Despite having concluded less than three months ago, Japan’s incredibly successful 2019 Rugby World Cup seems like a distant but fond memory for most rugby fans. Luckily, for those suffering from tournament withdrawal, the ever-exciting Six Nations kicks off on the 1st February (you can find a full fixture list from Chapman Freeborn on their Six Nation’s blog). Always entertaining and typically fiercely competitive, Europe’s six best teams will go at it again to see who is king of Northern Hemisphere rugby.
For England, their almost perfect – but in the end, slightly catastrophic – World Cup campaign will see them head into the tournament as comfortable favourites, but anyone who knows rugby will know how quickly things can change on the international scene. With ever-present contenders around them, the question is – will England bring home the 2020 Six Nations as they’re expected to?
The world cup legacy
It’s interesting to think that a World Cup runner-up spot could be considered a disaster for any team other than perhaps New Zealand, yet England found themselves in just that position as the final whistle blew on the 2nd November 2019.
Comfortable in the group stage. Imperious against Australia in the quarters. A comprehensive dismantling – like never seen before – of the defending world champion All Blacks in the semis. The final? A tie with South Africa, who had lost to New Zealand in the groups and struggled past an unimpressive Wales in the semis. England were all but set to repeat their triumph of 2003.
Yet, on the day, the Springboks dragged England into a physical slugfest in which they couldn’t compete. England chose the worst day possible to have an off day. They were out-scrummed, out-battled and, in the end, comfortably outscored.
There are two ways to look at this heading into the Six Nations. For the naysayers, England choked as soon as they turned red hot favourites after the New Zealand game – what’s to say it won’t happen again as they enter this tournament in the same position? For the optimists, England had an exceptional campaign, marred by a bad day at the office.
That valuable tournament experience, coupled with a lesson in peaking too soon, should see them right the wrongs of that night in Yokohama. Eddie Jones and the England camp themselves will no doubt be confident the wheels won’t fall off the sweet chariot again.
Personnel matters – off the field
A Six Nations after a World Cup presents a more interesting dynamic than usual, namely because the biggest changes tend to come in the wake of a big tournament. This time around hasn’t disappointed, with major upheaval right at the very top of the tree for numerous teams. Changes in coaching staff are bound to have some effect come February, but who’s done what?
England’s three biggest threats to the title – Wales, Ireland and France – all have new head coaches. For Wales, Wayne Pivac has the daunting task of replacing the hugely successful Warren Gatland, while former England and British Lions coach (not to mention, the father of England captain, Owen), Andy Farrell takes Joe Schmidt’s place at the Ireland helm. Over the channel, ex-Toulon coach, Fabien Galthié, will coach his first game for Les Bleus.
England, meanwhile, have retained Jones’ services, but have added two new backroom names – Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot. The latter is particularly noteworthy. Proudfoot authored South Africa’s upfront dominance against England in the RWC Final – he joins as forwards’ coach following the expiration of his contract with the Bokke.
At first glance, that’s three relatively untested (at least at this level) coaches heading into their first major tournament against an established coach who has looked to answer the previous failings of his team with two targeted hires. The betting man would say this transitional period should favour England, but don’t count Pivac, Farrell or Galthié out from getting the best from their players come game time.
The greatest threat?
So, more on the trifecta standing in England’s way to the title. All three of Wales, Ireland and France have more than a reasonable chance of winning the title, but who poses the biggest problem to Jones?
According to most bookies, Ireland sit second favourites to England for the title, despite a hugely disappointing RWC campaign. An embarrassing group stage loss to Japan, coupled with a decidedly unceremonious 46-14 dumping out of the tournament at the hands of New Zealand, will have left a bitter taste in the mouth for a team still brimming with talent. With Farrell and new captain, Johnny Sexton, leading from the front, Ireland will be more than capable of finding their form again for the Six Nations.
Wales have recently enjoyed two small victories over England in the shape of player recruitment successes. Saracens’ centre Nick Tompkins and Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit have both answered Wales’ call, despite interest from England for whom they are both eligible. The commitment of Rees-Zammit is particularly pleasing for Wales, with the teenage sensation boasting the potential to be one of the game’s biggest stars and being highly sought after by Jones.
Wales flattered to deceive at the RWC, but still managed to make the semi-final in spite of poor performances. Should they put it together as they know they can, they will be a serious concern for England.
Finally, it may come as a surprise that France are considered favourites in some circles. Galthié’s team is full of young, exciting talent and, but for a moment of madness in the quarter-final, Les Bleus should have done better than they did at the RWC. They’re fourth in the pecking order for the time being, but with a home opener against England to start their tournament, France will fancy an upset.
The Six Nations, in essence, features six teams that all let themselves down to some extent back at the World Cup. It also features at least four teams that, on their best day, are highly capable of winning the tournament. England will deservedly head into the tournament as favourites, and will hope a combination of their recent performances and steady management will see them through to taking the crown.
The likes of Ireland, Wales and France, meanwhile, enter with an element of unknown about them but a sizeable chip on each of their shoulders. England should get the job done, but as we found out only a few months ago – nothing is a given in the world of international rugby.