All eyes focus on Northern Hemisphere rugby this weekend as the Natwest Six Nations returns with history on the line.
Eddie Jones’s England are seeking a remarkable hat-trick a titles, a feat not achieved by any nation outright since 1883, while Scotland are chasing a first Championship since 1999, Ireland desperate for a return to silverware, Wales after an unlikely title challenge, France a fresh start and Italy will settle for a scalp or three.
The previous six years have seen three nations go back-to-back, with Wales winning in 2012 and 2013, Ireland in 2014 and 2015 and England in 2016 and 2017, but not since before the turn of the 20th century has anyone taken the elusive hat-trick.
Such is the challenge and opportunity set before Jones’ men; but make no mistake, the Australian tactician may love silverware, but while his eyes may temporarily be on the rebranded Natwest trophy – his ultimate destination is the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
There was a Grand Slam for England in 2016, Jones’ maiden year at the helm, followed by a successful title defence last term, albeit with a Grand Slam, given Ireland’s victory in Dublin.
Ireland, will indeed be one side England have eyes on, but they will also be wary of the threat of an ever-advancing Scotland under the tutelage of Gregor Townsend.
So let’s take a look at the runners and riders…
As defending champions, England come into the competition as favourites, but with other nations on the charge and a growing injury list, retention and the much sought-after trio of crowns will not be a walk over.
England will be without talismanic No 8 Billy Vunipola due to injury, while James Haskell and Joe Marler miss the opening weeks of the competition, yet head coach Jones does not appear to be concern – and there is fair reason – his depth and wealth of talent is significant.
But will likes of Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds, Nathan Earle and others be able to step up to the international stage with vigour and lead England to a historic Six Nations triumph? You wouldn’t rule it out.
KEY MAN: Owen Farrell. At the tender age of 26, Farrell is undoubtedly England’s playmaker extraordinaire and much will rely on him pulling the strings in the heart of the field.
ONE TO WATCH: Sam Simmonds. With Billy Vunipola out, Exeter Chiefs back-rower Simmonds looks destined for the No 8 berth and having packed a punch in the European Rugby Champions Cup, it’s time for him to take the next step in what promises to be an excellent career.
Following two years of underperforming, especially after successive titles, Joe Schmidt will be desperate to see his Ireland squad return to the fore and challenge England for the Natwest Six Nations trophy.
Consistency has been the missing key for Ireland in recent years, but with a strengthening band of players, could 2018 be the year in which they discover something to topple England, whom they claimed nothing more than a consolation victory from last season after the competition was already wrapped up.
For all the success Schmidt has enjoyed at the helm of Irish rugby in four years, two things to evade him are a Grand Slam and Twickenham triumph, but both could come on St Patrick’s Day, will they? Would sport really afford us such a fairytale?
KEY MAN: Peter O’Mahony. Stoic, resilient and one of the best leaders home nations rugby has seen both on and off the field – he will fight to the bitter end every day and rally the troops along with him.
ONE TO WATCH: Leinster wing Jordan Larmour has burst onto the scene for the Dublin-province and has six tries in 12 appearances, earning a place in Schmidt’s elite band and there could be a power in a somewhat unknown quantity.
Townsend’s tenure as Scotland rugby head coach has seen a remarkable resurgence, but such has been the advancements they do not enter the 2018 edition of the Six Nations as underdogs by any means, so now they are charged with the task of delivering with the pressure on.
It was 1999, back when the Euro was brought into play and Pokemon fever gripped the world, when Scotland last lifted the Six Nations crown and they are among the favourite this year with real vindication, as substance rather than sentiment leads to their inclusion as title contenders.
Stuart Hogg has shone in previous years as well as on British & Irish Lions duty, but he is joined in a swashbuckling backline by Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor, Mark Bennett, Finn Russell and Alex Dunbar, while skipper John Barclay leads a vastly improved pack.
KEY MAN: Stuart Hogg. One of the most capped players in the Scotland squad, with 55 appearances to his name, and the Glasgow Warriors full-back is in glistening form – ready to tear apart defences aplenty, you expect.
ONE TO WATCH: Byron McGuigan. Sale Sharks wing McGuigan may be a slightly late-developer joining the international stage at 28-years-old, but a stellar season in Salford with tries aplenty means he has earned his stripes and could impress given a shot on the big stage.
A change a head coach ahead of the Six Nations for France as Jacques Brunel leads them into battle, but will it signal a change of fortune for the side so often sporadic on the Northern Hemisphere’s greatest stage?
Brunel takes the helm from Guy Noves, with France winning just three of 11 outings in 2017 – ironically all of those wins coming in the Six Nations, but will the youthful looking Les Bleus be able to launch a title challenge in 2018?
Such is the fixture list France have three games on home soil this term so there is plenty of chance for them to build some momentum, but with Ireland first up, they must hit the ground running before they encounter England in Round 4.
KEY MAN: Maxime Machenaud. Apart from captain Guilhem Guirado, 31-cap Machenaud is the second most experienced player in the France squad and if they are to execute fine attacking rugby, the scrum-half will be key to producing quick recycle ball.
ONE TO WATCH: Kevin Gourdon. La Rochelle flanker Gourdon has proven a forced to reckoned with the European Rugby Champions Cup and Top 14 so far this season and will seek to translate his fine form onto the international stage for Les Bleus.
With Warren Gatland firmly back at the wheel Wales face an uphill battle in the 2018 Six Nations with a squad decimated by injury, left, right and centre.
With Dan Biggar, George North, Liam Williams and Hallam Amos all absent from the opening fixture against Scotland in Cardiff, Wales’ stocks are being stretched, as Worcester Warriors wing Josh Adams comes into line to make his international debut with a host of big names ruled out.
Success of yesteryear appears a mere distant memory for Gatland’s men, yet the British & Irish Lions head coach was outspoken in his belief Wales are favourites to lift the crown, one can only think he justifies his claims by the European form of Scarlets and Cardiff Blues, albeit a weak argument, you have to say.
KEY MAN: Alun Wyn Jones. With a remarkable 113 Wales caps to his name, the captain must stay fit and last 80 minutes on a regular basis throughout the captain to steer this inexperienced squad through some tough challenges.
ONE TO WATCH: Josh Adams. Worcester Warriors flyer Adams is the Aviva Premiership’s top try-scorer this season and the Swansea-born speedster will be keen to chalk up some international scores and make a wing berth his own in the absence of key figures.
Since joining the party to form the Six Nations in 2000, Italy have finished at the foot of the table 12 times, but head coach Conor O’Shea will be desperate to see his Azzurri side claim some significant scalps this time around.
You may recall some questionable tactics last season as Italy aimed to leave everyone else baffled with their shrewd understanding of the laws of the game, but ultimately, they are yet to make a real statement of intent in the form of results at this level.
With favourites England first up in Rome, the challenges come thick and fast for Italy and even some encouraging performances from Italian clubs in the PRO14 and European Rugby cannot mask the mountain facing the Azzurri in this tournament.
KEY MAN: Sergio Parisse. Yes, it may seem like he has been around as long as the leaning tower, but this giant statesman of European rugby remains the driving force and heartbeat of Italian rugby – how he would love to see his nation battle to some unexpected victory as he moves beyond 129 Test caps.
ONE TO WATCH: Ian McKinley. If for no other reason than his strength in adversity, Irish-reared McKinley returned from losing an eye to move away from home, become an amateur player and work his way through to the national ranks and what a sporting fairytale he could create should opportunity come knocking for him this tournament.
We spoke to Unibet’s Alistair Gill to get their view on the competition
There’s a bit of a discrepancy this year between our traders opinions and players opinions on the outcome of the 6 Nations. The traders have installed England as the favourites after winning the last 2 titles with relative ease, losing only one game in the process when already champions last year. But it is the in-form and strong looking Ireland team who our players are backing, with over 50% of all Outright money taken being for Joe Schmidt’s team at 33/20, potentially seeing a bit more value when comparing to England’s price of Evens.
Scotland have been a bit of a surprise package for us, seeing only marginally less money than England to take the trophy at 9/1. Unsurprisingly given these patterns and the strength of the field, there is not much hope for seeing a grand slam, ‘No Winner’ being the favorite at Evens which has duly been a favourite pick for our players in that market. Perhaps even less surprisingly, the wooden spoon looks like a one horse race, unfortunately for that horse, which in this situation is Italy, priced at 1/14 to take that unwanted prize!