Six Nations Exclusive: Mike Phillips writes for Sport360 ahead of tournament kickoff

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Mike Phillips tasted plenty of Six Nations success with Wales.

The first weekend of the Six Nations is always a very special one, and even when you’re no longer playing, that’s no different.

I’m looking forward to being able to watch the games and hopefully see some great attacking rugby as many of the sides look to play a more expansive and attacking game.

I’d love to see lots of really close games, with no side just running away with it.

On their day, any side can beat another and it would be great to see a final weekend where three sides still have a chance of winning it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see Wales sweep it, but for the good of the competition we just want to see close games, and an exciting brand of rugby.

WALES WEAR SCARLET

Speaking of Wales, it still feels like they are very much a team in transition.

It’s really interesting to see Warren Gatland pick ten Scarlets players in his starting line-up. It brings back memories of his first game in charge of Wales when he picked 13 Ospreys for a trip to Twickenham. Wales won that day, a lad called Phillips bagged a try!

Having all those Scarlets in the side will mean there are a lot of players high on confidence, and who are playing well for their club and have that level of consistency of playing alongside each other week in, week out.

Having played with the Scarlets on their mini-tour to South Africa in the Pro14 I got a really good insight to the players and how they are being coached. It’s a very well-run team with excellent coaches who allow the players to express themselves and throw the ball about a bit.

Wales now need to give them that same licence.

Another exciting addition to the side is Josh Adams. Another West-Wales boy who went away and has really developed. He’s doing incredibly well in a tough league and will be one to look out for in the competition.

Obviously Wales kick things off against Scotland and I think it’s now time that Scotland started backing up solid individual performances.

They did well in the autumn to put a lot of points on Australia, but let’s not forget that Australia side played most of the game with 14 men and still managed to score tries which is a concern.

As much as they have improved and they do now play a better brand of rugby, it’s time to actually deliver. It’s no good playing exciting rugby and getting one or two good results then going to Twickenham and getting battered as they did last year.

ENGLAND EXPECTS

Which brings us on to England. It might be tough, but we have to give praise where it’s due!

They have one of the best coaches in the world in Eddie Jones and they have a phenomenal record in recent years, and while they have had more than their fair share of injuries, they have a massive squad that can cover most positions.

They go into it as favourites, and I think the fixtures fall in their favour with both Ireland and Wales games being at home. But, they are not unbeatable. A side will have to play very well and really take their chances, but it can be done.

Mike is now leading the coaching at the Mike Phillips Rugby Academy in Dubai.

Mike is now leading the coaching at the Mike Phillips Rugby Academy in Dubai.

NO FRENCH REVOLUTION

Elsewhere, France are just about the biggest mess in world rugby. If you look at the money that is in the game over there, they should be in the top couple of sides in the world – but they’re not. They haven’t adapted very well to the professional game and are always looking for a short term fix.

They may well be better going down the route of a foreign coach, and look for a long-term solution to their problems. They really need to buck up their ideas.

Ireland are a well-organised side, with a very intelligent coaching staff and some very intelligent players. They have a workmanlike pack that really dogs in and does that hard work and possess a strong set of backs.

They have a really strong nine and ten and we know they are going to kick well and play a very good territorial game that will make them very hard to beat.

And finally Italy.

I really want to see them do well. In Conor O’Shea they have a very good coach and they now need to develop and grow. Hopefully this could be the year for them to get a win or two.

There has been talk of replacing Italy with Georgia in the Six Nations but I think Georgia are still a few years off yet. The fans absolutely love a trip to Rome too – so let’s hope that stays on the calendar.

It’s going to be an action packed couple of months, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.

England treble? Mike Phillips believes Eddie Jones will win the Six Nations yet again.

England treble? Mike Phillips believes Eddie Jones will win the Six Nations yet again.

The Mike Phillips Rugby Academy in Dubai is run in conjunction with Just Play. Currently aimed at 3-11-year-olds you can register your child to be coached by Mike and the team by calling 04 348 3869 or visit http://justplay.ae/rugby/

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Team-by-team guide, strengths, weaknesses and key men for Six Nations 2018

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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?

ENGLAND

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

Verdict: Winners

Eddie Jones head coach

IRELAND

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

Verdict: 2nd

Johnny Sexton

SCOTLAND

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

Verdict: 3rd

Stuart Hogg

WALES

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

Verdict: 4th

Alun Wyn Jones of Wales

FRANCE

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

Verdict: 5th

Jacques Brunel

ITALY

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

Verdict: 6th

Conor O'Shea, Head Coach of Italy and Sergio Parisse

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James Ryan handed start for Ireland in Six Nations opener against France

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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.

“We want to be able to keep building in that position.

“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.

HEAVY HITS

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.

Team (15-1)

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

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