We’re now less than a week away from the start of the 2018 6 Nations and people all around the country are planning where their group will be watching the matches, while those watching at home are also adding a few crates of lager (other drinks are available) to their weekly shop. The squads are named, the players have been in camp since the last round of European matches finished and the web is full of reports over who is or isn’t available and who has said what about their team’s chances.
I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re likely already looking forward to the tournament, but I thought it was time to have a look at some of the main storylines coming into this tournament to add to the hype:
Missing in action:
I can’t remember the last time we were starting a 6 Nations tournament with so many players missing! England and Scotland have about a million props missing between them through injury or suspension and they are certainly having to test the depth in those positions. While the Scots aren’t stretched too thin beyond this, England are also missing Lion Ben Te’o, first and second choice number 8s (Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes) and may also be without Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown against Italy, while James Haskell and Joe Marler are suspended for the first 2 rounds. Wales seem to be losing players at a rate of at least 1 a day over the last week, with fly halves Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar both out for the start of the tournament, Jonathan Davies out long term following his injury in the Autumn, Rhys Webb having likely played his last Wales match for the foreseeable future and the back row missing Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and captain Sam Warburton. Even the back 3 is beginning to look a little sparse, with Liam Williams, Hallam Amos and George North all doubtful for at least the first round. Ireland haven’t been as unfortunate as their Home Nation counterparts, but they are still missing quality players like Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, while Jared Payne still hasn’t played since suffering headaches on the Lions Tour. The fallout from a Lions Tour is always going to stretch selection somewhat, but this year it seems worse than ever.
The teams on the continent have not escaped either, with Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto – 2 of the few Italians playing for top teams – both out injured, while France are missing Camille Lopez following his horror injury against Northampton and Wesley Fofana for the tournament, with Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin also missing from the opening rounds through injury and Mathieu Bastareud suspended for their opener. Even crazier considering this is the decision of new head coach Jacques Brunel to leave out some of their better performers in recent tournaments: Louis Picamoles, Scott Spedding and Baptiste Serin, though Serin has been called up as cover for Parra’s injury.
With so many big names missing, even die-hard rugby fans will be excused for wondering who some of the players on show are this year. It will be interesting to see how things continue as the tournament goes on, as squad depth could be the difference between the title and fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.
Building for 2019
Believe it or not, we are already over halfway through the current World Cup cycle. After this tournament, we have only 1 more 6 Nations and then the Autumn and Summer Tests for players to prove they belong on the international scene. As such, so many players missing could be a blessing in disguise for coaches, as it allows them to give international experience to players they may have been considering for 2019 earlier than expected.
Injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes have seen Zach Mercer promoted from apprentice to a fully-fledged member of the squad. If he can carry on his stunning U20s and Bath form in the 6 Nations, I can see him rising quickly through the England ranks.
James Davies has finally been called up to the national team and hopefully he will be given the chance. An Olympic silver medallist with Team GB’s rugby 7s team in Rio 2016, Cubby is a nuisance at the breakdown and excels in loose play. I have seen him move to wing for Scarlets and play half a game out there following a red card before. There are a lot of big names ahead of him in the Welsh back row, but I expect him to shine if given the chance. Meanwhile in the back line, Rhys Patchell will likely be given the chance to start at fly half following Biggar and Priestland’s injuries. He has been a big part of the Scarlet’s rise in the last couple of seasons and his familiarity with the Scarlets style of play may benefit him as Wales look to expand their game. Worcester’s Josh Adams is currently the top try scorer in the Premiership this year and should be given the start for Wales despite playing outside the country. Like Davies, he has a lot of more established names to compete against, but when picking on form he surely has to be included.
François Trinh-Duc’s loss of form for Toulon saw him omitted from the French squad, which combined with Lopez’s injury leaves Les Bleus with just 2 caps of experience at fly half. Jacques Brunel has opted to go for 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert and Anthony Belleau (21). Throwing a young fly half in at the deep end will not always work well (Jules Plisson probably still has nightmares about Courtney Lawes) but if he can come through unscathed, the talk is that Jalibert can become a real talent.
The Irish brought in a number of inexperienced players during the Autumn Tests, many of whom really impressed and earned places in the 6 Nations squad. But right now all the hype is about Leinster back Jordan Larmour. I have not seen him play yet but if the hype is to be believed then he is going to be a star in the future. This year’s 6 Nations may be a bit too early for him, but much like Marcus Smith with England, he will benefit from being around the squad during this time.
As a Gloucester fan I was disappointed to see Jake Polledri cut when Conor O’Shea trimmed his Italy squad. I understand that Test rugby is a big step for someone who was playing in National League One this time last year, but his performances for Gloucester have been so impressive and I think he would have impressed for Italy. The England fan in me did a little dance when I saw his omission as with their back row issues, facing Polledri and Sergio Parisse could have been a step too far for England. Hopefully he is drafted back into the squad at a later date.
England are coming into this year’s tournament off the back of 2 consecutive 6 Nations titles, with the 2016 title also including a Grand Slam. Despite a high number of injuries, they will still be hoping to become the first team to win the title three years in a row in the 6 Nations era (France were the last team in the 5 Nations – winning 4 in a row from 1986-1989 but even this included joint titles in ’86 and ’88). They have 3 away matches this year, which is less than ideal, but they are at home for key clashes against Ireland and Wales.
France historically do well following a Lions Tour as their players are fresher, however French rugby is not in a good state and considering the players missing I will be surprised if they make the top 3.
If I was to be a betting man, I would be picking Ireland to win the tournament without the Grand Slam – possibly with bonus points proving the decider – with England finishing second. I can also see Italy playing better than for most of last year, but likely still finishing with the wooden spoon.
I am a fan of doing Fantasy Rugby and have set up a league for this year’s 6 Nations on the EPSN website. It is open to all and just for a bit of fun, so feel free to create a team and join the league. You may even get a congratulatory shout-out if you finish top! The league PIN is 1323867-57794