The Northern Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition returns this weekend as the Six Nations returns to bring signal to fans from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France and Italy that it’s safe to emerge from their winter hibernation.
Eddie Jones‘ England come into the tournament as two-time defending champions. If they can claim a third win in a row it will be the first time in the competition’s long and illustrious history (the first Home Nations tournament was contested in 1883) a nation will have won three titles outright.
Standing in the Red Rose’s way though will be Ireland, with a showdown at Twickenham on the final weekend likely to act as a title and even Grand Slam decider.
Wales may be injury ravaged but their young squad will have something to say about that, as will a rejuvenated Scots, who famously beat Australia in the autumn and pushed world champions New Zealand too. A youthful France will also want to prove a point under new coach Jacques Brunel, while Italy will be desperate not to get beaten once again with the Wooden Spoon.
The UAE may be a world away from Europe, but the rugby scene here is almost as hot as the weather. And our local rugby guru Matt Jones delved into his endless list of contacts to gauge opinion ahead of the big kick-off.
Dubai Exiles lock/flanker
Obviously I’m biased as I’m a proud Irishman. But I can’t see Ireland having any trouble from anyone except England. And we play England on St Patricks Day at Twickenham and an occasional like that will have the Irish lads more than up for it. Possibly a Grand Slam decider, which Ireland will inevitably win.
Wooden Spoon: Italy
They might put in a few good performance here and there but I just think all the other nations are miles ahead. It’s usually a battle between then and Scotland but the Scots will cause more upsets this year with Stuart Hogg running the show.
Player to watch:
Jacob Stockdale – unbelievable talent, the man is the size of a back row with the speed of a winger. Class in the Autumn Internationals and standing out for Ulster every game. I’d also have him as your top try scorer too.
Jebel Ali Dragons winger
It kills me to say it but England. What’s even worse is I’m actually enjoying their brand of rugby too. Which pains me to my core to say. Been watching lots of stuff on Eddie Jones. He gets it.
Wooden Spoon: Italy
They’re still 10 years behind.
Player to watch: Stuart Hogg
Would love to see Marcus Smith get some minutes but I doubt that will happen. So Hogg and Anthony Watson for me. Particularly Hogg, love the way he plays. Also, I used to teach Nathan Earle back in the UK and would love to see him carve it up. Great lad and mega talented.
Abu Dhabi Harlequins head coach
I think they have a chance to show their incredible depth and also have Wales and Ireland at home.
Wooden Spoon: Italy
Simply don’t have the quality and have three away games.
Player to watch: Hamish Watson
Watson for Scotland is an exciting 7 and is rapid over the ground, excellent at the breakdown and provides turnovers. He was class against Wales last year which had a back row of Lions.
Abu Dhabi Saracens winger/full-back
Both Ireland and Irish clubs have played at a very high level in the last years, and also because I’d like a change in the champion. I’m sure it’s going to be between England and Ireland, with a great final battle at Twickenham.
Wooden Spoon: Italy
I’m afraid Italy even though I’m expecting a much better Six Nations than last year. I believe Conor O’Shea has done a great job in the last year and the team has now a good young base who will keep growing up every year. Unfortunately, all the other teams have improved too and I believe they are all still at a higher level.
Player to watch: Matteo Minozzi
I’m not sure about other teams but I’ve been told the young backline player in our team who deserves to be watched if he gets some game time is Minozzi and apparently he’s really, really quick.
Dubai Exiles lock
I know it’s biased and against the odds, but with the new free-flowing pace Scotland have played recently I’m genuinely excited about their campaign. Especially with recent performances against Australia and New Zealand, as well as last year’s Six nations, I think we could be about to see something special.
Wooden Spoon: Italy
Unfortunately for Italy I think it will be the same story for them, finishing in last place. With the quality of rugby shown by the other five nations I just feel that Italy are still a bit off of that standard.
Player to watch: Stuart Hogg
Six Nations Player of the Tournament 2016 & 2017. The man clearly has some serious skill. Pace, agility, handling, kicking and defensive play. The Scottish full-back is the complete package and I expect to see him carve more holes in the opposition’s defence this campaign.
Owen Farrell also had a great season last year and knows how to control the game well. Always seems to play consistently well and can help England get the job done in key moments.
Dubai Hurricanes fly-half
As a Frenchman it really pains me to say this but I think England will retain the title for a third consecutive year. Even though they are missing some key players, they still have a dynamic and more than capable squad. Eddie jones has been and is currently doing an outstanding job with the players selected since his appointment. Formulating clinical performances consistently which cannot be ignored.
Wooden Spoon: Wales
In contention for this year’s Wooden Spoon with the team plagued by injuries, missing big names, key and experienced players which may have detrimental effects. It will be up to the young guns to take up responsibilities this year. Moreover, the usual wooden spooners have been improving drastically over the past few years with Conor O’Shea in charge of Italy and Scotland’s recent form on the up. It will definitely make this year’s tournament an exciting one.
Player to watch: Josh Adams
Another young gun earning an international call-up due to an impressive run of form in the Aviva Premiership, scoring a heap of tries in back to back games. The lad can definitely finish his dinner. We can only hope he will be a great addition to the Welsh squad, helping them score tries left, right and centre.
Also keep an eye on Marcus Smith, he may not play every match but he has proven himself worthy in the Premiership. And Chris Harris. His consistency at Newcastle Falcons has not gone unnoticed, I hope he can show us all his outstanding capabilities.
France will host the Rugby World Cup in five years time and coach Jacques Brunel appeared to have one eye on that objective with his opening Six Nations team selection against Ireland on Saturday.
The veteran handler plumped for teenage fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, a player to whom he handed a senior debut at Bordeaux-Begles less than five months ago before he was hired as France coach following the hurried sacking of Guy Noves in December.
While the French selectors will hope Brunel’s appointment brings about a change in playing fortunes, the 64-year-old seems to have maintained a search begun by Noves during his ill-fated two-year spell in charge: the quest to find a French equivalent of Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter.
At just 19 and with only 15 senior appearances under his belt, Jalibert appears to be a choice for the future despite Brunel’s insistence he wants to try and win the 2018 Six Nations title.
And even if he doesn’t turn out to be as good as a Wilkinson or Carter, Brunel believes Jalibert could at least emulate versatile former international half-back Frederic Michalak, a player who made his France debut 16 years ago, just a month after turning 19.
“Remember a certain Michalak, for whom everything went very quickly,” said Brunel.
“It’s a bit surprising: we’re not used to this kind of professional trajectory whereas the English picked (Owen) Farrell and (George) Ford very early.
“They didn’t ask questions, they gave them belief. We’re going to try to provide him (Jalibert) with the same conditions and we hope he’ll succeed in the same way as those I’ve just mentioned.”
It continues a trend in France over the last year in which a number of talented young half-backs have been thrust onto the international arena.
Baptiste Serin was 22 when he spent most of last year’s Six Nations as first choice scrum-half before giving way to 20-year-old Antoine Dupont in November.
One of Noves’s last acts was to align a stunningly young and inexperienced half-back pair against world champions New Zealand in November, as 21-year-old Anthony Belleau lined up outside Dupont – the French were thumped 38-18.
Both will be on the bench against Ireland as hopes are pinned on Jalibert’s young shoulders, although Brunel has opted to select 29-year-old Maxime Machenaud as his half-back partner.
“It’s about balance because putting Matthieu Jalibert at fly-half, there’s an obvious inexperience in that respect,” added Brunel.
“We’re sure he’ll manage but nevertheless we need someone with experience who can take the game by the scruff of the neck, bring a bit of balance to our initiatives and reassure (Jalibert).”
And Brunel gave short shrift to suggestions his side could be on a hiding to nothing.
“I’m very happy that we’re no good, useless, rubbish, considered the fifth best (above only Italy) in the competition. That suits me very well,” he said defiantly.
For their part, Ireland will be targeting the young playmaker, although British and Irish Lions flanker CJ Stander insists there would be nothing unusual about that regardless.
“He plays a good game, he’s a very exciting player and he tries anything from everywhere,” said the Munster back-row forward.
“So, from our side, you’ve to make sure you get in his face and make sure you get off the line every time.”
But Stander added: “We try to do that with all the fly-halves we play against!
“If he’s good enough, and he gets the chance and he can grab it, it’s great for them to back him and let him play now.”
France have won only one of their last seven matches against Ireland, who are lining up a starting XV with more than twice as many caps as their hosts.
Ben Te’o will make his first England appearance in almost a year after being picked at outside centre for the Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome.
Te’o has ousted Jonathan Joseph from the No13 jersey after completing his recovery from the high ankle sprain which ruled him out for three months, a spell which encompassed the autumn series.
The Stadio Olimpico showdown on Sunday will be the first time the rugby league convert, who won two caps for the British and Irish Lions last summer, has played since October.
Te’o’s only previous start for England was also against Italy 12 months ago when he crossed for a late try in a match dubbed ‘ruckgate’ because of the tactics employed by Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri.
Head coach Eddie Jones has opted for Te’o’s powerful ball-carrying and smart running lines over the slick footwork of Joseph, who is included on the bench.
Ben Youngs has held off the challenge of Danny Care at scrum-half and will link up with George Ford at half-back, with Owen Farrell Te’o’s midfield partner.
“I have selected the strongest available side to play Italy this weekend and the players are excited to play in Rome,” Jones said.
“Our preparation over the last two weeks has been excellent and the players feel refreshed. We want to start the tournament well and are ready to go hunting against Italy.
“We know we need to get our set-piece right, be defensively strong and play with aggression and plenty of energy.”
The void at No8 created by injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes is filled by Sam Simmonds, the in-form Exeter back who serves as an effective ball carrier despite his lack of size.
Courtney Lawes slots in at blindside flanker and Chris Robshaw at openside with Maro Itoje present at lock, where he partners Joe Launchbury.
Dylan Hartley leads a starting XV containing 689 caps in what will be his 90th appearance.
England are seeking to become the first team to win three successive outright Championship titles and enter the tournament as favourites.
England team to face Italy on Sunday, UAE: 19:00 kick-off:
M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), B Te’o (Worcester), O Farrell (Saracens), J May (Leicester); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Simmonds (Exeter).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), A Hepburn (Exeter), H Williams (Exeter), G Kruis (Saracens), S Underhill (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), J Joseph (Bath), J Nowell (Exeter).