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Six Nations Preview

Cooch’s Column

The Six Nations after a World Cup is always a strange tournament. For each international powerhouse it is a time to reflect on their performance on the globe’s biggest stage. However, it is also a chance to consolidate those experiences and rebuild for the next four years.

Rebuilding a fatigued squad is a tough job. Six Nations stalwarts Rory Best, Greig Laidlaw and Dan Cole have played their last game for their country, and not always through their own choice. In rugby, players rarely get the fairy-tale ending that they deserve. For the players who have hung on to their international jerseys that they fought so hard to win, there will be a period of analysis as coaches shuffle their packs.

 

Rory Best has won the last of his 124 Ireland caps.

But with a rebuild comes exciting new names who are set to light up the Six Nations for a generation. With 46 uncapped players across the sides, each squad has been pumped with fresh blood who will hope to establish themselves during this World Cup cycle.

As our beloved countries face such a period of transition, we face one of the most unpredictable Six Nations in a long time. We’ve still got some brilliant packages available too, so make sure you have a look and enjoy the oldest rugby tournament on the planet. I, for one, can’t wait!

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France v England

“Le Crunch” is always a sporting spectacle. I cannot wait to visit Paris for the weekend and witness a match that I just cannot call.

Overall, I’m optimistic about England’s chances following their sensational run to the World Cup Final. Eddie Jones has a core of young players at his disposal who are still yet to hit their prime, which bodes well for the squad’s development between now and France 2023.

Elder statesman such as Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis will expect to keep their place for another year, and rightly so after a terrific showing in Japan. This will not only keep some consistency, but it will also allow England’s flying youngsters to bed into the culture and playing style.

What England do have is a conundrum at scrum half. Ben Youngs, England’s most-capped scrum half, has been a terrific servant to his country for a decade. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the best game against the Springboks in Yokohama, and I’d argue that Willi Heinz had a finer tournament than the Leicester 9. I’m glad that Heinz gets another opportunity to wear the rose, but he isn’t the long-term solution.

 

Eddie Jones remains intent on picking scrum half duo Willi Heinz (left) and Ben Youngs (right).

That’s why I’m so excited about Northampton’s Alex Mitchell. Learning from South Africa’s World Cup hattrick hero Cobus Reinach at club level has really accelerated Mitchell’s development. Jones has noticed and called the scrum half into the squad as an apprentice player, but I’d love to see him get some minutes under his belt.

I am worried about Billy Vunipola. On his day there’s no better player in the country, but his injury problems seem to keep reoccurring. I really do hope that he makes a quick recovery because he is a stellar player that still has another World Cup left in him.

And finally, I just can’t talk about England without mentioning the Saracens salary cap scandal that has dominated the headlines. Regardless of your opinion, these are a close-knit bunch of lads who thrive on an “us against the world” approach and I don’t think it’ll affect them enormously.

England have a young core of players who will have learnt a hell of a lot after their blistering semi-final victory over New Zealand and their subsequent bullying from South Africa in the World Cup Final. They’ll be right up there come March. But first, they’ve got to defeat the French.

As for France, they will be buoyant. Will 19 uncapped players drafted in by Fabien Galthié, Les Bleus have an average squad age of 24 and will be a monumental test for England.

It was a shame that these rivals didn’t get to play in the World Cup because I thought France looked top class. If Sebastien Vahaamahina hadn’t lashed out in their quarter final against Wales and avoided a red card, I think they would have progressed to the semis.

 

France were on course to progress to the World Cup semi finals until a stray elbow from Sebastian Vahaamahina reduced Les Bleus to 14.

As ever, France have great flair in their backline. Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Damien Penaud and Teddy Thomas are names to watch out for this Spring.

Traditionally, the French have also had a monster pack. In the past I’d say their forwards were quite passive and ponderous, but now, led by Charles Ollivon, they have a true athleticism which will see them in good stead throughout the tournament.

France v England could well be an early tournament decider. If England win in Paris, the ball is in the French court to win their remaining games and put the pressure on Jones’s side. However, if France win, I can see them playing with a real swagger and running away with the Six Nations.

 

Wales v Italy

With Warren Gatland gone, Wales begin the Six Nations with a new coach for the first time in 12 years. During this dynasty, the decorated Head Coach won the tournament four times – with three being Grand Slams. There’s an atmosphere of when Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United as a team finds their feet in a new era. Let’s hope the promising Wayne Pivac doesn’t embody David Moyes.

Overall, it’s a similar squad with living legend Alun Wyn Jones providing continuity as captain yet again. This is a good move by Pivac as he’ll look to his experienced players to lead from the front as he establishes himself as an international coach.

I am tremendously excited about Wales’s crop of debutants this year. Louis Rees-Zammit has come from nowhere to tear up in the Premiership this season for Gloucester, scooping a Player of the Month award at just 18 years of age.

As for Italy, they’re a bit of an unknown quantity for me this year. The absence of Sergio Parisse will be hard felt. He’s been one of the greatest players of the modern era and has won games for his country on his own for almost 20 years. However, Italy’s new boss Franco Smith has hinted that there may be a chance for Parisse to don his country’s jersey one final time. A fitting send off for a talismanic player.

Despite the pressure on Pivac, I predict a comfortable win for Wales, who will be bouncing at their Principality Stadium fortress.

 

Ireland v Scotland

Ireland and Scotland are two rugby proud nations who will be desperately disappointed at their World Cup showings.

Having spoken to some of my friends north of the border, they believe that not beating Japan was a huge blow for the national side and a period of rebuilding is essential.

With the news that Finn Russell will now leave the Scotland squad prior to the Ireland game for “a breach of team protocol”, Scotland have been handed a massive loss on the eve of their campaign. Russell is a true gamechanger and arguably their most talented player, but although I do not know the details at this stage, discipline must come first.

After being talked about as potential winners mere months before the tournament, Ireland failed to defeat hosts Japan at the World Cup and were handed the almost impossible task of facing the All Blacks in the quarter finals.

Under new leadership with Andy Farrell at the helm and Jonny Sexton his captain, I will be intrigued to see what changes will be made to a side that ultimately failed to deliver in Japan.

At the age of 34, Sexton is still consistently performing and being given the captaincy is a testament to his unquestionable ability and ice cool mentality. With 88 caps to his name, he’s bound to become an Ireland centurion, joining the elite group of Best, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll.

I can see a scrappy game unfolding at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin this weekend, with both teams fighting tooth and nail to right the wrongs of their World Cup campaigns. This one is tough to call, so I’m going for Ireland given their home advantage.

Jonathan Sexton will be the man to make the difference for Ireland against Scotland.

 

Join Gareth Chilcott on tour during the Six Nations by booking a Venatour rugby package.

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France v England - Guinness Six Nations Eddie Jones Paris