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Ireland starts 6 Nations as favorite with World Cup looming

January 25, 2019
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FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 file photo, France's Geoffrey Palis, left, and Henry Chavancy, center, tackle Ireland's Keith Earls during the Six Nations rugby union match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France. The final Six Nations before a Rugby World Cup is often talked up as a barometer as to which northern hemisphere team will go on to excel on the sport's biggest stage later that year. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The final Six Nations before a Rugby World Cup is often talked up as a barometer as to which northern hemisphere team will go on to excel on the sport’s biggest stage later that year.

It doesn’t usually ring true.

Clive Woodward’s England romped to a Grand Slam in early 2003 and, within eight months, was also lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy. But recent history shows that is very much the anomaly.

In 1999, France earned the wooden spoon in the last Five Nations, yet reached the World Cup final. France won the 2007 Six Nations but — the shock quarterfinal win over the All Blacks aside — was well below par in a home World Cup and was beaten by a ragged England in the semifinals.

In 2011, England won the Six Nations with a game to spare under Martin Johnson, only to deliver a pitiful World Cup campaign on and off the field and be dumped out by France in the quarterfinals. The 2015 Six Nations winner, Ireland, was then outplayed by Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals.

So, all is not necessarily lost for the teams who fail to win the 125th edition of Europe’s annual rugby extravaganza.

And this year, more than any other, there will be some top teams falling short.

Northern hemisphere rugby has hardly been in a better place at international level. Ireland is pushing New Zealand close as the world’s top-ranked team after beating the All Blacks in November for the second time in two years, Wales and England make up the top four in the rankings, while the Scots under Gregor Townsend are as competitive against the southern hemisphere giants as they have been for some time.

The home unions played the Rugby Championship teams nine times in November, and won seven.

Of the traditional European heavyweights, only the French are letting themselves down and are below Fiji in the world rankings in ninth place. Yet who would bet against Les Tricolores — the most mercurial rugby team of them all — finding some form out of nowhere?

Ireland starts the tournament as the outstanding favorite and is looking to retain the title after sweeping to the Grand Slam last year. In Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton, the Irish have the world’s best coach and player of 2018.

“Ireland are the best side in the world,” said England coach Eddie Jones, first to start the pre-tournament mind games.

But the titleholders don’t have it easy. They start with a home match against England — this fixture has been on the final weekend the past two years, with a Grand Slam at stake on both occasions — then head to Murrayfield to play Scotland in Round Two. They finish against the Welsh in what should be a thunderous finale in Cardiff.

Also concerning is Sexton, who hasn’t played recently because of a knee tendon injury. But Schmidt expects his playmaker to line up against England.

After battling each other in Irish club derbies for weeks, Ireland captain Rory Best said facing England will be a refreshing change. “It is a great way to refocus minds. We have to get ready for a monster test match.”

Wales is the third favorite with British bookmakers but Warren Gatland has his side in fine shape for his 12th and last year as the national coach.

Wins over South Africa and, at long last, Australia in November have the Welsh on a nine-match winning run. Ireland used an opening day win in Paris last year as the launch pad to the title. Wales, seeking a first title since 2013, has the same ambition.

“If we win that first game in Paris, that will set us up,” Gatland said. “We’ll have a really good chance to win the Six Nations.”

England steadied a rocking ship by winning three of its four November tests and pushing New Zealand all the way in the one it lost. Jones said he has the strongest England squad he has ever had and, for once, doesn’t have a long list of injuries to contend with.

With longtime captain Dylan Hartley injured, Owen Farrell has assumed the leadership and is proving to be the player the English cannot do without.

The only way is up for England after fifth place last year, its worst finish in 30 years. That set in motion a tough few months for Jones after an almost-flawless start to his tenure that included Six Nations titles in 2016 and ’17.

With these three teams potentially set to run each other close, it may be the Six Nations champion will be determined on the final weekend for the first time since 2015.

The wooden spoon might have been awarded before then. Italy continues to be the whipping boy of top-level European rugby, finishing in last place in four of the last five years. Its last Six Nations win was in February 2015, that being the Azzurri’s only victory in the tournament’s last five editions.

Expect another blank in 2019.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80