Eddie Jones’s England side come into the Six Nations of 2017 as firm favourites to lift the title in Dublin in March.
The Red Rose nation have not tasted defeat under the Australian coach, and indeed not since losing to the Wallabies in the disastrous World Cup campaign of 2015.
But this English group is a completely different animal to that which succumbed on home soil in such pitiful fashion.
England come into the Six Nations in fine fettle with one of the main bones of contention again being the discipline, or lack of it, of captain Dylan Hartley – who has managed to maintain the confidence of Jones – just. Whilst many will discount Hartley’s discipline as being a major issue, with the new tackling rules coming into the game in full force over the coming international period – Hartley will surely be under the microscope from the off.
England are missing star back-rower Billy Vunipola, which will be more of a pain to Jones than an insurmountable problem as he would always love to have his first choices available. Saying that England and possibly the world’s best forward Mario Itoje will be back and with him and Owen Farrell firing – it will be hard to over-look a repeat of the Six-Nations win and Grand Slam.
Indeed what is standing in England’s way – that would be a big green blockade! No, not Green Peace but Ireland’s 15-man emerald machine. They were responsible for ending New Zealand’s all-conquering run of undefeated games at the end of last year and they could do the same to England. One thing is sure it will take an almighty effort from one of the other four, for the final game in Dublin not to be a Championship decider – although Irish coach Joe Schmidt is being nothing if no canny when suggesting the English are the favourites for the title.
France’s domestic Top 14 is up there with any competition in the world, unfortunately the same still cannot be said for their national side but like with a number of the Northern Hemisphere sides, they found some good form under coach Guy Noves late last year and will fancy their chances of doing something. If France can see the best of explosive Racing wing Virimi Vakatawa – they could yet have a big say but the loss of Wesley Fofana will be a big blow.
Scotland look a very exciting prospect and the progress of Glasgow Warriors into a European force has clearly played its part. Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and skipper Greg Laidlaw give the spark but they have something of an underrated pack, and they could very well be the Dark Horses of this tournament – especially as they have three home matches to come.
Wales remain something of an enigma in recent times, and unlike their rivals they did not enjoy a great Autumn/Winter series – highlighted by the struggles they even had to overcome Japan in Cardiff. Sam Warburton has been replaced as captain by Alun Wyn-Jones – but the world class talent in the squad clearly remains.
Italy have a new coach in the shape of Conor O’Shea and brilliant skipper Sergio Parise is buying into the Irishman’s vision – but the minnows of the Six Nations are very much in re-build mould and it will be hard to see them not finishing with the wooden spoon once again.
The pro’s point of view…
TheGamblingTimes.com spoke exclusively to former England and British & Irish Lions flanker Peter Winterbottom MBE – and he looked at each nation, starting with his own England.
“I think England have the ability now to perform under huge pressure, they were not great in the Autumn but they progressed comfortably in the end – they have won games where they have not played well and the little Aussie coach, always pushes them, asks questions of them,” Winterbottom explained – although he does have concerns over captain Dylan Hartley.
“He hasn’t’ got a great disciplinary record, and if I was coaching them opposition I would try and upset him – people are talking about him being the Lions captain, but first and foremost he has to be the best Hooker in England which in my book he probably isn’t with Jamie George pushing him massively, so he has massive pressure.
“Ireland are a very good side, they beat the All Blacks and ran them close for a second time, they are a top side and will push all the way, no doubt about it – I just think England have the edge.
“I think France could come good this season, they have lost Fofana for the start at least but they pushed New Zealand really close, they broke the line numerous times and created chances, more than any side ever does – they were unlucky in some ways and Guy Noves is getting France to find their Gaelic flair again, the flair side of their game has been lacking and I think he is bringing that back and when they start moving the ball there are very few sides that can touch them.
“Scotland are playing well and have come a long way, Vern Cotter has done a great job here, he has developed the players and there is a real passion about them now. But I would just put them fourth.
“I think they have still got some quality players, but they have not been playing well – they had a very poor Autumn series, these guys – with it being a Lions year, have to step up and perform as they won’t do well in the Six Nations and then won’t get on the Lions tour. I don’t think they have a great front-row and that doesn’t help as it puts pressure on the scrum although their back-five is very good. They should have a good side – they have got players who have performed, and they need to do so again.
“I think as it stands the big favourites to come last are Italy, it is going to be a massive ask for them to step up to the plate this season. They beat South Africa in the Autumn but then they lost to Tonga. I am quite confident in Conor O’Shea’s abilities but it is whether he has the building blocks to perform at a higher level. He knows how to get teams playing, and how to get them playing at a high level. I don’t think there are many people in the world who could do as good as job with Italy as Conor.”
The Bookie says
The bookmakers seem to believe it is a one-horse race, and we spoke with Boyle Sports’ Leon Blanche about how they rated the market ahead of the start of the tournament.
“The whole tournament has the prospect of being more expansive with the bonus point and I think the fans can look forward to an outstanding tournament,” Blanche told TheGamblingTimes.com.
“England, if you look at them over the past 12 months, are the best side when you look at the six competing countries and they are the reigning champions and it is up to the others to knock them off, but if you look at second favourites Ireland they have done so much right over the same period and Joe Schmidt is developing a wonderful squad. And perhaps Ireland have had that luck this time around where they have England and France in Dublin.
“The French are rebuilding their team at the minute, the fact it is 8/1 bar does show you the winner is likely to come from England or Ireland.
“Prices for a Grand Slam winner, the favourite is no slam winner at 10/11 and then England 5/6 and Ireland at 9/4 and for most rugby fans the hope must be that the final game between those two will be setup nicely – that could be an enthralling game in Dublin. If both countries can win the opening games and set-it-up for a winner takes all, it could be one of the biggest games in 6 Nations history.”
Very had to see past England and Ireland battling It out for top-two, but Scotland could be an interesting outsider and that opening game with the Irish at Murrayfield gives them a chance to pull off of a shock.