Rugby-Team-by-team analysis of this year's Six Nations championship

·9-min read

(Reuters) - Team-by-team analysis of this year's Six Nations championship, which starts on Saturday:

ENGLAND

Strengths

England's massive player pool means that Eddie Jones can take injuries almost in his stride and the absence of half his probable first-choice pack, at least for the opening game against Scotland, should have little impact on the team's immense forward power.

The fact that last season's Premiership player of the year, flanker Jack Willis, found a way into the squad only as a replacement for Sam Underhill and that European player of the year Sam Simmons can't get in at all gives some idea of the riches Jones has to choose from.

In the athletic and remarkably consistent Maro Itoje England have probably the best lock in the world at the moment.

The defending champions remain a formidable force in the set piece and, dull and pragmatic though it may look, have mastered the kick and chase, territory-gaining tactic that has taken something of a stranglehold on northern hemisphere international rugby of late.

In winger Jonny May they have a formidable strike weapon and there are some exciting backline talents knocking at the door, should Jones choose to open it.

Weaknesses

Owen Farrell is a formidable competitor and has nerves of steel when it comes to pressure kicks, but as a captain he has too often seemed unable to force a change of approach when things are not going right. The lack of a plan B has been an issue for England for years, but particularly so under the highly prescriptive control of Jones.

The disappointment for England's supporters is that they have backline talent in abundance but for too long have struggled to find a way to get the likes of Henry Slade, George Ford, Elliot Daly and new centre Ollie Lawrence to translate their exciting club form into the test arena.

FRANCE

Strengths

Since coach Fabien Galthie took over at the beginning of last year, France have benefited from more consistency, which allowed them to mature into a fearsome team again.

They can also rely on an impressive depth as they showed in an extra-time defeat by England in the Autumn Nations Cup final having played with a reserve side.

In Antoine Dupont, they have one of the world's best scrumhalves with rare game-breaking abilities and precise kicking that allowed them to rediscover their flair.

That had long gone missing but with Dupont and Galthie's philosophy - total freedom of movement when, but only when, the opponents' defence is not back in place - Les Bleus again have the advantage of unpredictability.

France, with Shaun Edwards in charge, have also built a strong defence able to sustain high pressure near the tryline.

Weaknesses

France will have the pressure of backing up what they've done in 2020 and with Galthie insisting the team must win titles, there will be an extra weight on their shoulders as they came second to England in the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup but not won a Six Nations title since 2010.

Discipline is also an issue for France, who concede too many penalties. They have, however, hired 2019 World Cup final referee Jerome Garces to better deal with the current interpretations.

They might have strength in depth, but France will have to go through the championship with a squad reduced to 31 from 37 as they set up a bubble for the duration of the Six Nations and with the absence of flyhalf Romain Ntamack and winger Virimi Vakatawa for the first two games.

Finally, the match schedule is not in favour of Galthie's team as they play three away games, two of them against England and Ireland.

IRELAND

Strengths

After his first year as Ireland coach was marred by COVID-19 disruption off the pitch and inconsistent displays on it, Andy Farrell should at least have a better idea of his strongest team 12 months on.

An injury to Jacob Stockdale may call time on the prolific wing's unsuccessful foray at fullback and open the way for Hugo Keenan to become Rob Kearney's long term replacement. Ireland will have plenty of experience elsewhere, with captain Johnny Sexton five games from his 100th cap.

Sexton said in December that not yet being able to beat the big teams like France and England away from home was keeping Farrell's Ireland from the "top table". Luckily for Ireland, the title favourites travel to Dublin where the hosts have lost just one Six Nations game since 2013, although the Aviva Stadium will of course be empty this time.

Weaknesses

A bedrock of the Joe Schmidt Irish side that won three Six Nations titles from 2014 to 2018, Ireland's set piece struggled mightily after the COVID-19 break. A malfunctioning lineout was particularly costly and will top the agenda for former lock and captain Paul O'Connell who was appointed forwards coach last month. A degree of improvement is the minimum required.

Ireland also need to rediscover the ruthless streak that enabled them to travel to the World Cup 18 months ago as the world's number one ranked team before faltering at the biggest stage again.

Farrell bemoaned an inability to take scoring opportunities for the final day loss to France in last year's championship and will seek to put that right in the next six weeks.

SCOTLAND

Strengths

Individuals such as flyhalf Finn Russell and fullback Stuart Hogg provide Scotland with potential match winners as they bring a devastating speed and extraordinary flair to the team. Russell missed most of last season’s Six Nations after a spat with coach Gregor Townsend but both look to be the stronger for it.

Opponents are massively wary of the genius that Russell is capable of. "To have Finn playing beside you is only going to create opportunities," said Hogg last week. The attacking backline ensures an expansive game plan in which quick, clean ball – especially from the breakdowns – is vital.

Scotland have also included exciting centre Cameron Redpath for the first time, the son of former captain Bryan.

They will also have had a major confidence boost from recent results, expunging their disappointing showing at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Weaknesses

Scotland have not won at Twickenham since 1983 and starting the Six Nations campaign there against England is likely to set them on the back foot immediately and leave them playing catch-up for the rest of the competition.

They have a poor away record in the tournament in recent years and also an inability to string together a decent run of results.

A lack of depth in their playing pool leaves then vulnerable when injuries strike, although coach Townsend has introduced many new players with Scottish heritage to his squad and others who qualify through residency, to the team over the last months.

WALES

Strengths

A highly rated back row and significant experience throughout the squad ensure the Welsh are capable of posting vastly improved performances after a markedly poor 2020.

Injuries played a part but the loose trio of Justin Tipuric, Talupe Faletau and Josh Navidi is reunited again in a major boost. Wales can also call upon the likes of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies to navigate their way through tough challenges.

New coach Wayne Pivac has also had time to reflect on the drastic changes he sought to make last year, having had the difficult task of filling Warren Gatland's shoes, and temper his plans to suit the players he has at his disposal.

Weaknesses

The inconsistency of the Welsh forwards was their undoing in a miserable 2020, where they finished fifth in the Six Nations, with poor set pieces undermining new coach Pivac’s plans to employ a more expansive game after years of ‘Warrenball’.

The lineout was a constant source of frustration and Wales were utterly dominated in the scrum in some of their games, unexpectedly against both Ireland and Scotland.

Pivac’s new game plan also meant Wales lost solidity and organisation, which they need to restore if they are to get right the new-style attacking approach.

Wales also face initially being without influential captain Alun Wyn Jones, who has not played since suffering a knee injury at the end of the Autumn Nations Cup campaign.

ITALY

Strengths

If rugby matches lasted 60 minutes, Italy’s position on the world stage would probably be viewed rather differently. The Azzurri have often demonstrated their ability to start strongly and ask questions of stronger rivals, but head coach Franco Smith must find a way of sustaining this early momentum.

The emergence of flyhalf Paolo Garbisi at test level last year was hugely encouraging, as the 20-year-old has shown the potential to offer Italy much-needed stability and creativity at 10 after frequent chopping and changing in the role. He's arguably the most exciting prospect of a young squad with an average age of 24.

Benetton wing Monty Ioane is one to watch in his first Six Nations. The Australia-born back was named in the last two Guinness Pro14 teams of the year after scoring 10 tries and finishing in the top six for clean breaks, defenders beaten and offloads.

Weaknesses

There's no getting around Italy’s record 27-match losing streak. They have managed only one victory since 2013. Any win would be a major upset, but their struggles to put in an 80-minute performance have been a major obstacle in pulling off such a feat in recent years.

Italy held second-half leads against Wales and Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup before falling to comfortable defeats, and the ease with which they concede points - 178 in the 2020 Six Nations - is alarming.

The attack was hardly firing in last year’s tournament either, averaging around nine points per game and failing to register a single point on two occasions.

Losing key back-rowers Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn to injury is a further blow, as was the decision of fullback Matteo Minozzi not to take part in the competition.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Julien Pretot, Padraic Halpin, Mark Gleeson and Alasdair MacKenzie; Editing by Christian Radnedge)