordan Larmour is the only Irish uncapped player in their experienced 36-man squad with the 20-year-old in great form for Leinster as a replacement for Rob Kearney, scoring six tries in 14 appearances this season, putting him in good stead to start at fullback. It’s clear that Schmidt’s side are in a very strong position coming into this year’s tournament.

 

Scotland – 12.0 (Ranked 5th in the World)

Wales (A) – W1-L8

France (H) – W2-L7

England (H) – W3-D1-L5

Ireland (A) – W1-L8

Italy (A) – W4-L5

Perhaps the most exciting team coming into this year’s tournament, with Gregor Townsend set to take charge in his first Six Nations campaign with Scotland. The former Glasgow coach has already taken his side to another level from the fantastic job Vern Cotter did as illustrated in the build up to this year’s tournament – taking New Zealand to the wire and thumping Australia at home having already beaten them Down Under. It is their attacking flair that has seen a surge in optimism surrounding Scottish rugby, scoring at least four tries in five out of their last seven matches, meaning the bonus-point system should play into their hands.

For all the talent in their back-line their progression to really competing for the title could be hindered by the injury crisis in their front-row. At tight-head both first-choice Zander Fagerson and second-choice WP Nel are out for the tournament with third-choice Simon Berghan set to miss the opening game due to a six-week suspension forcing Townsend to hand Jon Welsh or D’Arcy Rae their debut. At loose-head they are very limited too with British and Irish Lion Allan Dell, Autumn International star Darryl Marfo and the experienced Alasdair Dickinson all out injured as Jamie Bhatti is most likely to start. And at hooker it doesn’t get any better with Frazer Brown and Ross Ford sidelined and George Turner a doubt it looks like the 36-year-old Scott Lawson, who has not played a test since 2014, is set to be on the bench with third-choice Stuart McInally starting. If they can win at the Principality Stadium in their opener despite these injuries, then it will send a real message of intent to the rest of the nations.

 

Wales – 21.0 (Ranked 7th in the World)

Scotland (H) – W8-L1

England (A) – W2-L7

Ireland (A) – W3-D1-L5

Italy (H) – W8-D1-L0

France (H) – W4-L5

After a disappointing fifth place last year, Warren Gatland’s men will be looking for a much better result this time around and having used the Autumn Internationals to create a new identity this team looks set to compete again, with just two uncapped players in their 39-man squad. Wales have struggled to find form in this transitional period with a record of W6-L5 in their last 11 games and four of these wins came against teams below them in the World Rankings. England and Ireland look a class above Wales at the moment but as they have Scotland at home in their opener, third is certainly on the cards.

In addition, Gatland has a worrying list of injuries to key squad members that has hindered this Welsh side for the last year. Of the successful 2017 Lions tour which saw 12 Welsh internationals involved only five will be fully fit for this year’s opener with George North, Liam Williams and Ross Moriarty returning to their clubs until they regain full fitness. Jonathan Davies (Lions Player of the Series), Sam Warburton (Lions captain) and Jake Ball will miss the whole tournament through injury while Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Dan Biggar will definitely miss the early rounds.

The most detrimental injury to Wales is that of Biggar and as a result Gatland will have to rely on one of the inexperienced Rhys Patchell, Gareth Anscombe or Owen Williams at fly-half. The injured British and Irish Lion will be devastated after walking off with his arm in a sling in Ospreys’ defeat to Clermont at the weekend and without their star man Wales will struggle to get any go forward as he is the man who makes this backline tick. With such a long and significant injury list there is good reason for Wales’ odds being as big as they are.

 

France – 23.0 (Ranked 9th in the World)

Ireland (H) – W6-D1-L2

Scotland (A) – W7-L2

Italy (H) – W9-L0

England (H) – W6-L3

Wales (A) – W5-L4

France come into this tournament as a relatively unknown quantity under the new management of Jacques Brunel, having sacked Guy Noves after woeful record of W7-D1-L13 from 21 Tests in charge. The former Italy head coach has selected just 16 out of the initial 32 Six Nations squad of 2017 with 17 of these players being under the age of 25.

After a disappointing summer and autumn where they failed to win a match, this year’s Six Nations looks to be the start of Les Blues re-building towards the 2019 World Cup. With an average of 12 caps per player in the forwards and 16 in the backs it looks set to be a very inexperienced French team that will play in their opening Six Nations clash against Ireland in Paris.

Brunel has already ruffled some feathers by not picking the world-class Louis Picamoles, but there is still some serious talent throughout this side. An experienced core of Rabah Slimani, Morgan Parra, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Sebastien Vahaamahina and Maxime Machenaud and the exciting young talent of Anthony Belleau, Dany Priso and Baptiste Serin are just some of the key men to watch for France at this year’s tournament. With such little time for Brunel to bring a squad together and with such little experience we can’t envisage France challenging this year, but instead battling it out for the best of the rest behind the top two in the market.

 

Italy – 1500 (Ranked 14th in the World)

England (H) – W0-L9

Ireland (A) – W0-L9

France (A) – W0-L9

Wales (A) – W0-D1-L8

Scotland (H) – W5-L4

Connor O’Shea’s men have lost 11 out of their last 12 games and Italy’s main aim yet again will not be to just avoid the wooden spoon but to simply win a game. Victory over Fiji in the Autumn, which was their first win since their historic triumph over South Africa just over a year ago, will give the Azzuri some confidence but they will struggle to get anything out of this year’s competition with the fixtures not in their favour as both England and Scotland look too good for them at home and they have never won on the road. The odds of 1.08 to finish bottom is a fair reflection of where they stand at this moment in time.

 

Selections

The market suggests this is a two-horse race and we would have to agree but judging purely on form from the Autumn as well as injuries to the squads then we would have Ireland as favourites. Having backed them last year we were disappointed when they lost at Murrayfield first-up and again they will be tested with a trip to France on the opening weekend. Italy are the only side they’ve beaten on the road since 2015 in the Six Nations and with three home games to follow how they fare in Paris will be crucial to their title hopes. Given Johnny Sexton has been rested by Leinster for the start of this tournament and the inexperience of the French we expect them to win and travel to Twickenham in the final round seeking the Grand Slam.

England, on the other hand, will ease into this year’s tournament with an away game in Rome before hosting Wales and we expect them to win both, but it’s thereafter where they will be truly tested. A trip to Murrayfield in round three looks a mouth-watering clash as Scotland have their best chance in years to get one over on the old enemy. Townsend should have many of his front-row reinforcements back by then and it should be a stern test of Eddie Jones’s squad depth. If they can overcome this then they will set their sights on the Grand Slam and in what could be a showdown with Ireland on March 17th the England/Ireland dual forecast is our first pick.

On value alone though, Ireland are our pick outright given their strength of squad compared to England, plus history is against the holders with no side winning the Six Nations three times on the bounce.

 

Top Points Scorer

As pointed out at the start, all the last 18 Top Points Scorers have been a goal-kickers with 10 of these of coming from the tournament winning side. With this in mind, it narrows it down to Jonny Sexton or Owen Farrell and whilst there is an honourable mention to the dead-eyed accuracy of Leigh Halfpenny, Wales look too weak this year for him to enter the equation. Given we’ve backed Ireland outright, Sexton is our choice, especially as Ireland host Italy while he also carries more of a try threat than his English counterpart.

 

Top Try Scorer

History is in the favour of Keith Earls here, who has won this accolade twice before. Last year he set a record for Ireland for the most tries scored in an international season and so arrives in great form for both club and country. Another man we can’t ignore is player of the tournament for the last two editions, Stuart Hogg. With Scotland likely to play some of the most expansive rugby in the tournament this year, their world-class full-back is often on the end of moves and represents excellent vale at 21.0.

 

Recommendations

Ireland to Win the Six Nations at 2.88, Various

Dual forecast – England/Ireland at 1.91, Betfred

Jonny Sexton Top Points Scorer at 3.5, Boyle Sports

Keith Earls Top Try Scorer at 13.0, Various

Stuart Hogg Top Try Scorer e/w at 21.0, Betfair

 

News Reporter

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