The Six Nations is around the corner, with the squads having been announced for the northern hemisphere’s showpiece.
But who are the ones to beat? Can Wales defend their crown? And who might be picking up the Wooden Spoon in March?
We’ve ranked the six sides ahead of the tournament to find out…
2021 was so nearly a year of near-misses for France.
Having ended Welsh Grand Slam hopes dramatically, they then saw their own chances of a Six Nations title ended by Scotland a week later. For the second time under Fabian Galthie, they had to settle for second.
In the summer, there was excitement and promise aplenty – with a first win over the Wallabies on Australia soil in 31 years – but ultimately they came away from down under having lost a Test series.
But in the autumn, Les Blues conquered the All Blacks in stunning fashion – perhaps the defining rugby moment of 2021.
Heading into 2022, they won’t fear anyone – particularly with how their fixtures fall. Italy on the opening weekend is a nice way to ease their way into the tournament, while having the clashes with Ireland and England both in Paris is a boost.
With the likes of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack simply superlative, it’s hard to back against France finally knocking another near-miss off the list and claiming a first title in over a decade.
They are, without doubt, the team to beat.
What to make of England and Eddie Jones?
Last year saw them slump to their worst-ever Six Nations finish. The knives were out. But then ol’ Eddie seems to love a meltdown two or so years out from a World Cup to get the shepherd’s crook back in action.
Just as was the case after 2018’s series loss in South Africa, Jones has zeroed in on what he needs to do well in France next year.
And so, some changes have been made.
The likes of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward have offered an exciting freshness to proceedings as Jones has ripped up parts of the senior leadership group that he believes grew stale after the 2019 World Cup.
Other facets of his side have had a revamp. His ‘new England’, in his own mind, will be able to adapt to whatever – resolute and tough in the set-piece but capable of opening up with quickfire, aggressive attack should the moment arise.
It’s not perfect. Owen Farrell, after undoubtedly the worst year of his career, remains present – while George Ford, the Gallagher Premiership’s form player by a country mile, is absent.
That’s a decision that has aggrieved many the other side of the border, having cast aside many senior figures deemed unworthy, but kept Farrell.
But it seems like England are heading in the right direction. A home fixture against Ireland probably just shades them ahead of Andy Farrell’s in-form men.
Whereas England tend to slump mid-World Cup cycle and then peak at the right time, Ireland have gone about things the other way around.
In the last World Cup cycle, they recorded two victories over the All Blacks and conquered virtually all before them in 2018. Come 2019 though, they were past their best in all honesty and once again failed to get past the quarter-final stage.
Last autumn’s victory over the All Blacks might have some Irish fans fearing another premature escalation in world rugby’s pecking order and it’s certainly easy to see them backing up that New Zealand win with a stellar campaign here.
However, they’d have to do it the hard way.
Away trips to France and England make for a difficult road to glory.
It’s not an impossible task by any means, with their autumn performances standing them in good stead to be contenders. But you’d still say there’s even more to come from the two sides above them.
Baring some issues with being clinical against New Zealand, is there much more improvement in this Ireland team to find?
Weaning themselves off an over-reliance on Johnny Sexton would be an added bonus to challenging for the title this year.
Defending champions they may be, but Wayne Pivac’s side haven’t been dealt a favourable hand when it comes to a title defence.
Missing a horrendous number of caps through injury, Wales head into what tends to be the trickier fixture list – having just about averaged a lower finish in even years to odd since 2004 – stripped of many key figures.
The even years, baring heroics in Twickenham and Dublin as seen in 2008 and 2012, tend not to be title years for that very reason – away trips to England and Ireland.
However, home clashes against Scotland and Italy have always made these years relatively stable when it comes to mid-table mediocrity. Their average finish in even years is exactly third.
The key with the Six Nations is that virtually any team – baring Italy – can beat one another, changing the complexion of the tournament in the process.
That’s the case for Wales’ first two games. Win in Dublin and suddenly it’s Wales, not Ireland, who are vying for the title along with France and England. Lose at home to Scotland the week after and the Scots will be pushing Pivac’s men down towards the basement of the table alongside Italy.
The autumn performances, where Wales showed glimpses of what a Cardiff crowd can do, means that Scotland might wait a while longer for just their second win on Welsh soil in two decades – having taken advantage of an empty Parc y Scarlets in 2020.
Beyond that, it’s hard to build up too much hope for a title defence. Instead, it’s likely to be a campaign that, should things go well in France next year, could be viewed retrospectively as an important building block.
Every year we say it. Is this going to be Scotland’s year?
There’s moments, flashes, glimpses – but, ultimately, it has all amounted to little so far.
Under Gregor Townsend, there’s undoubtedly progress being made. There are talented individuals like Finn Russell, Ali Price and Stuart Hogg capable of changing games.
They can beat anyone in the tournament – as demonstrated by victories in London and Paris last year.
There’s a lot to like about this Scottish team. They scored more tries and points in the 2021 tournament than they’ve ever managed before. They also conceded their third lowest number of points ever. Their defence was joint-best and their attack was second in terms of tries scored.
And yet, despite all that, they finished fourth.
And, in a title that, by its very nature with uneven home/away schedules, is decided by the finest of margins, Scotland could once again come up short.
At the very least, the fact they’ve never been there in the fight when it really matters – on the final day, vying for a championship – means that all of the above is little more than promise until it’s consolidated by the next step.
Of course, bottom of the pile is the Italians.
Having not won a Six Nations game since 2015, a run of 32 defeats, coach Kieran Crowley has one hell of a task on his hands.
In all honesty, it’s hard to see the Italians ending that run of defeats this time out.
Scotland travel to Rome in the penultimate round, but they’re surely too good a side now to get stung by that potential pitfall.
Progress might be measured by performance, rather than results.
There’s talent in this side. Benetton, of course, won the Rainbow Cup last year and Crowley has leaned heavily on them to build his squad.
Then there’s Paolo Garbisi, who is establishing himself as one of the most promising young fly-halves in Europe through his performances for Montpellier in France.
The hope is they string together performances and continue to build experience for their young squad. The concern is it might get worse before it gets better.
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