Guinness Six Nations 2021 Preview
Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro previews the 2021 Six Nations Championship.
Bio-secure bubbles, regular testing, Zoom press conferences and no fans in attendance. As backdrops to rugby’s greatest championship go, it is certainly a unique mix.
Saturday sees the return of the men’s Six Nations, with the women’s and U20s tournaments moved to April and June-July respectively.
After the admittedly turgid rugby that was on display in the hastily arranged Autumn Nations Cup, many will be hoping that this championship will see a return to the free-flowing, captivating rugby that was on display in both the 2019 championship and the world cup.
The Autumn Nations Cup did not really teach us much about where the teams are at, with stuttering attacks and kick-fests dominating proceedings and with the longstanding selection farce that always seems to engulf French rugby, we didn’t get to see the seismic tussle between their strongest team and England that many had hoped for. What it did do however, is prove that the French are building a side that has incredible strength in depth.
England’s opening round clash with Scotland at Twickenham offers a tantalising clash after the chaotic 38-38 draw in 2019, the last time the two sides met at Twickenham, with the Calcutta Cup fixture also celebrating 150 years since the first ever international clash between the sides. The home clash with France on 13 March seems set to be something of a tournament decider. Below, we take a look at each team and some of the players to watch for the tournament.
Last years champions will be looking to secure their first Grand Slam since 2016. With their match against France taking place in the familiar surroundings of Twickenham, they will fancy their chances. England won eight of their nine international tests in 2020, although their kick-chase and bludgeoning rugby that seemed to dominate their latter matches was not the most entertaining of styles. Eddie Jones’ side will be looking to kick on and develop a physical, attacking style that is entertaining, as well as efficient.
Player to Watch: Henry Slade
The Exeter Chiefs centre is finally getting a continued run of games in the midfield for his country. At 27 years of age and with 31 caps to his name, Slade will want to continue to build his reputation on the international front. For all his attacking talents and flair with ball in hand, England have never fully allowed him to express those traits. Here’s hoping that 2021 will see Eddie Jones finally give Slade the opportunity to show his full repertoire of skills in an England shirt.
2020 was the year that French rugby finally rose from the doldrums, with new head coach Fabien Galthié assembling a world class coaching setup with fellow French legend Raphaël Ibañez and defensive maestro Shaun Edwards supporting him. Were it not for a typically French brain-fade against Scotland that saw Mohamed Haouas red-carded for punching, they would’ve secured a first Grand Slam since 2010 last year. Expect the French to play with the same flair as they did last year, with an even sterner defence.
Player to Watch: Matthieu Jalibert
With the injury to Romain Ntamack, Jalibert has the opportunity to continue to demonstrate the pedigree from fly-half that saw the U20s team move Ntamack to inside centre to accommodate the now 22-year-old. With eight French caps already to his name, you feel that with the world class Antoine Dupont inside him, now could be the time for Jalibert to transfer his pedigree onto the international stage.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland team appear to be trying to phase in some new young talent, without letting go of their old guard. Captain Johnny Sexton is 35 now, whilst Conor Murray at scrum-half is 31. Talented players like Jacob Stockdale are still a long way from their best that they have shown in the past and doubts still remain about their attacking structure and ability to break down the best teams. In Kiwi-born winger James Lowe, Ireland have a genuine rampaging talent to utilise. However, they’ll have to get him the ball in space for his prowess to be seen in match action.
Player to Watch: James Lowe
Having made his Ireland debut in the Autumn Nations Cup after qualifying through the three-year residency rule, Lowe provides something different to the Irish attack. His try on debut against Wales typified everything he is about: niggle, strength and determination. At 28 years of age, he isn’t exactly a young gun but, having been a prolific tryscorer in the Pro14 and in Super Rugby, his experience and eye for the tryline should ease the burden on Jacob Stockdale and Garry Ringrose, as they look to rediscover their best form.
What to make of Italy? Without a victory in the Six Nations since 2015 and without their new talisman in Jake Polledri for this years tournament. Coronavirus outbreaks denied fans the chance to see Georgia go head-to-head with the Italians in the Autumn Nations Cup placings matches but the calls for them to replace the Italians have been growing for a number of years. With the exception of their production line in Gloucester, (Seb Negri, Jake Polledri, Callum Braley and Stephen Varney all coming through the Gloucester Academy or Hartpury College setup to represent Italy in recent years) there seems to be a lack of young talent coming through the ranks. With an inexperienced squad, expect a lot of effort with little reward again this year.
Player to Watch: Paolo Garbisi
For all Italy’s struggles in 2020, one player really shone, fly-half Paolo Garbisi. His consolation score against Ireland in the rearranged 6 Nations match typified what he was all about, cutting a superb line and finishing in style. At just 20 years of age, the Italian public must be careful not to put too much pressure on the Benetton fly-half. At the U20 World Championship in 2019, he captained his country and scored 33 points. He will be expected to be Italy’s talisman but for all his undoubted talent, he will need support from those around him as he continues to learn the game.
For a country that seemingly always flatter to deceive, Scotland must finally embrace the adventurous, madcap nature that so many of their stars seem to have in their game, if they are to make any great strides. Finn Russell at fly-half is arguably one of the best in the world when it comes to attacking prowess. With Cameron Redpath choosing Scotland over England and Jonny Gray in fine form for the Exeter Chiefs, Scotland appear to be starting to get the right balance of grunt upfront and backline flair.
Player to Watch: Cameron Redpath
Redpath has been making waves in the premiership this season for Bath. Having already been involved in England camps as an apprentice player and having represented the Red Rose at U20 level, he has instead followed in his father Bryan’s footsteps by representing Scotland on the international stage. The prospect of Redpath combining with Finn Russell is a tantalising one for Scotland fans to look forward to.
The Wayne Pivac era may have gotten off to the perfect start with a 42-0 demolition of Italy, however it went downhill from there, as Wales struggled to move forward from the Warren Gatland era and into a new style of play. Last year, the 2019 champions finished 5th with only one win from their five games. Indeed, they only won 3 of their 10 games in 2010, against Italy (twice) and Georgia. Pivac’s Scarlets side were renowned for their fluid offloading game but as yet, it has been difficult to impose that style on the Welsh national team. With new players such as Louis Rees-Zammit and Callum Sheedy starting to get minutes in the international game, you sense that Pivac is starting to transition the team makeup into one better equipped to play in his fast, offloading style.
Player to Watch: Johnny Williams
Another former England age-group representative; Williams’ rugby career is a remarkable one, having recovered from testicular cancer in 2019, moving to the Scarlets ahead of the 2020 season. With Wales searching for a long-term heir to Hadleigh Parkes at number 12, Williams’ physicality, combined with some deft handling, makes him the ideal candidate to fill the void. If Wales are to click in this Six Nations, expect Williams to be at the heart of most of the good they do.
Chances are I will probably end up being wildly wrong with my predictions, but I just can not see past England and France as the title challengers, such is their strength in depth. France may have lost Romain Ntamack to injury but in Mathieu Jalibert, they have an equally exciting young fly-half. Wales seem to have spent the last 12 months in transition but expect them to improve as Wayne Pivac begins to introduce more young talent into the side. Ireland in fifth may shock some people, however I believe that with injuries to the likes of Caelan Doris, coupled with an ageing squad and simplistic game plan, Ireland may be in for a year similar to that of Wales last year.