Mike Phillips Exclusive: Six Nations is too close to call

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This season's Six Nations is a mouthwatering prospect

The Six Nations is back, and this season is particularly interesting on so many levels.

We have a few sides in really good form, a few with a point to prove, and the added excitement of a World Cup just around the corner – there’s plenty to play for.

I can’t wait for things to kick-off on Friday night in Paris.

France continue to be a side who just constantly frustrate me.

If you look at them last summer, they put up a good showing in New Zealand, they had games when they were down to 14-men but in no way disgraced themselves. Then a few months later they are losing at home to Fiji. You just don’t know what you’re going to get.

They have some excellent young players, they won the Under-20s last season, and they have to be given the opportunity to replace some of the old guard. That’s the only way they will progress.

French rugby is close to my heart – I grew up wearing a France shirt and loving the brand of rugby they played. I then played there during my career, so I would love to see them doing well and challenging at the top level, but it’s just not there at the moment.

If they win on Friday night, which they are capable of, who knows, but I just can’t see it.

Wales are in a great place and should be very confident.

The fixtures pan out for them very well with England and Ireland at home, so a win on the road in France will produce massive momentum. They are already buzzing after a strong autumn and having not lost in nine matches.

Wales played a much more expansive style in the autumn and I want to see them push on with that, particularly with the World Cup coming up. They need to be inventive and go for it, they scored some lovely tries in the autumn and that’s what the crowd want to see. Fans then don’t mind if there’s the odd mistake – as long as there is that intent to play.

This will obviously be Warren Gatland’s last Six Nations in charge, and he leave a legacy of probably being the best coach Wales has ever had. He’s done immensely well – you only have to look at what he’s put in the trophy cabinet. He’ll want to go out on a high, and there’s a really good chance to do it. He was criticized a bit a few years ago, but he’s always come through it and put Wales in a much better place than when he started.

CARDIFF, WALES - AUGUST 08:  during the International match between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Cardiff, Wales.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Phillips had his fair share of Six Nations success with Wales

The opening weekend in Dublin is going to be incredibly interesting.

England are looking very strong, and like Wales had a very good autumn campaign. You look across the side and there is some real strength – very strong pack, Ben Youngs may be a touch out of form but he’s a quality scrum half, Owen Farrell is a winner, pace out wide – they can hurt you all over the pitch.

We mention Farrell there and he is a huge leader. When I played with him on the Lions tour it was evident then. He was only young but always talking and bossing people on the pitch and that’s exactly what you want. He’s got such quality – I’d say England drop about 15% when he’s not in the side.

Ireland are at a stage now where they know what winning is all about. Players are seeing success at both club and international level and that only drives them even further. Success breeds success and makes players who are just outside the team or squad even hungrier to be a part of it – and that’s dangerous for the other sides in the competition.

They may not have the same individual flair as some of the other teams, but as a collective they are excellent. I think they have arguably the best coach in the competition and he has made them a real unit – and the side everyone else will have to beat.

Scotland will be looking to get their campaign off to a good start, unlike last year’s drubbing in Cardiff. Edinburgh and Glasgow have been excellent in Europe, so they will hope to capitalise on that. They have been hit by some real injury problems, but will be looking for Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg to fire. Russell has looked fantastic in France, but that’s behind a big strong pack and having some fantastic players outside him – it will be interesting to see if he can reproduce that form at international level.

As for Italy, it’s the same old story really – and I don’t know where a win comes from for them. Sergio Parisse is a world class player, but also highlights the problems they have. There has just not been someone emerge to replace him, and there needs to be that line of players coming through.

People have talked about whether there should be relegation in the Six Nations, but I don’t think that’s right at the moment. Italy need some help from World Rugby to really advance the game at grassroots and get players coming through. Georgia are always mentioned as a potential replacement, but I don’t think they are quite ready at the moment, but a second-tier Six Nations could be a great option if we’re looking at how to expand things.

Do you want to train with Mike Phillips? The next Mike Phillips Academy camp is taking place on February 20 and 21 at Foremarke School, Dubai – aimed at children aged 5-13. For more information see www.mikephillipsacademy.com or call 052 4929995

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Team-by-team guide, strengths and weaknesses for Six Nations 2019

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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.

Who do you think will be lifting the trophy on March 16?

IRELAND

Coach: Joe Schmidt

Captain: Rory Best

Strengths: The Men in Green employ an efficient kicking game, rely heavily on their defence and have strong organisational skills. After a stellar 2018, their depth in each position should help them deliver back-to-back titles.

Weaknesses: Conor Murray and Sexton orchestrate proceedings for the Men in Green – and an injury to either player would be a blow to their championship prospects, especially at scrum-half where Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion are currently injured.

2018 record: Won 11, Lost 1

What would success be for Ireland: Anything less than a fourth title in six years would be considered a disappointment for Schmidt’s men.

WALES

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Alun Wyn Jones

Strengths: After a sterling 2018 campaign, Gatland has the chance to unlock his side’s pace out wide with his new-found expansive style. Coming into a World Cup year on the back of nine-successive wins means that confidence should remain high.

Weaknesses: The mental battle will be key, especially after being pushed around by Ireland in 2018 and losing to England in 2017 and 2018 when in firm control. The loss of Taulupe Faletau to a broken arm is a significant blow, but the Dragons look to be firing at the right time.

2018 record: Won 10, Lost 2

What would success be for Wales: Based on their sparkling form of late, a championship should be the target.

ENGLAND

Coach: Eddie Jones

Captain: Owen Farrell

Strengths: With all their front-liners back from injury, England will be targeting victory in their opener against Ireland. A strong performance could prove the springboard for a championship challenge.

Weaknesses: The back-row balance is always a key talking point, especially if Billy Vunipola is to sustain an injury. But another issue is Jones’ starting 15, which is still as much of a mystery as it was this time 12 months ago.

2018 record: Won 6, Lost 6

What would success be for England: After a disastrous 2018, the only way is up for the Red Rose. They will be doing everything in their power to wrestle back the Six Nations title.

SCOTLAND

Coach: Gregor Townsend

Captain: Greig Laidlaw

Strengths: With key men Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg and Laidlaw excelling for their respective clubs this season, the Scots should be at their strongest so far under Townsend’s tenure.

Weaknesses: Their attacking quality is superb but their ability to win the physical battle, particularly away from home, remains a work in progress. Away games against England and France will be the real litmus test for Townsend.

2018 record: Won 7, Lost 5

What would success be for Scotland: A solid game plan, tactical consistency and more discipline in defence should be the main targets for this campaign.

FRANCE

Coach: Jacques Brunel

Captain: Guilhem Guirado

Strengths: The kicking game could be France’s chance to show their mettle and 19-year-old Romain Ntamack has this in abundance. The elusive out-half has proved to be a match winner during recent Champions Cup wins for Toulouse.

Weaknesses: Defeats to Fiji and South Africa in November weaken their confidence going into a World Cup year. With French rugby’s unpredictable nature, don’t be surprised if Brunel gets the sack for another poor campaign.

2018 record: Won 3, Lost 8

What would success be for France: Les Bleus need to show hunger and passion over the next six weeks. Two wins and some general consistency in each round should be the minimum requirement.

ITALY

Coach: Conor O’Shea

Captain: Sergio Parisse

Strengths: Confidence seemed a lot higher in 2017, but with the improvements of Zebre and Benetton, could this be the year when the Azzurri spring a surprise?

Weaknesses: Although they boast some powerful forwards, they lack the class and pace out wide that could trouble teams. Too much reliance on Parisse – at 35 – will work against them.

2018 record: Won 2, Lost 8

What would success be for Italy: A first Six Nations win since 2015 and more discipline in defence will be a positive for O’Shea and Co.

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Jacob Stockdale, Stuart Hogg and other players set to light up Six Nations 2019

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The Six Nations kicks off on Friday night with Ireland bidding to win back-to-back Grand Slam titles.

From precocious Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale to Scotland talisman Stuart Hogg, the competition will again showcase the full spectrum of Northern Hemisphere talent.

Here we examine six players to watch ahead of the tournament’s big kick-off.

JACOB STOCKDALE

AGE: 22

CLUB: Ulster
IRELAND CAPS: 14

The Ulster man has established himself as one of the best wingers in world rugby over the past twelve months.

With 12 tries in 14 matches, the 22-year-old will be one of the key players that Joe Schmidt will be looking towards for inspiration this spring.

At 6ft 3in, the Belfast man possesses pace, strong game management skills and a reliability under the high ball, but his defence still needs work.

Although it is still early in his professional career, he is sure to be a leading light for both club and country for years to come.

STUART HOGG

AGE: 26
CLUB: Glasgow
SCOTLAND CAPS: 65

One of the stand-out players in the Northern Hemisphere, Hogg could step into any team with little fuss. He always shows glimpses of his outstanding ability, suggesting he is one of Scotland’s greatest players of all time.

It’s hard to believe he’s still only 26 – and his ability to eye gaps and produce magic with every touch has seen him evolve into one of the game’s most-dominant figures.

Although he is only just finding his way back to full fitness after an ankle injury in November, expect the Glasgow man to light up the campaign.

BILLY VUNIPOLA

AGE: 26
CLUB: Saracens
ENGLAND CAPS: 36

When fit, Vunipola is up there with the best players in the world.

The Saracens No8 is a totemic presence who has a knack for catching opposition attackers behind the gain line and, coupled with his strong ball-carrying ability, is a superb asset to any starting line-up.

Still only 26, there are few weaknesses evident in his game with solid defending and a strong attacking game at the centre of his vast skillset.

Aside from the brilliance of Owen Farrell, he is hands down England’s most important player.

GAEL FICKOU

AGE: 24
CLUB: Stade Francais
FRANCE CAPS: 41

The 24-year-old centre is incredibly fast, great hands and very athletic.

If Les Bleus can pair the Paris native with the experienced Mathieu Bastareaud or Wesley Fofana they could have one of the best midfield pairings in the competition.

His experience and overall class gives head coach Jacques Brunel plenty of options going forward. When in possession, Fickou has the ability to threaten opposition defences with his slick feet allowing him to evade would-be tacklers with ease.

If France are to improve on their disappointing 2018 showing, then Fickou – along with captain Guilhem Guirado – will be a constant source of inspiration to their tournament prospects.

HADLEIGH PARKES

AGE: 31
CLUB: Scarlets
WALES CAPS: 10

Liam Williams and George North may be the influential figures in the Wales back-line, but Parkes is equally as effective with ball in hand and in defence.

The 31-year-old is strong on the gain-line and tends to lead the back line in tackles made in most matches.

The Scarlets man adds serious X-factor, solidity in midfield and variety in attack and should cause France plenty of problems in Paris on Friday.

If Wales are to win a first championship since 2013, then the Kiwi-born star will be one of the central players.

SEBASTIAN NEGRI

AGE: 24
CLUB: Benetton
ITALY CAPS: 12

The 24-year-old boasts powerful ball carrying skills and is ultra-reliable at both line-out and scrum time.

Currently plying his trade with Benetton, the lock-cum-back-rower is slowly establishing himself as one of the Azzurri’s key men.

With the inspirational Sergio Parisse turning 36 in September, Negri’s potential gives head coach Conor O’Shea confidence in knowing the next generation of Italian players can step up if their captain retires after the World Cup.

If Italy are to win a first Six Nations game since February 2015, then Negri will be one of the leading conductors in their orchestra.

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