With the new Six Nations campaign upon us we have the lowdown on each and every team aiming to compete for the title.
From the strengths and weaknesses to our predictions for this year’s competition, we have you covered.
Who do you think will be lifting the trophy on March 17?
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Dylan Hartley
Key man: England need Owen Farrell’s calmness on the ball and his ability to bring players into the game from any attack is vital. The Saracens man is outstanding at kicking from tee and hand – and will be a important cog this campaign.
Strengths: With strength in depth in all departments, their dominance in the set piece should see them seal a third consecutive title.
Weaknesses: Injuries to key men Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes rob Jones’ side of power and leadership.
2017 record: Won 10, Lost 1
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Key man: Talismanic play-maker Jonny Sexton is a proven match winner. The Leinster man attacks from deep at every chance and is the tipping point between Ireland winning and losing.
Strengths: Joe Schmidt’s side employ an efficient kicking game, rely heavily on their defence and have strong organisational skills – a lot of which can beat most teams on the day.
Weaknesses: Conor Murray and Sexton orchestrate proceedings for the Men in Green – and an injury to either player would be a huge blow to their title prospects.
2017 record: Won 9, Lost 2
Coach: Gregor Townsend
Captain: John Barclay
Key man: One of the game’s most influential figures, full-back Stuart Hogg has an ability to eye gaps and produce magic with every touch.
Strengths: Former head coach Vern Cotter may have laid the foundations to this burgeoning side, but the Scots could well contend for the title this year. Since Gregor Laidlaw’s arrival in May, they continue to show sharpness in their skillset, vision and creativity.
Weaknesses: Expectations remain high for this team – but could the pressure prove too much against the likes of England and Ireland?
2017 record: Won 7, Lost 3
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
Key man: The uncapped winger Josh Adams looks the real deal – and coupled with his penchant for scoring tries – he could be the jewel in the Dragons crown.
Strengths: An underdogs tag may hang over this Wales side, and Gatland has the chance to unlock his side’s pace out wide with his new-found expansive style.
Weaknesses: Wales’ bench is likely to be light on experience meaning a shrewd change when things aren’t going their way will be tricky. The losses of Rhys Webb and Taulupe Faletau weaken what would normally be a title challenging team.
2017 record: Won 7, Lost 4
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
Key man: The kicking game could be France’s chance to show their mettle and Maxime Machenaud has this in abundance. The elusive out-half has proved to be a match winner during recent Champions Cup wins for Racing 92.
Strengths: Brunel can draw confidence from the introduction of Matthieu Jalibert and Geoffrey Palis – exciting players who have the chance to showcase their class and flair on the big stage.
Weaknesses: Injuries could rob Les Bleus from finishing above fifth in the table, especially due to the loss of Wesley Fofana and Morgan Parra.
2017 record: Won 3, Draw 1, Lost 8
Coach: Conor O’Shea
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Key man: The totemic Alessandro Zanni is back after a two year absence from the international game as he bids to win his 100th cap. The Treviso man provides the power and pace to take the reliance off Parisse.
Strengths: Confidence seemed a lot higher at this point last year, but with the improvements of Zebre and Treviso, could this be the season the Azzurri spring a surprise?
Weaknesses: Although they boast some powerful forwards, they lack the class and pace out wide that could trouble teams.
2017 record: Won 1, Lost 9
Young Irish lock James Ryan has been handed a vote of confidence by being selected to play France in Paris on Saturday in what will be his Six Nations debut.
The 21-year-old – who made his Test debut last summer even before he had played for the Leinster senior team – is preferred to the veteran Devin Toner and will partner Iain Henderson in the second row.
There are great expectations for Ryan, a former Ireland Under-20 captain, with murmurings that he is destined to skipper the senior side one day.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said playing France in Paris was an ideal place to test Ryan’s temperament and mettle.
“One of the reasons is to find out,” said Schmidt when asked if Ryan was ready for such a challenge.
“It’s a position we don’t have huge depth in, we’ve got young guys pushing through and we’ve given James an opportunity.
“We felt he went really well against Montpellier recently (for Leinster in the European Champions Cup pool clash) against what is a very big side.”
Schmidt also brought back a couple of players who missed the three Test wins last November. Keith Earls will win his 64th cap on the wing while flanker Josh van der Flier fills the considerable vacuum left by the injured British and Irish Lions star Sean O’Brien.
The side will be once again captained by the vastly-experienced hooker Rory Best who wins his 107th cap.
The world class half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, with almost 130 caps between them, have far more experience than their French counterparts, Maxime Machenaud, 31 caps, and 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert who is making his debut.
Sexton took some heavy hits in Paris two years ago – as the French won 10-9 – which went unpunished by South African referee Jaco Peyper upsetting both Schmidt and Best.
Schmidt, though, hoped for better on Saturday.
“It hasn’t been part of the game in the teams I’ve seen Jacques (Brunel his French counterpart) coach in the past,” said Schmidt, who is bidding to add a third Six Nations title to the ones he guided Ireland to in 2014 and 2015.
“I’d hope that it’s not.
“I think protecting the players has been ramped up since we were involved two years ago.
“We hope with the referee we’ve got that it won’t even enter into the fray,” added the 52-year-old New Zealander. The match is being officiated by Nigel Owens, the Welshman who refereed the 2015 World Cup final
The Irish will start as warm favourites to record only their fourth win in Paris in the last 40 years as the hosts under new coach Brunel seek to end a run of six Tests without a win.
Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (capt), Cian Healy
Replacements (16-23): Coach: Joe Schmidt (NZL)
Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden
Provided by AFP Sport
Lewis Moody insists England’s players can take inspiration from the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning squad as the Red Rose prepare to face the mighty All Blacks this year on the long pilgrimage towards lifting a second Webb Ellis Cup.
England will face the superpowers of the Southern Hemisphere in the autumn, including reigning world champions New Zealand, for a tantalising first tussle between the two nations since November 2014.
The fact the world’s two best Test nations haven’t crossed swords in so long is puzzling, but Moody feels facing Steve Hansen’s fearsome side in the run-up to the World Cup is paramount as Eddie Jones plots victory in Japan 2019.
England clash with the All Blacks on the hallowed Twickenham turf on November 10, the fixture sandwiched between duels with South Africa a week earlier and Australia seven days later.
It’s a path Moody trod with England in the 2002 Autumn Internationals, when the 71-times capped flanker scored a try in a thrilling 31-28 opening win over the All Blacks, while a clean sweep was completed as England edged the Wallabies 32-31 before slaughtering the Springboks 53-3.
England even had the audacity to repeat the feat away from the comfortable surroundings of home, claiming a 15-13 win over New Zealand in Wellington and a 25-14 triumph over Australia the following summer, four months ahead of their joyous World Cup win.
And Moody says the autumn is crucial to England and Jones gauging how likely their chances of lifting the trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun are.
“When you’re building up to a competition you want to test yourself against the best and know where you stand,” Moody told Sport360, speaking ahead of his role as an HSBC ambassador at the Rugby Festival Dubai last weekend, held jointly by local sides Dubai Exiles and Dubai Hurricanes at The Sevens.
“You want to know if you can beat them. That’s what we did in 2003, played them all at home in the autumn and toured and played them away (the following summer), and won all those matches.
“It put us in the most incredible frame of mind going into that World Cup, knowing we’d beaten every world class side out there that was going to face us. We knew we could make a final and that’s what Eddie’s side need to do going into 2019.
“Having New Zealand in that autumn series next year prior to going out will be key to finding out where they are.
“New Zealand aren’t the team they used to be. They’re still a pretty good outfit, there’s no doubting that, but they are transitioning and I think it’ll be an interesting time to play them.”
Before all that, there is of course the small matter of the Six Nations to defend. The showpiece tournament of Northern Hemisphere rugby begins this weekend, with England going in as two-time defending champions and searching for a second Grand Slam in three years.
Moody, a man who toured New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions in 2005, believes the Red Rose rightly go in as favourites to what will be one of the most competitive tournaments in recent years.
The former Leicester Tigers stalwart said: “Ireland, with the form of their clubs in the Champions Cup, will be buoyed having played the French and English clubs and done a really good job.
“Scotland have shown promise and have a competitive side now, while you can never write off the Welsh, so 100 per cent, it could be the most competitive tournament in ages.
“You want a competitive tournament, you don’t want to see sides trounced by 40 or 50 points. There’s no enjoyment there for the players or the spectators. I’m really looking forward to it. The last few years has been really great competition and some of the players on show this year are mind-blowing.”
The tournament is seen a timeless sporting classic, having been contested in some shape or form for well over 100 years, the early incarnate Home Nations first being played in 1883.
Not many changes have been made to a hugely popular event over the ensuing years, Italy’s entry in 2000 seeing the Six Nations established in its current guise.
Promotion and relegation has been tabled in recent years with the rise of Georgia as a competitive nation, and even as a traditionalist, it is something Moody would like to see explored further.
“If there’s any disappointment over the last two decades in the Six Nations it’s that Italy perhaps haven’t made the strides we thought they were going to,” said Moody.
“There’s the call for sides like Georgia who are pushing for inclusion, to be promoted, which I think is a great concept. Relegation and promotion.”
Up first for England on Saturday are the plucky but porous Italians in Rome. An easy start for the champions, perhaps, but it gets tougher afterwards. England have just two home fixtures, against Wales and Ireland, although Joe Schmidt’s side visit London on the final day, for what will be billed as a potential title decider.
“I think it’s tricky having them (Italy) up first,” said Moody of Saturday’s opener.
“If you get a big win it lulls you into a false sense of security, and if you don’t everyone’s on a bit of a downer and will write you off and say England aren’t at the races.
“You’ve got nothing to gain by playing them in the first game unless you smash them by 60 points, and even then you don’t get a clear sense of where you are.
“It’s the year when we only have two games at home so it makes it difficult to go and chase the Grand Slam. The challenging games will be Ireland at home and France away, it’s as simple as that for me.
“Having said that you know the Welsh will be a handful, playing the Scots away in Murrayfield is a horrible place to play and their fans, a partisan crowd, will create a cauldron of an atmosphere and try and make it a horrible place for England to get a result.”
Something Moody is looking forward to seeing – besides England hopefully winning a record third Six Nations title in a row – is an exciting crop of emerging England youngsters taking their chance to shine.
Sam Simmonds (23), Sam Underhill, Lewis Boyce, Harry Mallinder (all 21), Zack Mercer (20), Nick Isiekwe (19) and Marcus Smith (18) are all in Jones’ squad, while injured Tom Curry (19) excites Moody.
And he has singled out Exeter Chiefs Number 8 Simmonds as someone who can really make a name for himself this Six Nations.
“Sam Simmonds, I imagine they’ll start him at No8 with the injuries they have. He offers something different,” said Moody, who as a back-rower himself, is thrilled with England’s options in the loose forwards.
“He’s not the ball carrier Nathan Hughes or Billy Vunipola is, but he’s such an explosive, athletic individual. Offloads, side-step, he’s a back playing in the back row so I’m genuinely excited to see him.
“Also, Sam Underhill. He played one or two games last year but generally didn’t make an impact, as he had a concussion early on. Id’ really like to see him step it up into the Six Nations and have an exciting tournament.
“I can’t think they’d put Marcus Smith anywhere near the starting line-up yet but there’s a lot of really exciting guys in this group.”
And whereas the new generation might be making it harder for former captain Chris Robshaw to maintain his status as an England regular, Moody insists the Harlequins flanker should be used as inspiration.
“Sometimes in international sport it’s about taking the opportunities handed to you, Chris Robshaw is an excellent example of that, a player not everyone thought was international standard,” added Moody.
“He was given a chance and he’s never looked back, and as a coach that’s what you want in your players, to take those chances.”