Ollie Phillips: Playing Scotland will be England's biggest Six Nations test, but Ireland more likely to stop third title on the trot

 
Ollie Phillips
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Scotland impressed in the Autumn...but can they repeat the trick away from Murrayfield? (Source: Getty)

When Scotland travel to Wales this weekend, they do so sniffing the opportunity of a first Six Nations title in 18 years.

They’re hungry. They’re buoyant from fantastic performances in the autumn, when they narrowly missed out on beating the All Blacks and smashed Australia. They have a really savvy coach in Gregor Townsend and a brand of rugby that is both brilliant to watch and, I think, liberating the team.

The 53-24 hammering of Australia in November, while helped by a lot of incidents falling their way, was an amazing performance and revealed their quality. I think the trip to Murrayfield in week three of the Six Nations will be England's hardest game and biggest one-off test.

Scotland’s dangerous backline, featuring the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Finn Russell, has got pace, power and movement. They are given the licence to play by Townsend and are exciting with the ball in hand.

But that leads us to the crucial problem that will confront Scotland in Cardiff on Saturday: can they win the ball? It’s a tall order for them when injuries have ruled out all of their recognised international front-rowers.

Read more: This year's Six Nations could be Eddie Jones's biggest test

In fact, I think it’s a problem that could really hamper them as they go through this tournament. Because in international rugby — and particularly the Six Nations — the cornerstone of all of your attack is your scrum. You launch everything from it. If you start to go backwards, you concede penalty after penalty and it becomes a very long day because you can’t secure any ball or get any territory. Scotland need the ball quick.

On top of that, the Principality Stadium is a cauldron to play in. The pressure you come under and the spotlight that’s put on you — particularly in the opening game of the tournament — is immense. Scotland will be confronted with 80,000 Welshman baying for blood. It’s huge. That’s totally different to Murrayfield, where every single move you make is cheered and supported.

So I think the side most likely to stop England’s winning a third Six Nations crown on the bounce this year are Ireland. They’re the best side on current form.

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21-year-old winger Jacob Stockdale and other youngsters give Ireland vibrancy (Source: Getty)

In the European Champions Cup Leinster and Munster are playing out of their skin and their best players are all fit. They’re coming into this Six Nations red-hot.

The balance of their team is brilliant, with experience and exciting youngsters, and it’s only really scrum-half and talisman Conor Murray who they actually rely on. Everywhere else you look across the side they’re superb.

On paper, England still match them but their players are bang out of form. Of the English clubs, only Saracens scraped through to the European Champions Cup knock-out rounds.

Contrast that with Ireland. All of their top-notch internationals are playing well and their exciting young players, the likes of Jacob Stockdale, are on fire.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.

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