Preview capsules on each team in the Six Nations
COACH: Eddie Jones
CAPTAIN: Courtney Lawes
2021 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2000, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2020
OUTLOOK: England’s players and staff were forced to evacuate their hotel at night and find alternative accommodation during their training camp in Brighton this week after a gas leak sparked a fire from a manhole in the street where they were staying. Changing plans is something Eddie Jones is getting used to ahead of the Six Nations. After all, Jones has just lost Owen Farrell, his captain, and most likely Jonny May, his leading try-scorer, for the entire tournament because of injury. Then there’s Joe Marler, one of England’s likely starting props, getting COVID-19 for the second time in three months and having to isolate. Hardly ideal for a team seeking to bounce back from a fifth-place finish in 2021 — England lost to all three of its home union rivals -- that almost cost Jones his job. He survived, though, and is leading the English in something of a transitional phase that has seen some big names jettisoned in a bid to inject some freshness. Problem is, with all the setbacks, Jones is having to backtrack. For example, Elliott Daly and George Ford are back involved having been dropped from the wider squad. In one sense, it is a sign of England’s strength in depth, though, and Jones’ team also was hit with injuries and absences -- especially in the front row -- during the autumn internationals when it secured wins over Australia and world champion South Africa. Its opener against Scotland will set the tone for the tournament, and is huge. Win and England should start 2-0, given there’s a trip to Italy in the second weekend. Lose, and the pressure is back on Jones ahead of the visits of Wales and Ireland in rounds three and four. France away is the final match of the Six Nations and is likely to determine the destination of the title. For which team, no one can really be sure.
NEW FACE: Marcus Smith, flyhalf
He might not be new in English rugby circles -- his special playmaker abilities have long been known, even before making his debut for Harlequins at age 18 in a league game at Twickenham -- but Smith still is a relative newcomer to the national team and to global audiences. That, despite packing a lot into his short international career, from his first games for England against the United States and Canada last June to a mid-tour call-up by the British and Irish Lions in South Africa, to starts against Australia and South Africa in the autumn. Eddie Jones has tried not to place too much pressure on Smith’s shoulders, and has wanted to dovetail him with Owen Farrell to give Smith an experienced head to work off at No. 12. “Marcus could be an absolutely brilliant 10,” Jones said this month, “but he needs to have a guy next to him who is going to run the game for him, and that is where Owen is so good.” Problem is, Farrell will miss the Six Nations through injury so Smith, if he is preferred to George Ford as expected, will have to be more of his own man. That shouldn’t be a problem -- after all, he did guide Quins to a Premiership title last season -- and piloting England to a win at Murrayfield next week would be quite the Six Nations debut. He has the talent to do that, and to be England’s flyhalf for years to come.
QUOTE: “You’re sitting at the top of the tree in the Six Nations, you’re red-hot favorites. You’re expected to win. If you don’t win, the French rugby public’s going to be disappointed.” Coach Eddie Jones on France.
TITLE ODDS: 3/1
— By Steve Douglas
COACH: Fabien Galthie
CAPTAIN: Antoine Dupont
2021 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010
OUTLOOK: By beating New Zealand 40-25 in a thrilling display of attacking rugby, France ended 2021 in style and secured a first win against the All Blacks since 2009. Now Fabien Galthie’s side is considered a narrow favorite ahead of Ireland to end a 12-year run and clinch the Six Nations title. Italy at home for starters should not present too much trouble even though France is waiting on eight players who tested positive for the coronavirus — among them world player of the year Antoine Dupont and his halves partner Romain Ntamack. Both starred against New Zealand, with Ntamack launching an extraordinary counterattack from behind his own tryline late in that game. That moment of genius likely sealed Ntamack’s status at flyhalf despite intense competition for places, with Matthieu Jalibert having proved himself a more than capable replacement. But it’s time for Galthie to stop tinkering and allow the Dupont-Ntamack partnership to flourish heading towards next year’s Rugby World Cup on home soil. Galthie will find out on Sunday whether Dupont and Ntamack will be recovered in time to face the Italians at Stade de France the following weekend. France also opened its Six Nations campaign against Italy last year, with Dupont starring as Les Tricolores thumped the Italians 50-10 in Rome. But narrow defeats at home to Scotland and away to England cost Galthie’s side a first trophy since the 2010 Grand Slam. Lack of discipline sometimes still creeps into Galthie’s side despite a vast improvement in both mental focus and fitness levels. But Galthie is always looking for an edge, so perhaps that’s why he took his squad down south to visit the French Foreign Legion’s military base near Marseille this week. It was certainly an eye-opener. “Our team coach was escorted by tanks and we saw legionnaires marching as they arrived,” France flanker Dylan Cretin said. “We talked to the legionnaires about their way of life, how they train. It brings you back down to earth, and reminded us that we are privileged.”
NEW FACE: Melvyn Jaminet, fullback
While Jaminet has a handful of international caps, he has yet to feature in the Six Nations and will be an unfamiliar opponent. Best not to give away too many penalties, then, for Jaminet has proved nerveless with his kicking and scored half of France’s 40-point haul against the All Blacks. He nailed all eight kicks. Galthie is building a settled side after drafting in many new faces from the victorious Under-20 World Cup sides of 2018 and ’19, notably props Demba Bamba and Jean-Baptiste Gros, versatile flanker Cameron Woki, flyhalves Louis Carbonel and Ntamack, and center Arthur Vincent. But his decision to pluck Jaminet out of second-tier rugby and throw him in at the deep end on last summer’s tour of Australia remains his most inspirational hunch. Jaminet already has 89 points from six tests and he looks like France’s best kicker since Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili before him. At the rate he’s going he may well surpass them.
QUOTE: “Two years ago, when I took up this position, people tapped me on the shoulder a lot and said, ‘Good luck!’ Now we hear, ‘You have to win.’ We hear this change in conversation and in expectations. So that is very positive. We want, and we can, win competitions.” Coach Fabien Galthie.
TITLE ODDS: 11/8
— By Jerome Pugmire
COACH: Andy Farrell
CAPTAIN: Jonathan Sexton
2021 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2009, 2014, 2015, 2018
OUTLOOK: If Ireland’s title bid is derailed, it won’t be at home. It’ll happen either in Paris in round two or London in round four. In the history of the Six Nations since 2000, the Irish have beaten France and England away from home in the same tournament only once, during the Grand Slam of 2018. That year marked the high point of Joe Schmidt’s reign. That was also the last year Ireland won the championship. In Andy Farrell’s third tilt at the title as head coach, he has his best shot yet. Ireland is on an eight-win streak, hasn’t lost in nearly a year, and has a settled squad. Of the team that manhandled New Zealand 29-20 last November, only injured winger James Lowe is unavailable and lock Iain Henderson in doubt because of an injured ankle. Lowe’s upgraded defense, work ethic and left kicking foot will be sorely missed, but Ireland should still have enough firepower in the tournament opener to see off Wales, the depleted defending champion. Farrell is challenging his side to kick on from their autumn sweep, to push their boundaries farther. After dispatching the All Blacks, Pumas and Japan in November, the coach says they have a benchmark for performance and vindicated belief in the pacy game he wants them to play.
NEW FACE: Kieran Treadwell, lock
Treadwell made his Ireland debut with James Ryan on the June 2017 tour of the United States and Japan. Treadwell even got a start ahead of Ryan. But whereas Ryan was considered the next big thing, Treadwell was tried and discarded by the end of that year. In a move considered to be a surprise by most observers, Treadwell has been recalled. Thanks to Ultan Dillane declaring he’s moving to France at the end of the season, Treadwell will vie with Ryan Baird to back up leading locks Iain Henderson, Ryan and Tadhg Beirne. After Ireland coach Andy Farrell recently praised Dillane as “unbelievably reliable” and a big-game player who met the pressure, he said Treadwell “is of a similar ilk to Ultan.” The England-born Treadwell played for Ireland Under-18s, then England’s champion Under-20 Six Nations side in 2015, followed by three Ireland caps. He’s gone on to play nearly 120 times for Ulster, and caught Farrell’s eye this season. And he’s still aged only 26.
QUOTE: “We’ve had a good November, but we’ve often had that before and the Six Nations hasn’t gone to plan. We can take nothing for granted. All we can do is control what we can control, and that’s our preparation and making sure we tick all our boxes.” Captain Jonathan Sexton.
TITLE ODDS: 11/4
— By Foster Niumata
COACH: Kieran Crowley
CAPTAIN: Michele Lamaro
2021 SIX NATIONS: 6th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, 2013
OUTLOOK: Last place, again. Italy’s first three fixtures — France, England, Ireland, all on Sundays — are against teams who swept their games in the autumn. It’s bound to come up during the championship that Italy should be dropped or promotion-relegation should be introduced. But those issues are not even on the horizon for the Six Nations bosses. The Italians are safe, even after their worst campaign yet. They conceded 239 points in 2021, breaking their own record from their 2000 debut. They have earned one championship point since 2016, and none for three years. Their record losing streak is at 32; the last win was in February 2015 against Scotland, the last win in Rome was in March 2013 against Ireland. When Franco Smith’s youth movement unravelled badly in 2021 from shoddy defense and discipline, he was made the national head of high performance and replaced as coach by Kieran Crowley, the former All Black who helmed Benetton Treviso successfully for five years. Italy won a test for the first time in two years in November at Uruguay’s expense. But Crowley’s squad of 33 features 23 from Benetton, including all six uncapped players. That’s because the other pro Italian club Zebre Parma — which contributes five players — has played only once since Christmas due to COVID-19. Well-known names missing include the dropped Carlo Canna, former captain Luca Bigi and England-based forwards Marco Riccioni and Jake Polledri and backs Tommaso Allan and Matteo Minozzi, who are either injured or making comebacks. But Italy’s biggest name could reappear, Sergio Parisse. The great No. 8 hasn’t been capped since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. He’s playing his final season and Italy hopes to give him at the back end of the championship the fitting farewell that was denied him by a typhoon in 2019 and by the coronavirus in 2020.
NEW FACE: Leonardo Marin, flyhalf
To replace Carlo Canna, dropped after 53 caps and two Rugby World Cups, Italy coach Kieran Crowley this month chose two uncapped Benetton Treviso backs; Leonardo Marin, a 10 who can also play 15, and Giacomo De Ra, a 15 who can also play 10. For now, Marin has the inside running as the backup flyhalf for Paolo Garbisi, as he’s with the national squad while De Ra was playing for their club this weekend. Marin was contracted from Mogliano last summer by Benetton and the Italian federation after appearing for a competitive Italy Under-20s side. He quickly made himself known in the United Rugby Championship with late dramatics. In October, his 40-meter dropped goal in the 85th minute beat Edinburgh and got him buried under a pile of joyful teammates. Then in November, his last-gasp penalty beat Glasgow. Assistant coach Paul Gustard praised Marin’s “unbelievable composure.” He doesn’t turn 20 until next month. On being picked for the national squad, Marin told Benetton TV, ”I still have a lot to prove, so I am not fully satisfied. I want to do better and better.”
QUOTE: “Italy has probably got into the situation in the Six Nations in that we don’t know how to win. If you look at games in the past couple of years, they have been very close and then it blows out in the last few minutes. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to not lose, rather than win.” Coach Kieran Crowley.
TITLE ODDS: 500/1
— By Foster Niumata
COACH: Gregor Townsend
CAPTAIN: Stuart Hogg
2021 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, 2006, 2013, 2018
OUTLOOK: Positive. No one does new dawns quite like Scotland. Ever since the team’s renaissance begun under Vern Cotter in 2014 and continued by Gregor Townsend since 2017, Scotland has improved gradually, though the annual rate of progress has been less than what is usually promised. Last year was a notable one for the Scots; it was the second time under Townsend they had Six Nations title hopes going into the fourth round. But historic wins over England at Twickenham and France in Paris were spoiled by a Zander Fagerson red card against Wales and Ali Price’s chargedown and conceded late penalty against Ireland. This year, England and France come to sold-out Murrayfield, and they might be the easier fixtures. The Scots haven’t beaten Wales in Cardiff for 20 years, nor Ireland in Dublin for 12 years. Scotland as a work in progress was on show again in the autumn, when the highlight was beating Australia and the lowlight was the next week when South Africa won comfortably. All eight British Lions are around: Fagerson, Rory Sutherland, Hamish Watson, Price, Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe and captain Stuart Hogg. So is center Cameron Redpath, who made a memorable debut in the England win a year ago only to be sidelined by major neck and knee injuries. Back after missing the autumn are forwards WP Nel, Jonny Gray and Magnus Bradbury. Townsend has retained seven of the dozen players he debuted in the autumn, including forwards Jamie Hodgson, Ewan Ashman and Josh Bayliss. There are five more newcomers in the squad, the depth of which looks impressive. The pieces are in place, they’re another year wiser, and the confidence is there to give the championship another good shake.
NEW FACE: Rory Darge, flanker
Even while racking his brains over where to place Darge in a back row, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend still picked him in his squad. Darge has been on Townsend’s radar for a while. He was in the squad for the July games which were eventually canceled because of the coronavirus, and the squad for the autumn tests but injured out. Meanwhile, Darge has kept on giving his all for the Glasgow Warriors, being physical on both sides of the ball. Glasgow coach Danny Wilson says it seems like Darge is man of the match every week. Glasgow teammate and former Wallaby No. 8 Jack Dempsey has likened Darge’s fitness, workrate and attitude to Michael Hooper. “Rory is 21 and he’s doing all the right things at this age,” Dempsey said. Darge made his debut for Scotland Under-20s at 17 and captained the team in 2020. He was signed by Edinburgh in July 2020 but within nine months was given a mutual out to gain more playing time. Moving to Glasgow, he has adapted and thrived. Since his debut last April, he has started 14 of his 15 Warriors games. Moving to Glasgow has also forced him to learn how to drive; he could live without a licence in Edinburgh because of the many trams. There’s a much bigger block in Darge’s path to the Scotland No. 7 jersey: Hamish Watson is a British Lion and was voted the best player of the 2021 Six Nations. Townsend said, “We think Hamish is one of the best players in the northern hemisphere and he’s coming back into full fitness and full form, and we’ve got someone (Darge) who has had an outstanding season with Glasgow, performing really well in the big games. It will be an interesting selection.”
QUOTE: “There’s a lot of excitement building around this team and where we’re going. We’ve been building over the last three, four, five years to get to where we are now and it feels like we’re starting to turn a corner in terms of getting wins from more of the narrow games.” Flyhalf Finn Russell.
TITLE ODDS: 10/1
— By Foster Niumata
COACH: Wayne Pivac
CAPTAIN: Dan Biggar
2021 SIX NATIONS: 1st
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2019, 2021
OUTLOOK: Injuries are depriving Wales of almost 700 caps of test match experience for its Six Nations title defense. The biggest loss takes up nearly a quarter of that number. The impact of captain Alun Wyn Jones’ absence cannot be overstated -- just seeing his name on the teamsheet gives the Welsh a degree of calm and security that comes with his world-record 161 appearances for Wales and the British and Irish Lions. However, two shoulder operations since October mean Jones is unlikely to play a minute in the tournament. With Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric also ruled out and George North, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau only having outside chances of making the latter stages, it’s understandable why Wales is being made fourth favorite. Wayne Pivac understands that. “It is probably going to be a big challenge again with the advances France, England and Ireland have made,” the Wales coach said. Then again, few were giving the Welsh any hope last year and they went on to win four of their five games for a first title of the post-Warren Gatland era. This time feels different, though. Away from the injury crisis, Wales’ players can hardly be described as battle-hardened. The country’s four professional regions have experienced limited game-time in the last couple of months due to coronavirus-related cancellations and players quarantining at home and abroad. The Scarlets, for example, have seven players in the squad but played only three games since late October. One way of looking at it is they are fresh. Another is they might be lacking rhythm. Only time will tell. “It’s certainly a challenge in terms of getting the squad finalized and looking at minutes played, form, injuries, players who might come in and who might be fit later on in the competition,” Pivac said. “It is a difficult jigsaw puzzle to put together.”
NEW FACE: Christ Tshiunza, lock
The Congo-born, 20-year-old forward is regarded by Pivac as a star in the making -- even if his immediate future is in isolation after contracting COVID-19. That will likely force him out of contention for the opening match against Ireland but the lock-cum-back-rower is expected to play an increasing role in the other four games, building on the two caps he already has -- the latest coming in the November win over Australia. Tshiunza’s chances of being involved have improved given the state of Wales’ injuries and his rapid rise at Exeter, the recent English and European champion. “Throw in another 18 months on him, development in the gym, development in the club level of the game at Exeter where he’s in a good stable there, and opportunities in our camp, then I think you are going to see a different player,” Pivac said. “We’ve selected him again because we want to further that development. Whether that’s on field playing or just in a camp environment learning; time will tell on how well he presents himself.” It’s quite the rise to prominence for Tshiunza, who moved to Wales with his family in 2010 because of the war in Congo and took up rugby for a bit of fun at Whitchurch Boys High School -- where Welsh sporting greats Sam Warburton (rugby), Gareth Bale (soccer) and Geraint Thomas (cycling) also went.
QUOTE: “With the players injured, there are about eight or nine players there with 680 test caps. I would challenge any side to lose that amount of experience and to come out overconfident.” Coach Wayne Pivac.
TITLE ODDS: 10/1
— By Steve Douglas