The RBS Six Nations Championship kicks off with Northern Hemisphere rugby in decent shape.
England won all their autumn internationals, defeating Argentina, South Africa, Fiji, and Australia, while Ireland turned over New Zealand, an absolutely magnificent performance.
And this is Lions year, with a tour of the Land of the Long White Cloud in prospect. That means players will be looking to perform out of their skins to stake their place and follow the legends in what is an iconic tradition.
England looking for second Six Nations Grand Slam – but injuries could make it tough for Eddie Jones
For England, it will be important that the pack goes well and they can overcome a spate of injuries which has taken out the likes of Mako and Billy Vunipola, while in the backs there is no Manu Tuilagi – the Leicester and England battering ram is gone for the season with serious knee damage.
Much will depend on brilliant forward Maro Itoje and the George Ford-Owen Farrell partnership. James Haskell and George Kruis return.
However there is concern at prop and it will be interesting to see how England go in the tight scrum.
Captain and hooker Dylan Hartley told the RBS Six Nations launch event: “Last year there were a lot of column inches about Maro Itoje and George Kruis, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson. We didn’t have those guys (in some of the November Tests) but with that opportunity comes for others, Jonny May came into the team, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes stepped up. We’ve got good depth and a good squad.”
First up for England is the French, Le Crunch.
French skipper Guilhem Guirado, believes Les Bleus have some unfinished business.
He said: “We were very frustrated at the result of the RBS 6 Nations last year. We had a good start with two wins over Italy and Ireland. We were extremely disappointed that we couldn’t finish with a win against England after two defeats against the other teams. We have built our side from that.”
France are showing definite signs of improvement but have their own injury troubles. Veteran Toulon centre, burly Mathieu Bastareaud is back after being called up to replace Henry Chavancy.
Wales looking to regain Six Nations title under leadership of Alun Wyn Jones
New captain of Wales, the outstanding Alun Wyn Jones, will be looking to make his mark. Widely tipped for the Lions captaincy, he will demand maximum effort from his team.
Wales are without head coach Warren Gatland, who will lead the British & Irish Lions, but having won the Championship four years ago under Rob Howley, Jones is confident they can perform under him once more.
The Welsh are at their most dangerous in Lions years.
Wales head to Rome for their opening game, taking on an Italian side brimming with confidence from a first victory over South Africa in November.
Parisse will again be the main man for Italy
For Sergio Parisse, it is will be his 56th Six Nations contest; for Italy’s new boss Conor O’Shea it will be his first.
Parisse said: “I’m very excited every time to play this tournament. For me and Italy it’s a huge honour. We started a new chapter of our history with Conor O’Shea, the win against South Africa was special for the team and all the Italian players and supporters. As a nation we have to change a few things to be really competitive. We have to perform in every single match.”
O’Shea is a wily customer and he will improve the Italians.
Scotland prepare for their final Six Nations Championship with Vern Cotter in charge
They will rely heavily on the boot of captain Greig Laidlaw but the squad, once really thin, is much improved. Laidlaw said: “We’re excited about going into the Championship, the manner in which Glasgow qualified for the Champions Cup was brilliant. Their players who have come in have brought a lot of confidence into the squad and we’re trying to spread that confidence throughout.
“We’d like to see Vern off with a great championship.”
Ireland hoping to build on fantastic Autumn Campaign with Six Nations title
Ireland enter the RBS 6 Nations as one of the favourites, still basking in that first ever win over New Zealand in November. Indeed, seeing off Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in a calendar year.
Skipper Rory Best, battling for the Lions captaincy himself, believes the team are in good spirits. Much will depend on keeping quality half backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton fit.
Previously opponents have looked to nobble Sexton in the belief that this could be decisive in restricting Ireland’s play. But these days there is a more than capable deputy in Ian Madigan. CJ Stander is the outstanding forward.
The destination of this year’s Championship could go down to the wire, Ireland v England on March 18 in Dublin.
That is going to be a cracker.
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