Here it comes, my favourite time of the year, a time to gently abuse our closest European cousins while we scream at the TV over a dozen beers at the local rugby club. The Six Nations truly is a competition in its own league, no other tournament brings such fierce rivalries together, with so much history and magical moments to savour. Let’s take a look at this years runners and riders and who Gain Line Rugby think will take the spoils.
Stadium: Twickenham, the home of rugby, with a capacity of 82,000 it really is one of the giants of international sport located in south west London it really is up there with the finest stadia in world rugby.
Head coach: Eddie Jones, the man that has resurrected English rugby and has taken them to the top echelons of the International game. Not afraid to upset people with his opinions and very upfront with his players and the press, the Australian is fiercely backed by his players and the RFU.
Captain: Dylan Hartley, the much maligned Northampton hooker has had his fair share of criticism but what cannot be questioned is his win rate. With only one loss under his tenure no true fan can honestly complain at his contribution to the England machine,
Star player: Owen Farrell, a tough one to pick with a few possible world class options at Eddie Jones’ disposal. Not only is Farrell a world class goal kicker he is a leader and certainly a future captain of the Red Rose. Like his dad Farrell will put his body on the line to take the win and will often look to smash players twice his size. I personally would like to see the fly half/centre play a little more expansively and bring his back three into play but who can argue with his performances.
Chances: As much as Eddie Jones would like to tell you otherwise, England will go into the tournament as favourites. Having a win record like England’s brings a lot of pressure and the quality of the other teams this year will bring a tough challenge for the men in white. Although the injury list is extensive, including players like Billy Vunipola, this England team has the squad depth to still take the title.
Stadium: Stade de France, at 81,338 the French have the second biggest stadium in the competition, narrowly beaten by Twickenham. Based in Paris this is not really the spiritual home of French rugby but the atmosphere has really picked up in recent years and is a far cry from the strangely quiet bowl it was years ago.
Head coach: Jacques Brunel, the newly appointed coach will be looking to improve on the past few years performance and bring back some pride to French rugby. With his international experience being only Italy, France is the logical stepping stone for the former Bordeaux Begles coach and will hope his time with le Bleus will cement his reputation.
Captain: Guilhem Guirado, another hooker in the captain role, the Toulon man will be looking to stamp his mark as Europe’s finest number two. Aggressive in defence, explosive in attack and a good head on his shoulders, Guirado is definitely a man his fellow countrymen can follow.
Star player: Dany Priso, now I have to base this on club form as Priso is yet uncapped but judging by his outings for La Rochelle this season, the young prop is a star in the making. Incredibly powerful in the scrum for his age and has the engine of a decent number 6 but its in the loose where Priso excels, a very explosive prospect and will be dangerous close to the oppositions line.
Chances: We all know France have not been at their best over the last few years but with new coach Jacques Brunel picking young, talented and in form players this may prove a turning point for our Gallic cousins. For the sake of the tournament lets hope Brunel can turn the team round and be serious contenders again.
Stadium: Aviva Stadium, at 51,700 capacity the Irish have no means the biggest stadium but any building full of drinking Irishmen and women is going to have a great atmosphere. Having replaced the iconic Lansdown Road the new building has really come into its own and taken its place as one of rugby’s top destinations.
Head coach: Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander certainly has pedigree in the European game having taken Leinster to the European title. Schmidt has bought a new level of professionalism and flair to the Irish team and has transformed the men in green to one of the top teams in the world.
Captain: Rory Best OBE, recognised by the royal family for his charity work, the Ulsterman will not be feeling so charitable on the field. The third hooker on our captains list, Best is the more solid and dependable work horse of the three, rarely puts a foot wrong for Ulster and Ireland and will be a steady influence for his men.
Star player: Robbie Henshaw, like England, Ireland have a few star players but in my eyes ones shines a little brighter than the rest. Henshaw’s performances have been first rate this term, not only bringing his attacking flair to the table the Leinster centre will lead the backline defence like a certain other famous Irish 13.
Chances: Probably the most hotly contested Six Nations in years this will be a test for any team but Ireland definitely have the squad to do it. Right up there with the best in the world, Ireland will go into any competition with mind set to win it.
Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, the largest sporting arena in Rome, shared with the national football team and Serie A teams Lazio and Roma, the stadium holds an impressive 70, 630 people at full capacity. Probably the stadium with the most history, giving it a unique atmosphere among the usual modern buildings.
Head coach: Conor O’Shea, the ex Harlequins coach has brought a totally new outlook and style to Italian rugby. For a long time Italy have been stuck in the cycle of a forward dominated game, attempting to bore their opponents into submission but anyone that saw the title winning Harlequins team they will know O’Shea is more accustomed to a free flowing attacking style. Will it work for the Azzuri? We’ll have to wait and see.
Captain/Star player: Sergio Parisse, I really tried not to make the captain and star player the same person but in this case is their a choice? Parisse has been one of, if no the finest forward of the past 10 years and although age fades athletic ability it will not diminish the unbelievable rugby mind of the Stade Francais number 8. In my top 5 players of this generation, legend!
Chances: With the Italian Pro 14 teams having a seeming upsurge of form this year its easy to see how this would translate to wins on the international scene and with O’Shea at the helm its possible to see the Italians have some good performances. But with the smallest squad they have to keep all their players fit and this year may be a year too early for the Azzuri.
Stadium: Murrayfield, the largest stadium in Scotland and the home of Scottish rugby, the grand old stadium boasts a capacity of 67,144. Murrayfield really is atmospheric, especially in the dark when the piper plays and the pyrotechnics start.
Head coach: Gregor Townsend, the ex Glasgow coach and fly half has really been a breath of fresh air to Scottish rugby. Having a coach of his clear talent having come through the system is a huge tick for the SRU. Townsends teams have the same philosophy as Townsend the player, open to attack from anywhere, anyone that watches Glasgow play can still see the Townsend blue print.
Captain: John Barclay, having seemingly been in the international wilderness Barclay played his way back into the fold with some extraordinary performances for his team the Scarlets. The number 8 has been in exceptional for of the last 2 seasons and is a major reason they won their first pro 12 title.
Star player: Stuart Hogg, who else? IMO the worlds top full back, does the simple things well as well as having the real x factor that any team in the world would love to have at their disposal. Scotland will praying to god that Hogg stays fit after his recent injury problems.
Chances: well for the first time in a long time they have a real chance, Scotland were fantastic in the Autumn and will be looking to carry on that fine form into the Six Nations. Much of Scotland’s hopes will rely on keeping their best players fit but if this happens they will stand a real chance at their first title in 19 years.
Stadium: Principality Stadium, formally the Millenium Stadium, it is the crowning glory of Welsh sport. With the closed roof the Principality has a world famous atmosphere and it is never greater than Six Nations time, with 74,500 Welshmen baying for blood it is certainly intimidating for the opposition.
Head coach: Warren Gatland, the Lions coach is the most divisive figure in European rugby, hated by as many as love him but you can’t argue with his record. Having won the title on more than one occasion the Kiwi knows exactly what it takes to win the title.
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones, known worldwide as one the premier locks in world rugby and a class act as the leader of men, Wales really do play better with the big Ospreys man at the helm. Jones keeps his performances at the highest level and im sure will continue this into the tournament.
Star player: Steff Evans, with so many good players injured at the moment, Wales will be looking to their younger guns to pull something out of the bag and one player that can make something happen is the Scarlets winger. Evans has been on fire for the Welsh region and Gatland will be hoping he can translate that into international tries.
Chances: With the amount of injuries Wales have at the minute it would be tough for any team to do well this year but Wales have plenty of players in reserve. They are a bit of an unknown entity with the amount of new players but I think it will be a tough campaign for Gatland’s young guns.