The northern hemisphere’s version of the Rugby Championship – better known as the Six Nations – kicks off this weekend and although there are no All Blacks, Springboks or Wallabies involved there will still be some quality players – and rugby – on show.
A regular activity for rugby fans around the world at this time is to weigh-up the merits of each tournament – and to work out which is stronger.
The Rugby Championship is a better format as it boasts a round-robin home-and-away while the Six Nations is just a straight single round shootout. But this is understandable.
Northern hemisphere players already play too much rugby and trying to fit another five rounds of Six Nations into the already packed season would be near on impossible.
Both tournaments also both have their heavy weights and also rans.
The Rugby Championship arguably has only one heavyweight with New Zealand clearly a class above South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
Since the start of the Rugby Championship in 2012, when the Pumas were added to the old Tri-Nations, the All Blacks have won every year except 2015 (when due to the RWC a single round robin was played) and have lost just two of their 33 matches played – to Australia in 2015 and South Africa in 2014.
England have been similarly dominant in the Six Nations over the last two years losing just one match, to Ireland in Dublin in last year.
As for the also rans the Rugby Championship contain Argentina, who seem to be getting further away from the big three, losing all six matches last year and just one in 2016.
In the Six Nations there is Italy, who have taken the wooden spoon three of the last four years and although they may have an innovative coach in Conor O’Shea, their results (in the Six Nations at least) are not getting any better.
So who would win in a battle between the best of the north v the best of the south?
Sadly we have been denied that opportunity over the last few years however that is set to be remedied when England finally face the All Blacks at Twickenham on November 10, this year – their first meeting since 2014.
But by that time I fully expect a new Six Nations champion to be in place – Ireland.
As impressive as England have been since Jones took charge after the disaster of RWC 2015, winning 22 of 23 matches, such is their injury toll and the form of closest rival, Ireland, that Jones will be very hard pressed to achieve a record third straight outright title.
Although Fast Eddie was trying to put a brave face on it a few days out from the kick off of the tournament, as he welcomed back Jack Nowell, Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje and Mike Brown, he is still missing 13 other players from his squad due to injury.
Forwards Tom Curry, Charlie Ewels, Ellis Genge, Nathan Hughes, Matt Mullan, Beno Obano, Kyle Sinckler, Will Spencer and Billy Vunipola and backs Elliot Daly, Piers Francis, Semesa Rokoduguni and Henry Slade are all out.
Lions star Ben Te’o is back training with England but has not played since October and may not be rushed by Jones.
So with that absent 13, which rises to 15 if you add the suspended James Haskell and Joe Marler, England’s strength in depth looks very tenuous, especially up front.
England’s success in the Jones-era has been based on forward dominance giving their talented backs a solid set-piece platform and quick ruck ball.
With the first and second choice No8s both out – Vunipola and Hughes – and no-less than five props (Genge, Mullan, Obano, Sinckler and Marler) it will be very tough for the Red Roses to assert that dominance – and once the pack start to back-pedal the backs will find it very difficult to make yards outwide.
Ireland boast one of the best scrums in world rugby and with first choice props Tadgh Furlong, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and John Ryan all fit, England will have a huge challenge matching them, even if they were at full strength.
Much has been made of the Irish injury list that includes world class backrowers Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien but with Lions first Test captain Peter O’Mahony, South African born CJ Stander and the versatile Rhys Ruddock Ireland still have a formidable trio.
But it is outwide where Ireland may cause the most issues with an impressive arsenal including future Lions and former Chiefs star, New Zealander Bundee Aki, set to make his Six Nations bow (Garry Ringrose is out injured) as well as the impressive Ulster 21-year-old Jacob Stockdale and Leinster 20-year-old Jordan Larmour on the wings.
Some may point to the fact that Ireland have to travel to Twickenham, but even if England do beat Gregor Townsend’s resurgent Scotland in Edinburgh and the always dangerous France in Paris I fully expect Joe Schmidt’s superbly drilled Ireland to come up trumps at HQ.
And then we will have to wait for Ireland to play the All Blacks to decide who is best in the north-south divide.
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