Twenty countries are represented in this year’s Six Nations which seems a contradiction but reflects the number of players who have been recruited based on tenuous family and residency links. There are seven overseas players in the England squad but regardless of the make-up of the group they can win the competition for a second year in a row and also complete another Grand Slam.
Italy have won the Wooden Spoon for finishing bottom in 11 of the 17 championships they have contested. However, they have three home games this year which makes Ireland vulnerable as they have only two fixtures in Dublin. The result of their trip to Rome on Match Day 2 could determine who picks up the unwanted prize for finishing bottom of the group.
In all its guises there have been 122 championships of the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland, Scotland and Wales have contested each one while England have only been missing twice. France have played in 87 championships and Italy joined in at the start of the century. England are the most successful nation with 27 titles and 13 Grand Slams. Ireland have won the Wooden Spoon more times than anybody else.
With six teams playing 15 matches there is an imbalance between the number of home and away games played by each team. England have three matches at Twickenham this time but France only have two home fixtures. Scotland will be playing three times at Murrayfield but Wales have two fixtures in Cardiff. England can make home advantage pay and they should win their matches on the road in Wales and Ireland. The coach, Eddie Jones, has instilled a winning mentality.
England have the best back line in the Six Nations and are being encouraged by their coach to play attacking rugby. The team should benefit most from the introduction of bonus points to encourage more tries. Among the changes wins will earn four points with a bonus point for four or more tries. Since the Six Nations began a tournament average of 61 tries have been scored so just over four per match. Betting on the total points in a match now has the added element of bonus points.
England should accumulate enough wins without requiring the extra point to become the champions of the Northern Hemisphere again. Seven of their players are not English born of which three have been adopted from New Zealand and one from Australia. Strangely Scotland’s squad includes six players who were born in England and eight of Wales’ players were also born across the border. France have four non-French born players who qualify on residency.
Jones has changed England’s mindset since the debacle of the World Cup in 2015 when England did not qualify for the knockout stages despite being the hosts. The mantra has been to make England great again and he has delivered. The side won all five matches Six Nations last season, scoring 132 points and conceding 70. They scored 13 tries and had the joint best point’s difference with Wales. The challenge should be marginally easier this time as they are away from home twice.
Despite some injury worries England can justify favouritism and sweep the board again. The pack will have an unfamiliar look but England can build on some 2016 displays when they were excellent in parts without producing a great performance over 80 minutes. The backs can take their attacking game to a new level and Jones can maintain his unbeaten record since taking the job after the World Cup. Only two players in the squad were born north of Manchester but England are unbeaten in 11 Six Nations matches at home.
Ireland are the most likely side to prevent another Six Nations for England but they have a tougher schedule. The pivotal match is projected to be their meeting in Dublin which is the last fixture of the tournament. Even though everything points to Ireland being the main challengers to England this is the most open Six Nations in years and playing three games on the road will be a huge disadvantage. If Ireland lost in Scotland on Match Day 1 they could get involved in Wooden Spoon issues.
Italy as always are favourites to win that prize, not surprisingly as they have won just 12 times in 16 years. A new coach is trying to instil some belief and in Sergio Parisse the squad contains the best player the country has produced. It is a pivotal time in Italian rugby and the side can avoid finishing last again while at the other end of the table England are fully expected to deliver.