Thursday 30 January 2020 9:09 pm

Six Nations preview: England can heal World Cup scars while youthful France will spring a surprise

The Six Nations kicks off on Saturday and, although there are some question marks around them, England are still red-hot favourites to win the tournament. 

On the face of it, they come into the competition facing a few issues. 

Sunday’s match in Paris is their first since losing the World Cup final in November. Can they pick themselves up after the disappointment? Could the Saracens salary cap fallout prove a distraction? 

They are also missing the injured Billy Vunipola and don’t have a specialist No8 as back-up, with Tom Curry or Lewis Ludlam set to fill in. Meanwhile, key players like George Ford and Ben Youngs are short of top form.

Despite all of those factors, England remain the best side on paper. Although they were outplayed by South Africa, they reached the World Cup final by playing impressive rugby against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. 

As we saw with South Africa in Japan, rugby is all about momentum, so I think England’s opening match is vital. If they can turn over the French then their remaining fixtures look helpful, with both Ireland and Wales home games.

France

A new era is dawning for France under head coach Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards and I think it’s potentially very exciting. 

France won the Under-20 World Cup in 2018 and that group is starting to blossom. They are now ready to step up and, with quality coaches and the right selections, they could surprise a few people.

The pairing of Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont at No10 and No9 could be brilliant, based on the glimpses of quality we saw in the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales.

Romain Ntamack
Ntamack is leading a new wave of French players (via Getty Images)

France have the advantage of three home games and if they were to get off to a good start against England they would be set for a solid tournament.

Ireland

Ireland are also making a fresh start under shrewd operator Andy Farrell, but it is hard to know what his methods will be now he has succeeded Joe Schmidt. Will he bring a new message and structure after a poor World Cup or look for continuity?

There is continuity in the captaincy, which has gone to Johnny Sexton, but I feel he peaked in 2018 and is now on a slow decline.

Farrell and Sexton
Farrell and Sexton will lead Ireland’s shot at the Six Nations (via Getty Images)

In the long run Farrell needs to blood a new fly-half – be it Joey Carbery or Billy Burns – and rebuild a strong axis at No8, No9 and No10. 

I think Ireland will be competitive and well-organised at this tournament, but the acid test for them will come away at Twickenham. Ultimately, it will take time for them to get back to their best.

Wales 

Wayne Pivac has taken over from Warren Gatland and, like Farrell, I think he will need some time to mould his side. A repeat of last year’s Grand Slam is unlikely.

Jonathan Davies is a huge miss at centre. George North is a good player, but he is not a natural No13. It is fortunate they face Italy first, but I feel better sides will exploit the change.

George North
North will play centre, instead of winger, for Wales (via Getty Images)

The return of Taulupe Faletau is a big boost, while Rhys Webb’s reintroduction at No9 provides good competition for places, but I think the fitness and form of Dan Biggar is crucial. Biggar is world class, but without Gareth Anscombe Wales don’t have much back-up at fly-half.  

With tough away games against Ireland and England I think Wales will finish mid-table.

Scotland

Finn Russell’s falling out with coach Gregor Townsend got Scotland’s Six Nations off to a terrible start before a ball was even kicked. He misses the opening game with Ireland and I’m not convinced he will be reintegrated for the rest of the tournament.

Russell is Scotland’s most talented player, but they do have an attacking back line which I like the look of. Adam Hastings steps in for Russell and he and Stuart Hogg can be dangerous with ball in hand. 

Finn Russell
Scotland will be without Russell for the first game after the Racing 92 fly-half fell out with Townsend (via Getty Images)

The task for Scotland, though, is winning the ball up front and at set pieces to give their backs attacking positions. 

They have tough fixtures, with Ireland and England up first, and I feel another finish near the bottom is on the cards.

Italy

Italy’s tournament is all about the swansong of Sergio Parisse, with the 36-year-old set to bow out after winning 142 caps. 

The Azzurri have come a long way over the past 10 years, but unfortunately for them the competition has only got better and they are still miles off the pace.

Ultimately the home game against Scotland on 22 February is the main priority, because it offers the chance of finishing fifth and not last.

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn

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