An intriguing Six Nations is about to begin as the annual championship returns as open as ever.
All six sides find themselves in some state of flux ahead of the tournament start, with the ramifications of the Rugby World Cup still felt months on from events in France.
Can Andy Farrell’s men secure back-to-back titles? Will Italy avoid another wooden spoon? And which players may be set to star?
Find out who The Independent’s writers are tipping for success:
Luke Baker: The Six Nations could be all over after just 80 minutes of play... Of course, this is an exaggeration but France v Ireland on the opening night, Friday 2 February, in Marseille sees the two best teams going head to head to kick off the competition. The previous two editions of the Six Nations have seen the winner of this game lift the trophy, while the loser has ultimately finished second with an otherwise perfect record and it’s up to the other four countries to show us this won’t just happen again. Les Bleus (Antoine Dupont) and the men in green (Johnny Sexton) have both lost their talisman since the World Cup but their squads are still a cut above the rest, even with those questions to answer. The home side normally wins this fixture, yet France’s injury worries lead me to believe that the relentless green machine Andy Farrell has created can nab a win on the road en route to the title.
Harry Latham-Coyle: The opening game feels like a de facto decider, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that England might just nick it. It’s a kind start for Steve Borthwick’s side, who should take care of business in Rome and against Wales at Twickenham, while it feels like they are overdue a positive Calcutta Cup performance. That would give them belief and bite heading into an encounter with Ireland and a trip to Lyon – win one of the two and secure a bonus point in the other, and that might be enough.
LB: Wales are in disarray, having lost an almost incomprehensible amount of experience over the past 18 months. From Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb to Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, they’ve consistently leaked elite talent. Throw in injuries to Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake, Taulupe Faletau and Ken Owens, among others, plus Louis Rees-Zammit’s defection to the NFL, and this is probably the weakest Wales squad since the 1990s. A loss to a superior Scotland side (albeit one that hasn’t won in Cardiff since 2002) on the opening weekend could set Warren Gatland’s men on a downward slide to a wooden spoon decider against Italy on the final weekend – and we remember what happened in that game two years ago...
HLC: Sadly, Italy. Gonzalo Quesada is a smart appointment, but his plans to refine the side’s slightly harum-scarum gameplan will surely take time, and a couple of key tight five injuries feel significant.
Player of the tournament
LB: Hugo Keenan can cement his spot as the best fullback in the world with another dominant championship but it’s another Ireland star, No 8 Caelan Doris who can have the biggest impact for the team I’ve picked to win the tournament. With Antoine Dupont, the man who has been the official player of the championship for three of the past four years, missing this time around, the opportunity is there for a world-class, game-destroying presence such as Doris to jackal, carry and pass his way to the award.
HLC: If England do secure a surprise crown, Maro Itoje will have been at the heart of it. The lock has been back to somewhere near his best for Saracens this season after an excellent, if under-the-radar, World Cup. Additional leadership responsibilities should suit a player who, at 29, looks set to peak again.
LB: If Chandler Cunningham-South or Ethan Roots get a run-out for England, they can cause serious damage with their destructive ball-carrying, but it’s another back row, Scotland’s Andy Christie, who I’m backing to make an impact. The Saracens star has a handful of international caps but missed the World Cup with a broken arm and is only now getting back to his best. There’s competition in Scotland’s back row but Christie is a powerful carrier, expert chop-tackler and his string of man-of-the-match displays for Sarries show the impact he can have.
HLC: Emmanuel Meafou. An injury looks likely to delay Meafou’s long-awaited France debut, but the giant second row is already one of the best players in Europe and should boost Fabien Galthie’s tight five when back fit. Dextrous, dynamic and destructive, Meafou is a mountain of a man but it is his softer touches that stand out, a fine offloading game supported by real breakdown acumen.
LB: Damian Penaud is the safest, and probably most sensible, bet here as the best winger in world rugby but Tommy Freeman has been electric for a Northampton Saints side that have lit up the Gallagher Premiership. He’s a fine finisher and should get first crack at England’s No 11 jersey, when he’ll look to make an impact against an Italy side that may still be unsure of themselves under new coach Quesada. Make hay in Rome and he’ll have an early lead in the try-scoring stakes.
HLC: Ever a difficult category to forecast, with fitness and fluency tough to maintain across a gruelling tournament, But James Lowe will take on extra responsibility in Ireland’s backline with Mack Hansen absent, and a post-World Cup period of rehabilitation might leave him fresher than some others. As an outside bet, Jamie George is going to play a lot of minutes for an England side that may like a maul or two.
Most looking forward to
LB: The first Six Nations of a new World Cup cycle always feels like a fresh start as new coaches, captains and players get to make their mark. I am fascinated to see how Italy get on under a new coach, how Wales, England and Ireland replace a talismanic fly-half, how France cope sans the best player in the world and how Scotland’s new co-captains help them bounce back from World Cup heartache. The possibilities are excitingly endless.
HLC: I must admit that the prospect of a return to Marseille didn’t immediately appeal when looking at the itinerary for this championship, the city’s rougher edges becoming more and more apparent as the fortnight I spent there during the World Cup wore on. But France vs Ireland is one heck of an opening game – the Stade Velodrome is a majestic arena that should be jumping with a home side to roar on, featuring two nations still hurting from their World Cup heartbreak and desperate to right a few wrongs.