Six Nations 2019 Predictions: Champions, wooden spoon and players to watch

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Ahead of the Six Nations which gets underway on Friday, Sport360 journalists and local rugby gurus share their predictions.

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DAN OWEN

Champions – Ireland

Will be difficult to repeat their Grand Slam heroics, but will just edge it ahead of Wales and England.

Wooden Spoon – Italy
Sadly there has been no progression from the Azzurri in recent years and that looks like continuing.

Player to watch – Liam Williams
Showing great form with Saracens, a real danger in attack either on the wing or at full-back.

Top Try scorer – Jonny May
Likely to getting plenty of opportunities in a dominant side, will finish ahead of Jacob Stockdale.

What to watch out for – An open championship
Ireland, Wales and England can all beat each other, and there’ll be the odd shock on the way.

MATTHEW JONES

Champions – Ireland
Most open tournament in recent years, but the Men in Green are the form team.

Wooden spoon – Italy
Same old story, although as we never know what French team will turn up, the Azzurri can at least aspire for fifth.

Player to watch – Tomos Williams
The sevens specialist gets his opportunity to shine in the opening match against France on Friday.

Top try scorer – Jacob Stockdale
Won this accolade a year ago. He is the man everyone else must beat.

What to watch out for – First match
Ireland v England. What a way to open the tournament. Win and the words Grand Slam will be whispered. Lose and you’re already on the back foot.

NIALL McCAGUE

Champions – Ireland
Wales and England look in strong form, but Schmidt’s men should shade it.

Wooden Spoon – Italy
Without a Six Nations win in nearly four years, the Azzurri will be the whipping boys again.

Player to watch – Billy Vunipola
The Saracens No8 is one of the best players in the world on his day and remains key to England’s prospects.

Top Try scorer – Jacob Stockdale
The 22-year-old has established himself as one of the stars of world rugby. If Ireland can spread the ball wide, he will be difficult to stop.

What to watch out for – England revival
The Red Rose showed signs of improvement in the autumn and should be a force this campaign.

CHRIS BAILEY

Champions – Ireland
The Six Nations has been retained three times in a row and Joe Schmidt’s team are just hitting their peak.

Wooden spoon – Italy
They’ve made fine strides in the age groups, but Conor O’Shea can realistically hope for one victory.

Player to watch – Demba Bamba
The tight-head will be a joy to watch from France’s bench. A more more agile Kyle Sinckler – frightening.

Top try scorer – Jonny May
With back-to-back home games against Scotland and Italy at the end, May will surely be in the mix.

What to watch for – Position battles
Who ends the tournament in the respective starting XVs may well be indicative when it comes to World Cup selection.

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Schmidt vows Ireland will deliver 'edge of the seat' entertainment against England

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Joe Schmidt has pledged Ireland will provide “edge of the seat” entertainment in Saturday’s Six Nations opener, dismissing England’s boring jibes as irrelevant.

England defence coach John Mitchell claimed Ireland will try to bore the game in cranking up the mind games ahead of the Dublin encounter.

Ireland head coach Schmidt stopped short of accusing England of disrespect, instead once again laughing off what he has previously branded verbal “grenades” from head coach Eddie Jones and his coaching team.

England boss Jones has claimed Johnny Sexton has the “bat phone to the referee” in suggesting Ireland receive preferential treatment from officials: but as when dismissing that, Schmidt has again shrugged off another barb.

“People have different approaches but I think it’s incredibly important to respect your opponents, and to acknowledge what abilities they bring to the game,” said Schmidt.

“I don’t think for a moment that it’s going to be boring. I think it’s going to be exhilarating, I think it’s going to be edge of the seat.

“Because I don’t think there’s a huge amount between the teams.

“I do think people are going to be entertained.

“And one of the great things about the Aviva Stadium is the entertainment is partially provided by those outside the pitch supporting the team in the manner that they do.

“The support that we got in those last few minutes last time England were here, was huge. It was as loud as I’d heard it since 2013 probably when the All Blacks were here.

“And probably the loudest I’ve heard since was the All Blacks in November, when those last phases of play until Retallick put that ball down, it was huge.

“The players feed off that excitement, and it’s almost reciprocated by the crowd.

“And we know we’re going to have a big crowd that they are going to be incredibly supportive, and at the same time respectful of our team and our opponents.”

Ireland have Robbie Henshaw at full-back for the start of their Six Nations title defence, with Josh Van Der Flier slotting in at flanker ahead of Sean O’Brien.

When asked if England’s lead-in comments have lacked enough respect, Schmidt neatly sidestepped the issue, by pledging to address the issue directly with Mitchell, most likely after the match.

“I don’t really know everything they’ve been saying,” said Schmidt.

“I heard the boring comment, I heard the bat phone comment; I don’t know what else they’ve been saying.

“All I can keep doing is keep my head down, keep making sure that I try to find the fine margins and try to support players as best I can, to get them as well-prepared as I can.

“It doesn’t distract me because it’s not immediately relevant to what I’m doing.

“I’ve known Mitch (John Mitchell) for a long time, so it will be good to catch up with him.

“And then banter can be face-to-face, and if there’s something that needs to be said, it can be said, and it will be said with a light-hearted bit of repartee I think.”

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Wales focused on performance not records, says captain Alun Wyn Jones

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Alun Wyn Jones says that Wales are not “hanging our hats” on records heading into Friday’s Guinness Six Nations opener against France.

But Wales captain Jones also acknowledges the importance of momentum as his team look to extend an unbeaten record that stretches back to last season’s tournament.

Victory at Stade de France would make it 10 wins on the bounce for Wales and equal a longest undefeated sequence since 1999.

Wales have also toppled France six times from the last seven attempts, including two wins out of the last three Paris meetings.

If they see off France, followed by Italy in Rome on Saturday week, then Wales would match their record 11-match run set more than 100 years ago.

“Momentum is massive,” Jones said. “You want to get out of the blocks and get your foot in the door.

“We are not really focusing on records. Our focus is performance, and with good performances you usually get results.

“We are not going to focus on what could be. We know what we have to do.

“Our ninth win was last year. This international period is a new year.

“We are very conscious that we have to maintain momentum and performance, and that will get us results.

“We are not hanging our hats on records. We will be reminded of the nine wins, but it’s a massive task on Friday.

“It’s probably the biggest pack they (France) could have picked. We are fully aware of the strength they have and the way they are likely to play with a pack that drive a lot, and with ball-players behind.”

How Wales fare against a huge French pack – which has a combined weight of just over 150 stones and is one of the biggest fielded in Six Nations history – will be pivotal to the contest.

And Wales head coach Warren Gatland added: “The way we’ve tended to play against France is keep the ball on the park and not be afraid to kick long and try and find a bit of grass.

“I think they will kick a lot of ball out to try and slow the game down and play a lot off (Morgan) Parra at nine.

“There is no doubt they will have a big go at our scrum and try to maul us off the park. They were pretty effective in the autumn in that area.

“We’ve got to be on our mettle, and – from a defensive point of view – it’s paramount our line-speed and collisions are good.

“We’ve been working on that and talking about stopping their forward momentum which they can create from their pack.”

A key part of Wales’ forward effort will be hooker Ken Owens, who sets a new cap record for his country in that position when he makes his 61st appearance on Friday.

“He is a great bloke to have in the side,” Gatland said. “He is a great team man and incredibly well respected and well liked by the coaches and the staff.

“He puts his body on the line. He’s playing some great rugby at the moment, and it will be great for him to have a good year.

“He deserves to have the accolade of being Wales’ most-capped hooker. He is an outstanding person on and off the field, a great leader, and I can’t speak more highly of him.”

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