COACH: Eddie Jones
2019 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champions 2000, 2001, 2003, 2011, 2016, 2017
OUTLOOK: Preparing for a match against a new-look France in Round 1 might be the least of the challenges facing Eddie Jones. Top of his immediate priorities will be ensuring a huge scandal in the English Premiership doesn’t spill over into the international squad. Saracens players will make up at least a third of England’s starting team during the Six Nations while the north London club reel from a salary-cap saga that will see them relegated from the country’s top division at the end of this season.
Players from rival teams might harbour some resentment and ill-feeling toward their Saracens counterparts, which could affect the atmosphere in the England squad when they link up for international duty, so Jones is planning clear-the-air talks over a beer before the tournament. “If players are angry about it, then say it, get it out,” Jones says. “We’ve got players from potentially 12 different clubs. That’s 12 different ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong.” Also not helping matters is the broken arm suffered by Billy Vunipola that has ruled out the powerful No. 8 from the whole Six Nations.
Jones didn’t select a genuine No. 8 in his 34-man squad, so the back row that was so effective at the World Cup will be reshuffled. There are eight uncapped players, with back-rower Ben Earl the most likely to be the first getting into the 23. England have a tough start, with away matches against France and Scotland followed by home games against Ireland and Wales, but are the team to beat after reaching the World Cup final less than three months ago.
NEW FACE: Jacob Umaga. His father played for Samoa and his uncle was a captain of the All Blacks. So what is Jacob Umaga doing in the England squad? Well, he was actually born here, after his parents moved to England in 1995 so that father Mike could play rugby league for Halifax in the north of the country. Jacob’s heritage suggested he’d always become a rugby player and he was at the Leicester Tigers academy before joining Wasps in 2016. Having played for England Under-18s and Under-20s, he made his English Premiership debut this season and, after just four starts, is in the senior national squad as the third-choice fly-half behind Owen Farrell and George Ford. The 21-year-old Umaga is a goal kicker who is also comfortable at centre and full-back, so offers Eddie Jones the kind of versatility which makes him an option on the bench. Because, except for injuries, he is unlikely to be getting ahead of Farrell or Ford anytime soon despite his famous surname.
QUOTE: “My aim is to make England the greatest rugby team the world has ever seen. That’s my mindset.” England coach Eddie Jones.
COACH: Fabien Galthie
2019 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champions 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010
OUTLOOK: The general view was that Fabien Galthie was pulling the strings behind the scenes during the Rugby World Cup before officially replacing the ineffective Jacques Brunel after the tournament. Working in Brunel’s shadow, Galthie was widely credited with improving the flagging fitness, lack of sharpness and low confidence in the side. Now the former standout scrum-half — he won 64 Test caps with Les Bleus — has a chance to stamp his identity on a team that look to be on the way up following years of misery under Brunel and predecessors Guy Noves and Philippe Saint-Andre.
Galthie’s clearly looking long-term because he’s selected seven uncapped players in his squad of 28. Just four players have 30 Test caps or more, and only Centre Gael Fickou has 50. Several thirtysomethings have been shown the exit, and some a little harshly such as full-back Maxime Medard, winger Yoann Huget and fly-half Camille Lopez, who were among France’s best players in the World Cup quarter-final loss to Wales. No. 8 Louis Picamoles and captain Guilhem Guiardo retired, leaving Galthie to shape his side around 20-year-old fly-half Romain Ntamack, a rising star who impressed at times during the World Cup with some slick passing, tactical maturity and cool penalty kicking.
Galthie has shown he is ready to take risks, naming the relatively inexperienced back-rower Charles Ollivon as his new captain, despite the fact he has only 11 caps. He made new additions to the backroom staff, too, with former hooker Raphael Ibanez the general manager and Shaun Edwards the defence coach adding steel and experience. Galthie’s approach is a refreshing change from the diehard conservatism shown by Brunel and, at times, Noves. Now it’s down to the players to justify Galthie’s faith in them, although a first Six Nations title since the 2010 Grand Slam looks beyond them. They could not have a more demanding first match than Rugby World Cup runners-up England.
NEW FACE: Although Matthieu Jalibert has been capped, his international career lasted 30 minutes before he sustained a serious knee injury being tackled by Ireland’s Bundee Aki. That was in 2018 and, after almost one year without playing, the 21-year-old fly-half is keen to make up for lost time. Only one problem: He’s competing for a starting place with another slick young gun in Ntamack. It’s a nice dilemma to have for new coach Fabien Galthie, who has been impressed with Jalibert’s performances this season for Union Bordeaux-Begles, the leader of France’s Top 14. Jalibert has shone with the precision of his kicking game. In a recent win against Pau he set up two tries for winger Santiago Cordero with different types of kicks.
QUOTE: “A successful championship is a championship that is won.” France coach Fabien Galthie.
COACH: Andy Farrell
2019 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champions 2009, 2014, 2015, 2018
OUTLOOK: Second favourite looks right, thanks to a good schedule. Ireland start at home against Scotland and Wales, have two weeks to plot how to topple favourites England at Twickenham, then another two weeks to recover before welcoming Italy, followed by a finish against France in Paris. The same schedule earned Ireland the championship in 2014, ahead of England on points difference. That was Joe Schmidt’s first Six Nations.
With the trophy-laden Schmidt gone, former assistant Andy Farrell has been quick to make his mark. With a more relaxed attitude, he turned over a couple of available training days to the squad to rest before they jetted off to Portugal for a warm-weather training camp. The first-time head coach has also decided to name his match teams on Tuesdays, two days earlier than previously. He wants his players to have time to get their minds and the game plan right. His first squad is also radical, with 12 Rugby World Cup players out, and six newcomers in.
However, the XV that opens against Scotland won’t likely depart much from the World Cup. The pack could feature hooker Rob Herring and new No. 8 Caelan Doris. But the backline will be very familiar, pivoting around new captain Jonathan Sexton. The fly-half has proved his leadership abilities at Leinster and has the squad’s respect. The only question regards his durability: Sexton is recovering from tearing right knee ligaments nearly two months ago. In the absence of the injured Joey Carbery and excluded Jack Carty, Sexton’s back-up is expected to be the uncapped Billy Burns, a former England Under-20 stand-off whose strength is clever kicks.
NEW FACE: Bigger doesn’t mean better, but Caelan Doris has been making his size count this season. Likened to New Zealand captain Kieran Read, Doris has been pushing his 1.94m, 106kg frame around so impressively for Leinster that Ireland couldn’t deny him. That’s no surprise. He shone at the Under-20s world championship in 2017 and captained Ireland in 2018. What also might not surprise is if he’s the starting No. 8 against Scotland on the Six Nations opening weekend. The skills are all there. Doris has a willingness to carry, an ability to break the line, make meters with ball in hand, and offload with panache. Then there’s a high successful tackle rate, turnovers won at the breakdown, and a line-out option. The competition in the squad is tough. There’s incumbent CJ Stander and another new cap, Max Deegan, another Leinster product. Ireland doesn’t have to worry about No. 8.
QUOTE: “The key is to make sure we don’t get too ahead of ourselves, we want to stand for something _ we want to stand for what we said we would stand for.” Ireland coach Andy Farrell.
COACH: Franco Smith
2019 SIX NATIONS: 6th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, 2013
OUTLOOK: One win would make the campaign a success. Italy haven’t won in the championship since 2015 against Scotland. The last home win was in 2013. Conor O’Shea quit as coach after the Rugby World Cup without winning a Six Nations match. Franco Smith received the job on an interim basis in November. The Italian federation is continuing its coach search, but Smith wants to prove himself.
The former Springboks inside-back coached Treviso from 2007-13 before returning to the Cheetahs. When he left Italy in 2013 after more than a decade there, he hoped he could return when he was a better coach. He’s a better coach and keen to take this chance. He’s impressed by the calibre of players and their skill sets. He hopes in the limited time he has, to get them to be the best they can be, and that he can work with the club coaches.
Smith and Sergio Parisse agreed the former captain will be available only for the last game, against England in Rome. It will be Parisse’s swansong, his 19th season in an Italy jersey, but Smith says Parisse is not playing for a send-off but to contribute to a notable Italy performance. “He deserves a send-off but it’s not a send-off game, it’s a game where we hope he can still make a difference,” Smith says. He adds they are moving on, looking for new leaders, and identified seven, including new captain Luca Bigi, the Treviso hooker.
NEW FACE: Danilo Fischetti would already be capped for Italy but for Typhoon Hagibis. Injuries and suspensions depleted Italy’s stock of props at the Rugby World Cup in October, so Fischetti and Zebre teammate Giosue Zilocchi were summoned to Japan. Zilocchi already had two caps and was part of the World Cup training camp but Fischetti was uncapped and starting only his second season at Zebre. The duo were expected to appear in Italy’s last pool match against New Zealand, but the biggest typhoon to hit Japan in 60 years arrived and the match was cancelled. The loose-head also went to Chicago in 2018 for a Test against Ireland but didn’t get in. Third time might be the charm for Fischetti in this championship after featuring for Italy in Under-20 wins over Wales, Argentina, and Scotland. He turns 22 on Sunday.
QUOTE: “We want to be the best version of ourselves.” Italy coach Franco Smith.
COACH: Gregor Townsend
2019 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, 2006, 2013, 2018
OUTLOOK: More realistic. The optimism that swirled around Murrayfield a year ago has evaporated. Glasgow and Edinburgh haven’t reached the European Champions Cup quarter-finals, and there’s no recent positive Test results to believe in momentum: The Rugby World Cup ended in another pool stage exit to no surprise. Scotland aren’t title contenders for the Six Nations like they believed they were a year ago. Instead, they’ll be back to fighting with Italy to avoid the wooden spoon. That makes their third-round match in Rome one of the games of the tournament. The other could be the second-round visit by England, against which Scotland will try to lift the Calcutta Cup for a third straight occasion for the first time since 1972.
Gregor Townsend is still in charge after the World Cup but seemingly no closer to fixing the team’s defensive woes, and feeble mentality away from Murrayfield. They have conceded at least 10 tries in every tournament since 2014, and not beaten anybody on the road apart from Italy in 10 years. Not until those eternal problems are fixed will Scotland become a team to be truly feared.
Following the international retirements of Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay and the decline of Stuart McInally at the World Cup, Stuart Hogg asked to be captain and proved he deserved it. Hogg is easily the team’s most experienced player, and the first regular full-back/captain since Gavin Hastings. Six uncapped players made the squad, plus there were recalls for Edinburgh prop Rory Sutherland (last appeared in 2016), clubmate and Centre Matt Scott (2017) and Worcester back-rower Cornell du Preez (2018). Centers Huw Jones and Rory Hutchinson are back after missing the World Cup but star fly-half Finn Russell has been dropped for “breaching team protocol.” The Scots will have to hit the ground running, very fast: The campaign starts in Ireland, where they have won only once in 20 years.
NEW FACE: At 1.95m and 102kg, Ratu Tagive looks a handful on the wing. But it took him until this season, at age 28, to prove it. Tagive was signed in late 2016 by Glasgow, then coached by Gregor Townsend, on the recommendation of scouts and former wing Taqele Naiyaravoro, as an injury replacement for Italy wing Leonardo Sarto. Tagive made his debut in February 2017. But a limited skill set, restrictions on foreign players, and a bad Achilles injury meant he’s appeared only 10 times. At one point, he went almost two years between games. But he persevered. Born and raised in Sydney to parents of Fijian and African-American descent, Tagive played rugby league until he quit in 2012. He started playing rugby in 2014, a highlights video earning him trainings with the ACT Brumbies and Australia Sevens. Luck brought him to the attention of Glasgow, and he has been reacquainted with Townsend after qualifying for Scotland on residency. “Ratu has worked really hard at his game,” the national coach says.
QUOTE: “At times when we’ve been beaten, we’ve beaten ourselves. We’ve coughed up ball cheaply, we’ve conceded two or three early tries and our game plan’s kind of gone out the window. We’ve learnt from that.” Scotland captain Stuart Hogg.
COACH: Wayne Pivac
2019 SIX NATIONS: 1st
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champions 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2019
OUTLOOK: The post-Warren Gatland era really gets going for Wales in this Six Nations, and new coach Wayne Pivac has a tough act to follow after the team’s 12 years of remarkable success under his fellow New Zealander. Pivac takes over a side that are the reigning Six Nations champions, Rugby World Cup semi-finalists and one of the hardest international teams to beat. Throw in the fact that the players are used to a rigid, well-drilled game plan under Gatland, and it feels like things can only go downhill for Pivac, at least in the early stages of his tenure as he looks to implement his own style.
Two positives for Pivac come in the shape of No. 8 Taulupe Faletau and scrum-half Rhys Webb, who are back in the squad after injury and ineligibility led to them missing the World Cup in Japan. And then there is the familiar and comforting sight of Alun Wyn Jones, the 34-year-old warrior who remains as captain heading into his 14th Six Nations campaign. Pivac has mostly gone across the English border to bring in five uncapped players, the most exciting of which look to be winger Louis Rees-Zammit and big lock Will Rowlands.
NEW FACE: Louis Rees-Zammit. It was quite the few days for Louis Rees-Zammit. On Monday last week, the 18-year-old winger signed his first senior contract at Gloucester after a record-setting start to his professional career. Forty-eight hours later, he was getting called up by Wales for the Six Nations. “I’m always a great believer that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” says Wales coach Wayne Pivac, who adds: “All the coaches know he has raw talent that you can’t coach.”
That was made clear in April when, playing for Gloucester’s reserve team against Bristol just a few months after leaving college, he ran back a restart for an 80-meter try. In his first full season in Gloucester’s senior team, Rees-Zammit has 10 tries in 13 games, including becoming the youngest player to score a hat trick of tries in the English Premiership. He’s a smooth, silky runner, with plenty of pace and power to go with it. He turns 19 the day after Wales play Italy on the opening weekend. Don’t bet against him having an international try to his name by then.
QUOTE: “Last year’s group won the championship. We’re going in there thinking it’s ours to win.” Wales coach Wayne Pivac.