Six Nations Preview
James Webb analyses the chances of the international rugby teams in the 2022 edition of the Six Nations Championship.
After last year’s disappointment of sensational matches feeling hollow as they lacked the passion of thousands of roaring fans inside the stadiums, a Six Nations in front of fans is a tantalising prospect as we currently sit less than three weeks out from the opening game of the tournament.
With all the teams in the tournament coming off the back of relatively positive, and for some, dare I say successful, Autumn International periods, the Six Nations is shaping up to be a fiercely fought competition. Off the back of the squad announcements, here is a preview detailing each nation’s chances of winning the competition and who to look out for.
Wales were unlikely winners in last year’s competition. Once again, they head into this year’s edition as underdogs after a somewhat unconvincing Autumn series, with defeat to South Africa and underwhelming victories against Australia and Fiji.
Wales seem like an unlikely shout to lift the trophy with big names such as talismanic leader Alun Wyn Jones sidelined with injury. However, you would be foolish to write Wales off entirely as they tend to play above themselves in this competition! They have an exciting crop of young players such as Exeter University’s own Christ Tshiunza, Taine Basham and Willis Halaholo, with critical experience from Wyn Jones at loosehead.
France looked on course to claim the 2021 Six Nations trophy in the last game of the Championship but was defeated by a spirited Scotland side, relegating them to second, followed by a disappointing series loss to Australia in the summer. However, a solid Autumn with wins over Georgia, Argentina and a stellar victory against the All Blacks suggests that France are coming into this year’s Six Nations with a hefty amount of momentum and will be extremely difficult to stop.
France will be lining up fairly similarly to last year in the forwards, bar their captain Charles Ollivon. The Autumn saw the emergence of Cameron Woki as a possible superstar for the future alongside classy number 8 Gregory Alldritt. The backs are also likely to remain virtually unchanged, with 2021’s world rugby player of the year and stand-in captain Antoine Dupont remaining vital to France’s attacking structure as he links up with fly-half Romain Ntamack.
A third-place finish for Ireland last year was, perhaps, slightly unjust after a strong win against England and a ground out win at Murrayfield. Ireland was another team, however, with a fantastic second half of the year with dominant performances against Argentina and Japan and a sensational display against New Zealand to make it three wins from three.
Ireland has landed a tough draw in this year’s competition. While Andy Farrell’s side will fancy their chances at home to Scotland, Wales and Italy, having to travel away to England and France could prove too much for an Ireland team with big ambitions.
This season, this Ireland team’s Leinster core has been nearly unstoppable in the URC, with scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, hooker Ronan Kelleher, and backrower Caelan Doris impressing last year. One name that is certainly for the future but may feature this year is uncapped full-back Michael Lowry who has shown blistering pace and a mean step for Ulster this season.
Again, it was a strange 2021 Six Nations for Scotland, who played some of their best rugby in recent decades, recording historic away wins against England and France, only for them to fall short against Wales and Ireland. A mixed Autumn series featuring both good and poor performances leaves Scotland in an interesting place come the start of the Six Nations. Reason would suggest they are likely to finish at the bottom end of the table, but they will be difficult to stop if they gain momentum.
To be in with a shot, Scotland’s key players in Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell must be firing every game of the tournament. Scotland’s defence, an integral part of their 2021 campaign, will rely on the defensive intelligence of outside centre Chris Harris and the turnover prowess of Hamish Watson. Scotland will also be hoping to see a fit Cameron Redpath available for the start of the tournament after a stellar breakout competition last year.
England had a shambolic Six Nations championship in 2021, losing 3 matches to Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with the only redeeming result against France. A productive summer where youngsters were given Test experience laid the foundations for an unbeaten Autumn. Along with France, England has a strong shout at being favourites coming into the competition. A victory away in Scotland would set them up nicely for the rest of the tournament, with a potential trophy showdown scheduled in Paris on the final weekend.
It seems that whilst England’s captain Owen Farrell may be fit for the second game of the Six Nations, coach Eddie Jones is keen for young Harlequin’s maestro to start at number 10 for England after stellar performances in the Premiership and Europe as of late. Smith’s clubmate Alex Dombrandt is another young player to watch out for in this year’s campaign. Dombrandt seemed to get the nod in the Autumn at number 8, and England will hope he can replicate his club form at the international level.
Once again, Italy’s 2021 Six Nations campaign was pretty dire, with no points notched up in the table for the third year running. Furthermore, a -184 points difference clearly showed the weaknesses in the Italian game compared to the other nations. The aim for the Azzurri will be to try and get some points on the board. Still a very young team and in a building phase towards the 2023 World Cup and beyond, a win may be out of the question, but they will hope to improve in both areas of the game.
However, long gone are the days when Italian rugby was monopolised by the face of Sergio Parisse, with a load of brilliant individual players coming to the fore. Do not be surprised if Monty Ioane pops up here and there with a sublime score, and of course, Garbisi will be running the show as he did when he took the 2021 Benetton side to victory in the Rainbow Cup. Lastly, Italian captain Michele Lamaro is a monster at the breakdown with underrated handling skills.
This year’s Six Nations is set to be possibly the most closely fought contest in recent times, and it seems genuinely possible that any nation, bar Italy, could be victorious come the 19 March. However, considering form and squad strength, it does seem that the title of the 2022 Six Nations Championship will be decided at 8pm on that fateful, final Saturday as England take on France in Paris.