The 2017 6 Nations is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years. England may be hot favourites to defend their Grand Slam title, but recent strong showings by Ireland, Scotland and France, alongside a powerful, experienced Welsh squad, mean it is far from a foregone conclusion.
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There is talk of a 6 Nations injury crisis for the reigning champions, but Eddie jones has further developed the strong, young squad he inherited from Stuart Lancaster and will not yet be losing sleep.
Injuries to seemingly key men, such as the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis, Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw, could be rendered irrelevant by players of the calibre of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Nathan Hughes and Tom Wood waiting in the wings.
A huge opening game at home against France and tough trips to Cardiff and Dublin will demand England be at their best if another Grand Slam is to be achieved, but their autumn form after three summer wins in Australia make it hard to argue against the bookmakers, who have them installed as odds-on favourites.
Ireland will take great heart from their first win against New Zealand last autumn and the impressive display that followed in a battling loss. They will be further galvanised by the tragic loss of Anthony Foley, whose memory will doubtless inspire some passionate displays. These factors, combined with a fixture list they may well see as favourable, means the final game against England could be a showdown for the 6 Nations Championship.
Wales are vying with France to be considered the ‘dark horses’ ahead of this year’s 6 Nations. A draw against Ireland and a narrow loss to England last time round would suggest their talented squad only requires a few tweaks to challenge for honours. However, their home form in the autumn, when a heavy defeat to Australia was flowed by unconvincing wins against Argentina, Japan and a toothless South Africa, could point to problems ahead.
A strong showing first up in Rome could steady their nerves and provide the ideal launch pad for a serious title challenge.
A recent win against Argentina and a one-point loss to Australia offered further proof that Scotland have been on a steady upward curve in recent years. Though they are not yet widely considered as title contenders, they could certainly derail the claims of teams who are. Blessed with a mobile pack and some outstanding backline talent, including the irrepressible Stuart Hogg, they will be confident at home and dangerous away.
Perennially the most unpredictable team in the 6 Nations, France could be playing for the Championship or the wooden spoon come the final weekend.
Their 2016 6 Nations campaign was a disaster, with close wins over Ireland and Italy providing their only solace. Since then, they have drawn a two-match summer series in Argentina and run both Australia and New Zealand very close in Paris (losing by two and five points respectively).
Despite an often-cited dearth of French talent competing in the Top 14, France can still field a monstrous pack and dangerous backline. What they haven’t been able to do in recent seasons is achieve any level of consistency in selection or clarity in collective ambition. If they do manage to address those issues, anything is possible.
Consistency is also a problem for the Azzurri and something new coach Conor O’Shea has been working hard to address. Last year’s 6 Nations opening weekend saw them five minutes from a win in Paris, only to then suffer four sound thrashings in their subsequent fixtures. The pattern continued in the autumn, when a hiding at the hands of New Zealand was followed by their first ever win over South Africa and a disappointing loss to Tonga.
France in Rome may be their best chance of registering a win this time round, with close losses in the other fixtures possibly representing moral victories.