SIX NATIONS PREVIEW 2021
It’s hard to look past England and France
After last year’s tournament was ravaged by COVID cancellations, fans this year look forward to an uninterrupted – and compelling Six Nations. For most pundits that means England and France as favourites.
After their 2020 revival France will fancy their chances of repeating their Grand Slam feat of 2010, despite injuries to a couple of key players.
Reigning Six Nations champions England won’t relinquish their hold on the trophy without a fight – and fans of Ireland, Wales and Scotland will all argue with the very premise of this story!
A strong squad selection from Fabien Galthié has French fans believing that 2021 will be their year. Charles Ollivon, leading the team for his second successive Six Nations, is backed by a strong forward pack and an immensely talented backline.
Toulouse scrumhalf, Antoine Dupont is in the form of his life and will be key to Les Blues’ chances. Many believe he is the best scrumhalf in world rugby. his team will be looking to him for inspiration and to orchestrate the French attacking game.
Despite a couple of injuries to key players, the depth in the French squad can fill the void left by injured Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa.
Vakatawa’s loss will lead to a change in the style of play, focusing on unleashing the abundance of pace they have in the back three. Damian Penaud, Teddy Thomas and Gabin Villiere, all rewarded for stellar club form, have the ability to change a game on their own. Villiere will be one to definitely keep an eye on. Bursting onto the scene in the Autumn Nations Cup, after his switch from Sevens, he will be a key player for France.
Romain Ntamack, ruled out with a nasty jaw injury, suffered playing in the TOP 14, has been talismanic for France in the last twelve months. But they have two, ready-made replacements itching to throw their name into contention for ’10’ shirt. Jalibert (Bordeaux) and Carbonel (Toulon) are both ready for the challenge. Jalibert’s quick thinking, eye for a gap and turn of pace against Carbonel’s patient style of play and game management provide two differing styles. Who will Galthié choose?
France start the campaign in Rome. This may be advantageous to Galthié’s side as Italy, on paper, are the weakest side in the tournament. This will allow France to gel as a team and give valuable game time to any new players, before the tougher challenges come. Getting a win to start their campaign will help boost confidence, and a confident French side is hard to stop!
Eddie Jones has selected a tried and trusted squad with a few surprise inclusions as well as omissions, that have raised the eyebrows of English fans. The usual core of Farrell, Ford, Youngs and Watson are chosen in the backs with Tom Curry, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola providing the muscle as England look to secure a second consecutive title.
A couple of new additions in the backs could give English fans a reason to get excited. Paolo Odogwu has impressed the England hierarchy after his performances for free-scoring Wasps both in the Premiership as well as in Europe. Another new face, Harry Randall, will have defences scrambling if he has the opportunity to showcase his talent. The Bristol livewire injects incredible pace into the Bear’s game and could well do the same for his country.
The loss of the Joes - Marler and Launchbury, will be a blow for England. But they are fortunate to have the depth in the squad to cover these players. Launchbury is ruled out with a knee injury, whilst Joe Marler has opted out the squad to spend more time with his family in these uncertain times.
But it is the players not included which has again led to questions about whether Eddie Jones picks players on reputation rather than form. The major case in point, are the brothers from Exeter. One, a domestic and European double-winning captain, the other, the 2020 European Player of the Year. I refer, of course, to the Simmonds brothers, Joe and Sam. They have enjoyed incredible 2020s, individually and as part of an all-conquering team, yet still find themselves being overlooked on the international stage.
England start their campaign at Twickenham against Scotland. The home advantage gives Eddie Jones’ side a great opportunity to kick off with a victory and provide his team with a platform for a second consecutive Six Nations trophy. It won’t be easy though. Scotland are a tough outfit and pushed England all the way in their last clash at Twickenham, a 38-38 draw two years ago.
Ireland have selected an experienced squad, with a few new additions to replace the small number of players ruled out through injury. Andy Farrell hopes his team can bridge the gap with England and France to win the Six Nations for the first time since 2018.
Johnny Sexton captains the side, which sees Tadhg Furlong return from a long-term injury. A strong forward pack with James Ryan, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony provide the Irish team with a strong core and set piece. Iain Henderson has been included despite only playing one game since he suffered a knee injury in November.
Despite Jacob Stockdale being ruled out through injury, Ireland have plenty of household names in their backline. Henshaw, Ringrose and Murray are all seasoned internationals and add a wealth of experience to Andy Farrell’s squad.
Uncapped Munster scrumhalf, Craig Casey has been picked ahead of John Cooney, but otherwise Ireland’s squad springs no major surprises. James Lowe will be aiming to impress having only recently qualified for Irish residency. Born in New Zealand, the Leinster winger will be one to watch; a talented and enigmatic player, with the potential to light up any game.
Ireland start away in Cardiff, in what is normally a cauldron-like atmosphere. But the lack of fans may work in Ireland’s favour as it will make the Millennium Stadium far less intimidating as they look to lay down a marker that they should not be taken lightly in this season’s competition.
Wayne Pivac will hope his crop of young talent integratds with his seasoned pros will be the perfect combination to make Wales challengers. After winning the Grand Slam and reaching the RWC semi-final in 2019, things were looking positive for Wales. 2020 saw a change in their fortunes. 3 wins from 10 in 2020 saw their reputation in World Rugby take a hit. Only able to beat Georgia and Italy, they fell to France, England and Ireland twice as well as a loss to Scotland in last year’s Six Nations.
To counter this poor form, Pivac has recalled the vast experience of Osprey’s flanker, Dan Lydiate for his first caps since 2018. Surprisingly, there is no space for Rhys Webb with Tomos Williams, Keiren Hardy and Gareth Davies preferred at scrumhalf. The familiar faces of Alun-Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar provide the spine of a side looking to forget a torrid 2020 with a great start to 2021, when they welcome Ireland to the Millennium Stadium in Round 1.
Gregor Townsend has picked a strong squad for the upcoming Six Nations including a couple exciting new talents. Aiming to win the Six Nations for the first time since the turn of the millennium, Scotland are perhaps at the strongest they have been in a long time and have the potential to cause an upset if they play their best rugby.
The dynamic duo of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg are playing, perhaps, the best rugby of their careers. This provides Scotland with the opportunity to surprise a few teams with their expansive passing style.
Scottish fans will be particularly excited to see the inclusion of Cameron Redpath. The Bath centre has been selected to play for England but was not capped. He has decided to represent Scotland after a chat with Gregor Townsend. He surely aims to follow in his father’s footsteps, who captained Scotland at international level. The 21-year-old has impressed in the Premiership this season and will get the chance to showcase his ability against some of the world’s best.
There is plenty of experience coupled with this youthful exuberance. Sean Maitland, Johnny and Richie Gray and Hamish Watson are also included in Townsend’s squad as they aim to upset the apple cart in this seasons Six Nations.
They have a great opportunity, when taking on England at Twickenham, to lay down a serious challenge. They have the ability to cause England issues with their attacking game, as they did in the 36-36 draw two years ago. Is this the year Scotland finally come of age?
Franco Smith selects 4-uncapped players as he looks to end Italy’s six-year and 27 game losing streak in the Six Nations. Luca Bigi, of Zebre, steps into the rather large shoes of Sergio Parisse, as he captains his country in the Six Nations. Front rows, Danielle Rimpelli and Marco Manfredi as well as second row, Riccardo Favretto and centre Juan Ignacio Brex are all looking to win their first caps for the Azzuri.
Gloucester back-row, Jake Polledri, who suffered a knee injury playing for Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup, has been ruled out of the Six Nations. Italy will be sure to miss his experience, ball-carrying and leadership as they look to end their abysmal record in the tournament.
31 of the 37 selected players, play for either Zebre or Benetton. Franco Smith will be hoping that this will help with the gelling of the squad and provide the players with familiarity in tactics. We shall see when they take on a rejuvenated France side on the opening weekend.
It appears to be another tough year for Italy, regarding their participation in the Six Nations, with the farewell game for legend, Sergio Parisse, set to be the only memorable moment. But as we all know, you cannot be certain of anything in this game.