2016 edition looks to be most open Six Nations for some time
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | February 3, 2016
You can almost reach out and touch the waves of anticipation and excitement in the air – a new era of rugby union is upon us.
The 2016 Six Nations ushers in fresh starts for England, France and Ireland with either changes of coach, personnel or both. It’s the first spin on a cycle that culminates in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so with so many questions before a ball is kicked between posts or passed backwards on the charge, we’ll soon have some answers. An open-looking Six Nations makes a 13/8 price with Coral on no Home Nation completing a Triple Crown very tempting indeed.
With that in mind and ahead of the big kick-off on February 6th, Coral rugby writers look at the issues surrounding the half dozen sides that contest the Six Nations and all the best betting odds.
England an unknown quantity
Although France play Italy beforehand, the tournament begins in earnest at Murrayfield with a Calcutta Cup clash that will enjoy heightened media attention because the oldest international rugby fixture in the world takes on even more significance.
There can only be one first time for anything; that is precisely what this trip to Scotland is for the Red Rose and specifically their debutant foreign head coach Eddie Jones.
Pledging to build a young side that is to mature over the next four years and capable of challenging at the next Rugby World Cup (in stark contrast to how England fared when hosting the 2015 edition), ex-Australian and Japan boss Jones has already made some statements.
New broom sweeps backroom and shakes up players
‘The Tasmanian Devil’ has already blown up winds of change to alter the Red Rose both on and off the field. Predecessor Stuart Lancaster’s backroom staff have gone, guilty by association with his failure, with Jones acolytes Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard joining the coaching setup.
Bad boy hooker Dylan Hartley is to be the new-look England’s leader on the pitch, and is symbolic of the aggressive, athletic brand of rugby Jones wants from the Red Rose. Can Hartley, who Jones wants to “play like Tarzan”, put years of ill-discipline and bans behind him?
Uncapped trio Paul Hill (prop), Ollie Devoto (utility back) and Jack Clifford (back row), meanwhile, have all been tipped for senior international debuts during the Six Nations campaign. Each makes the Calcutta Cup squad travelling up to Scotland.
Familiar faces, including former skipper Chris Robshaw (blindside flanker) and centre duo Jonathan Joseph (an alluring 5/1 shot to be top England tryscorer for a second successive Six Nations) and Owen Farrell, are expected to be part of Jones’ new breed blend.
No point in second guessing what to expect
Despite their presence, the Red Rose are something of an unknown quantity, so will they bloom or wilt under the intense media spotlight?
It is thus bold of Coral to have England down as 13/8 favourites for the Six Nations, because nobody knows what to expect from yet. Buying into Jones’ rhetoric is theory only, at this stage but the practical could turn out quite different.
Ireland injuries hinder hopes
Joe Schmidt knows his dual defending champions have lost much more than retired warrior-like leader Paul O’Connell from their roster since the World Cup. Rory Best takes over the armband, another hooker named captain of a Six Nations side.
Usually injuries are a problem for first opponents Wales, but now Ireland must endure them. Tommy Bowe is perhaps the biggest blow in an attacking sense, because the winger has averaged a try every other Six Nations game he’s played in.
Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony, versatile forwards who might’ve plugged gaps, will also be sorely missed, while the Irish must again gamble on the fitness of fly half Jonny Sexton.
Schmidt insists he is fine, but there have been calls for Sexton to retire or risk more serious problems. Ian Madigan is an ably deputy, but should Sexton struggle then it’s another high-profile absentee for Eire.
Other Nations can capitalise
With Ireland’s forwards decimated by Cian Healy, Chris Henry and Mike Ross all also being on the treatment table, how much real strength in depth they actually possess shall soon be discovered.
It is very hard to justify a 3/1 price on a third successive Six Nations success for Ireland, leaving odds of 5/1 for them to finish this campaign in fourth place much more attractive.
Backwards steps for Schmidt’s charges may be inevitable here, with a rebuilding job necessary for the long-term. Someone will have to step up and take on Bowe’s mantle, with fellow winger Luke Fitzgerald also out with knee problems, so Simon Zebo needs to deliver for Ireland.
‘Frustrated’ Wales will challenge
“There’s a little bit of frustration as we felt we could have gone a bit further in the World Cup,” reflected Wales boss Warren Gatland. “Although we were proud of what we achieved given the number of injuries we had.”
It cannot be a sob story now, so the Dragons, skippered by Sam Warburton, should roar their way through this campaign and have a huge say in who will win the Six Nations – even without long-term absentees Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb.
Gatland’s attempt to assert that Ireland are favourites is nonsense, but he spoke much more sense in targeting victory over them.
“It is massive that we’re going away to Dublin first and if we can win that first game, the next game at home against Scotland is six days later,” he added. “Momentum is huge in this competition.”
Half back duo Biggar and Davies are danger men
Dan Biggar’s accuracy was an awesome 90 per cent at the Rugby World Cup and the highest of any regular kicker hailing from the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s no wonder he is a firm 5/2 favourite to record the most points of anyone at the Six Nations.
Scrum half Gareth Davies was a gratifying source of tries in the autumn, meanwhile, so odds of 7/2 for him to go over most times for Wales again must be seriously considered.
Tom James’ return to the international fold and straight into the Dragons’ XV after such a lengthy absence is interesting, with fellow winger George North selected ahead of Alex Cuthbert, who beat Hallam Amos to a spot on the Dublin bench.
Strong competition for places – not just in scoring positions, but throughout their squad – stand Wales in very good stead at 3/1 to take the Six Nations title this time.
Scotland seek further improvement
Vern Cotter’s coaching credentials were rubber-stamped by taking a young Scotland side to within a controversial decision of beating Rugby World Cup runners-up Australia in the quarter-finals last autumn.
Led by kicker Grieg Laidlaw, the Tartan team have no time to feel sorry for themselves as they welcome the Auld Enemy to Murrayfield first. Scotland possess an abysmal recent record in Six Nations campaigns, with just three victories in four editions, and must kick their habit of conceding first.
Putting poor past performances against their nearest rivals behind them is what captain Laidlaw wants. “We need to move on from the World Cup now,” the Scottish skipper said.
“We’ve under-performed in the Six Nations in the past, but no-one other than ourselves is going to give us a helping hand. We want to turn Murrayfield into a place that is extremely hard for visiting teams to come.”
Expect more from Seymour
If Cotter managed to make the Tartan team raise their game for the Wallabies, then they can do better than last year’s Six Nations wooden spoon. Awesome odds of 11/2 say Scotland can in fact finish third.
With Ireland’s injuries, uncertainties about what sort of French side will show up to this Six Nations and Italy having an outgoing head coach, that should be a realistic aim for Cotter’s crew.
The Tartan Army will want more of the same from Rugby World Cup performer Tommy Seymour, especially with fellow winger Tim Visser an injury doubt for this Six Nations campaign.
At a superb 6/1 to be top Scottish tryscorer, Seymour must try to replicate four tries on the global stage when confined to just battling Northern Hemisphere opposition.
France may fall behind
New Les Bleus boss Guy Noves is synonymous with Toulouse; his entire career to date, player and coach since 1975 has been there. Finally coming out of a comfort zone that has lasted 40 years, he must now pick up a French side mauled by New Zealand when last seen in action.
At 11/2 to win the Six Nations, France are arguably even more of an unknown quantity than England as almost a dozen uncapped players report for international duty.
With Mathieu Bastareaud left out because Noves wants to build for the longue duree and Wesley Fofana not selected for the opener against Italy, Gael Fickou must replicate what he has done for his former club coach at international level in the centre.
Noves will need kicker Morgan Parra to find more consistency when he finds match fitness, with the new coach also naming hooker Guilhem Guirado as captain and blooding Rugby Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa on the wing for that Azzurri encounter.
Everyone expects Italy to revert to last place, but where will the French finish? Fourth is rated most likely (13/5), but a fantastic 4/1 punt is available on them ending the Six Nations in fifth.
Coral’s top tip: Without knowing what to expect from England and France, Wales look best-equipped to take the Six Nations title at a terrific 3/1.