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.
Warren Gatland has named ten Scarlets in the Wales team to face Scotland in the first game of the Six Nations on Saturday.
There is also a debut for Josh Adams, the Worcester Warriors wing who has lit up the English Premiership this season with his try-scoring exploits.
Gatland has had his hand forced somewhat with the debilitating injury list.
As with the autumn internationals, injured back-row stalwart Sam Warburton is replaced by Josh Navidi, with Justin Tipuric on the bench. Ross Moriarty replaces the crocked Taulupe Faletau at No.8, and they are joined by Aaron Shingler who also excelled at the back end of the year.
Hadleigh Parkes bagged two tries against South Africa on his debut in November and takes his place at 12 alongside Scarlets centre partner Scott Williams.
Having suffered late injuries to halfbacks Rhys Webb and Dan Bigger, Gatland has opted for another Scarlets pairing with Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell occupying the nine and ten spots.
The side in full:
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; Josh Adams, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee; Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones; Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty.
Reps: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe, Owen Watkin.
The Six Nations kicks off on Saturday with England bidding to win a record-breaking third successive outright title.
From the Red Rose’s strength in reserve to Ireland’s class in attack, the competition will again showcase the depth of Northern Hemisphere talent.
Here we examine the six coaches ahead of the start of the tournament.
EDDIE JONES (ENGLAND)
TIME IN JOB: Two years
The Red Rose manager is preparing to make history by winning a third consecutive Six Nations title.
Although he has deflected the spotlight on Ireland in the build up to the competition, the Australian has undoubtedly the most complete squad at his disposal to seal another title.
Despite injuries to star men Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly, England’s strength in depth makes them look unstoppable up front and in attack.
Jones biggest skill is his ability to motivate players – and coupled with their formidable squad – should win all five matches.
JOE SCHMIDT (IRELAND)
TIME IN JOB: Four years
Schmidt is entering his fifth season as Ireland coach and will be hoping for more positive form ahead of next year’s World Cup.
The Kiwi is known to rely on his tried-and-trusted XV – but expect winger Jacob Stockdale to be rewarded with a starting berth on the back of some sterling performances for Ulster this term.
Schmidt’s side employ an efficient kicking game, rely heavily on their defence and have strong organisational skills.
GREGOR TOWNSEND (SCOTLAND)
TIME IN JOB: One year in May
It may have been 19 years since Scotland last won the competition, but under Gregor Townsend, this could be their greatest opportunity to challenge Ireland and England for the title.
The laid-back Townsend has trusted leaders in Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Jonn Barclay – and is likely to stick with experience over youth.
The Galashiels native is only eight months into his tenure – and has taken over a job that had the foundations laid and cracks sealed by Vern Cotter – whose contract ended (and was not renewed) in May 2017.
It’s the most exciting Scottish side in well over a decade, and with the instrumental Hogg at 15, Townsend has buckets of talent at his disposal to cause a series of upsets.
WARREN GATLAND (WALES)
TIME IN JOB: Ten years
Ahead of a crucial World Cup year in 2019, the Wales chief showed a move away from the famed “Gatlandball” during the autumn internationals, starting Owen Williams as a ball playing 12.
With key half-back and centre injuries the question now is whether he will stick with this new-found expansive style, or play safe, looking to truck the ball down the middle with big carriers.
While the style of play can still be crafted, one thing the Kiwi won’t have at his fingertips is strength in depth. Wales’ bench is likely to be light on experience meaning a shrewd change when things aren’t going their way will be tricky.
The master of the mind-game, Gatland has already tipped Wales for Six Nations glory – but even the most ardent of fans may find that a tad optimistic.
JACQUES BRUNEL (FRANCE)
TIME IN JOB: One month
New France coach Jacques Brunel has said his immediate ambition is to win the Six Nations and end the negative perception of his struggling national team.
Les Bleus come into the Six Nations without a win in seven matches – including a humiliating home draw against Japan in November – which led to Guy Noves’ sacking.
With key men Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana and Brice Dulin ruled out through injury, the French squad remains low on experience and class, with the average number of caps a paltry 10.
It may be an inexperienced squad, but if Brunel is to inspire a nation, then he needs to have a promising start against Ireland on Saturday.
Les Bleus may only seal two wins this campaign, but Brunel has the chance to experiment with young stars in Antoine Dupont, Anthony Belleau and Matthieu Jalibert.
CONOR O’SHEA (ITALY)
TIME IN JOB: Two years in March
The Irishman is in his second season as head coach and will be looking to build on improvement from a mixed 2017 campaign.
His decision to bring in former All Blacks backs coach Wayne Smith points to his ambition.
Although the Azzurri may struggle against Ireland, England and Wales, one win will represent progress after five defeats in last year’s tournament.
They may be the weakest team in the competition, but under the tutelage of O’Shea, the Italians are starting to gain more respect on the international stage.
Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Angelo Esposito may cut down their firepower in attack, but 34-year-old talisman captain Sergio Parisse remains the key man.