The Rugby Magazine 2020 Six Nations Preview
Welcome to The Rugby Magazine preview of the 2020 Six Nations Championship. The only tournament preview containing Veganism, Wadi Wadi Water Park and a possible Welsh Grand Slam.
February. Probably the most underrated month of them all. Not only does its start signal the end of what feels like the year's longest month, waving goodbye to your half-committed part-time veganism, or whatever fad you sold yourself to on a dark December day somewhere between Christmas and New Year, the fading memories of the office Christmas party gone past shine light on a new dawn. The beginning of the Guinness 6 Nations.
And just as you scramble around pulling contingency plans to talk your life partner or dog out of Valentine’s Day arrangements, you breathe a sigh of great relief, Friday evening games are no more, no conflicts, valentines date night is on, and so is the rugby. Some excellent scheduling from the 6 Nations fixture gods, maybe somebody at EPCR should have a word?
A shift from fixtures such as opening nights in Paris as France lose from an impossible position to Wales, or the visitors this time on home turf delivering an Irish demolition job, the shift from the Friday evening slot seems quite apt, as never has this tournament felt more about change.
We have four head coaching debutants, only Eddie Jones and Gregor Townsend survive the Welsh Grand Slam year of 2019. Before a ball is kicked, passed or knocked on, the tournament has an immensely different feeling. Less surprising on the back of a Rugby World Cup year? Possibly. Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt’s tickets out of Wales and Ireland were booked long ago, but that doesn’t detract from what should be the least predictable tournament in a decade.
Expectations of a more expansive Welsh attack, questions of how the tournament's most senior Farrell oversees Irish rugby’s major transition, factored with real optimism in France and mass expectation in England, have been the major talking points. That’s without mentioning Finn Russell’s mutiny against Scottish Rugby. All of a sudden the Saracens saga seems quite mellow.
England may well be the bookies' favourite, but Champions Wales are probably the best value when it comes to the perceived ‘best of the rest’. Whilst Schmidt’s departure from Ireland also saw some notable names follow close behind, Wayne Pivac has the benefit of stability built on solid foundations from his departing countryman, Gatland. This Welsh squad is littered with big-game experience and what would seemingly be the perfect mix of form, youth, and unpredictably. A nod to a more expansive style would be at 13, where George North slots into a midfield that looks as dependable as it does exciting. From Ken Owens, to Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, Wales are a recognised international force. Had trips to Dublin and Twickenham been in Cardiff, this Welsh side would have been readymade for a repeat Grand Slam. They still might.
Whilst all the familiarity and nous of experience starts at home to Italy, Wales have real stars that should see some game time as the tournament progresses. Louis Rees-Zammit, the 18-year-old supposedly courted by England, could be a game-changer in a tight battle in the Aviva or London. Pivac will be hoping the phenomenal debut season for Gloucester can translate into Test rugby, having watched even 60 seconds of the youngster with ball in hand, that hope transfers to complete confidence.
Rhys Webb returns from his French exile, and one of the most interesting stories of the tournament will be his battle with Tomos Williams (who starts vs Italy), an exciting and consistent performer, Wales are starting to build strength in depth. if only another World Cup wasn’t 4 years away.
On the subject of scrum halves, the underwhelming side of England’s World Cup rebound selection is at 9. Whilst Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz did not disappoint in the run-up to South Africa’s convincing Web Ellis victory, many had hoped to see a nod towards the future, as the pair will have a combined age of 70 in 2023. The other side of that is coin is that Jones isn’t afraid to make big decisions, regardless of involvement prior to a World Cup, just ask Danny Care. And with Rassie Erasmus proving 24 months is more than enough to build a world-class side, maybe Jones prefers some stability, rather than overhauling a squad that were a different 80 minutes away from becoming world champions.
If one thing is to be predictable in 2020 it’s Eddie Jones's unpredictability. Once again managing to omit form Quin Alex Dombrandt, 'no 8 no problem' is the cry. Courtney Lawes is shoehorned into a makeshift-looking backrow for what is a mouth-watering clash in Paris. Injuries to Billy Vunipola and Mark Wilson aside, many heads around Sandy Park and Twickenham Stoop will continue to be scratched.
Win and it’s all forgotten about. Lose and English rugby will once again be in crisis, or at least, that’s what the national papers will have you believe.
More of the same will be England’s approach, but with the hangover of a World Cup defeat, and ill-feeling towards a still unresolved Saracens saga that threatens to open a big Premiership Rugby packed can of worms, England could do with a touch of stability off the field.
Speaking of off the field stability, or lack of it, Scotland have transformed from dark horses to no-hopers overnight. Whilst that may seem an unfair comparison, it does echo the importance of Finn Russell, who could be anywhere between Murrayfield and Edinburgh, and sliding around Wadi Wadi Water Park by the time Scotland kick-off against England.
Stuart Hogg captains a Scotland side that look to be facing a tough tournament. At home to England, unbeaten in two against the auld enemy, and home to an exciting and (possibly) resurgent France are as intriguing as they are daunting without Russell. Despite the club form of Jonny Gray, Chris Harris and Hoggy, after a bowing out at the group stages to Japan, Scottish rugby appears to be on the brink of an implosion. The calming influence of Townsend and former skipper John Barclay will be sorely missed.
Their opening weekend opponents Ireland are a side going through a transition of their own. Reasons to be fearful are far outweighed by reasons to cheerful. Rory Best and Joe Schmidt may have departed, but captain Jonny Sexton will have many of his long term international stablemates to rely on in moments of adversity. The return of Devin Toner will be crucial for a set piece that will be tested, the dependable arm of Best is replaced by the largely untested starting Rob Herring, having a Toner-sized safety blanket will be of huge relief.
A world-class backline will still offer moments of magic through Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Lamour that will be needed in what is sure to be tight contests in Paris and London.
Andy Farrell knows this squad inside out, what it responds to and how to win huge games, most notably against New Zealand. His son Owen will be keen to remind him of what happened the last two times the side's clashed when they meet at Twickenham in week 3. A natural progression to the figurehead of Irish rugby has a tough baptism in that fixture, and what could well be a series decider in Paris. Come into that game with 3 or 4 wins, only few would bet against the experience of Ireland to get come that 80 as champions.
That’s not to say France would make life easy for Ireland. There’s a reason many are predicting a win for Les Blues against World Cup runners up England. Antoine Dupont, and Romain Ntamack have excelled at club level, the pairing is seen as the key link to unlocking a French side producing some serious young talent. Damian Penaud, fresh off a nightmare game at Twickenham in 2020 will start this game a much more established wing and could be an outside bet for top try scorer.
The elephant in the room is, of course, Shaun Edwards. For all of the attacking flair in the French sides of old, defence and organisation have consistently been the downfall. That will not be acceptable to an esteemed defensive mind in Edwards. Will that detract from the flair? One would hope not, but France have time on their side with one of the youngest squads in the tournament, England and friends beware.
Last and probably least, Italy. Sergio Parisse was one of Italian sports icons. However, many felt his later years weren’t yielding his mammoth output of old. Time for Jake Polledri, Braam Steyn and co to show the rest of the rugby world why their inclusion in the tournament is wrong to be questioned. If Italy can cause any upset, it will be led in that department. Victory over Scotland will be the target. What’s probably more important is finding a style of play that starts to close a gap on the rest of the tournament; the Georgian cry grows increasingly louder.