‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’ returns this weekend as Europe’s elite sides battle it out in the opening round of the RBS Six Nations 2017. Round one of this historic tournament see’s Scotland take on Ireland, England welcoming France to Twickenham and Wales travelling to Italy.
England v France – Twickenham – Saturday 4th February 4.50pm
England enter the Six Nations as the defending Grand Slam champions and the world’s No.2 ranked side behind New Zealand.
After a perfect 2016 which saw Eddie Jones’s side register 13 consecutive Test Match victories (14 including the win over Uruguay in 2015); England know victory on Saturday will see them surpass their longest ever winning streak of 14-games, set in 2002/03.
But after a series of major injury blows, the hosts know that they face a stern examination of their credentials against an improving French side.
The loss of the Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and George Kruis has prompted a switch around in the pack. Nathan Hughes will continue to deputise in the absence of Billy Vunipola, while Tom Wood will continue at openside flanker.
World Rugby Young Player of the Year, Maro Itoje, will switch to blindside flanker from second row. While Joe Marler returns at prop after a remarkable recovery from a fractured leg.
The backline has a much more settled feel, with just one change from the side that faced Australia, with Elliot Daly returning on the wing. On the bench England welcome back James Haskell and Jack Nowell from injury and will be hoping for major impact from two of their finest players.
France produced some fine efforts in the Autumn Internationals and will be looking to continue that form at Twickenham. Livewire scrum-half Baptiste Serin will be one of the real danger men for the visitors.
Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou are named as the centre partnership in the absence of the injured Wesley Fofana, with Mathieu Bastareaud omitted from the matchday 23, while Fijians Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci continue on the wings.
Prediction: Injuries will be no excuse for Eddie Jones, he will be expecting his side to make it 15 consecutive wins. Twickenham looks to be returning to the fortress of old and despite the recent resurgence of France, England should come out on top.
England 27-19 France
Scotland v Ireland – BT Murrayfield Saturday 4th February 2.25pm
This game has the potential to be one of the highlights of the tournament and is the perfect way to start the Six Nations 2017.
After their unbelievable autumn which saw them beat the All Blacks, Ireland and their coach Joe Schmidt will be expecting to claim another Six Nations title in March. But the men in green will begin the Six Nations without star fly-half Johnny Sexton.
In his place Ulster’s Paddy Jackson will step into the number 10 shirt. In the back row, Schmidt has been able to name arguably the strongest in the competition with CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip all starting.
In the centres all eyes will be on the pairing of Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw. The highly-rate Ringrose has been compared to Brian O’Driscoll and makes his first Six Nations start. While Henshaw will be looking to cement his status as the best inside centre in the British Isles.
Scotland also enjoyed a fine autumn series and are many peoples outside tips for tournament success. In Vern Cotter’s final Six Nations, Scotland will be finally looking to deliver on the promise of recent performances.
Centre Huw Jones returns to the side after injury, and will feature in a talented back division alongside Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell and Sean Maitland. The talented Gray brothers continue in the engine room, while Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and Josh Strauss complete the back-row.
Prediction: A game filled with stars, both sides have bags of attacking potential. Ireland are one of the tournament favourites and have the pedigree to go all the way, whereas Scotland will be looking to fulfil their potential. But Ireland should just edge a tight encounter.
Scotland 24 – Ireland 26
Italy v Wales – Stadio Olimpico Sunday 5th February 2.00pm
The final game of the weekend see’s Wales travel to Rome to face Conor O’Shea’s Italy in a fascinating encounter.
With Warren Gatland away on Lions duty, Rob Howley has taken temporary charge of Wales. With Alun Wyn-Jones now leading the side, Sam Warburton switches to blindside flanker with Justin Tipuric starts at number seven.
At inside centre Scott Williams is preferred to the experienced Jamie Roberts, and will partner Jonathan Davies. While Rhys Webb returns at scrum-half and will play alongside Dan Biggar.
Conor O’Shea enters his first Six Nations in charge of Italy and after a historic victory over South Africa, he will be hoping to build a level of consistency that has been lacking for a number of years.
Prediction: This is a potential banana-skin for Wales despite fielding a near full strength side. Italy showed in the Autumn they are trying to expand their game and O’Shea will have them fully primed and firing for this game. Italy could cause an upset.
Italy 23-20 Wales
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