Your guide to the Six Nations

DUFC’s Darragh Higgins gives his predictions for the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby competition.

With another Six Nations just around the corner, we take an in-depth look at this year’s competition, so you know what to look out for and who to pick for your Six Nations Fantasy Team. Here is our predicted power ranking for this years exciting contest.

1st Place: England

A tighter call than we would originally have thought, due to the massive injury issues haunting the Premiership and English rugby in general. However, the Red Rose Machine will continue to run at full capacity under the watchful eye of Eddie Jones, who has committed to his adopted country until  August 2021. One caveat should be that his predecessor Stuart Lancaster had committed to England on a massive six year deal with the RFU, months before his ingracious sacking. In this regard, Jones will not be caught out, as he will drive his players as hard as ever in a bid for a third consecutive Six Nations title, putting them in the driving seat for the 2019 World Cup. They will miss some of those struck down by injury; Billy Vunipola and Elliot Daly most of all, but the 2017 & 2016 Champions have built some impressive squad depth, and still retain that important Saracens core that proved so effective on the lions tour. The English will be targeting their game away to Scotland at Murrayfield as the pivotal game of the championship, as they should be strong enough to overcome Ireland and Wales, with both games taking place in Twickenham.

Top Try Scorer: With Elliot Daly struck down, Anthony Watson will likely share wing duties with Leicester speedster Jonny May, who will look to continue his impressive track record with England in this years competition. May has been struggling with hamstring issues this season, but has looked incredibly sharp on the pitch, recently recording a 40m sprint time at 10.49m per second, which would see him compete to set a 100m world record if he were to compete in the olympics. Expect Jones to utilise this natural gas, Owen Farrell and George Ford set to rake in the assists with some neat chip kicks out towards the wing.

Up and Coming: James Haskell’s timing error with his hit on Jamie Roberts has served to leave him in exile for this year’s championship, while Billy Vunipola also will take limited, if any, part in the competition. This should leave an opportunity open for Exeter’s Sam Simmonds, the lightning quick backrower storming his way around the Premiership and Champions Cup. This year has been a breakthrough for the 22-year-old and, if given the opportunity, he should kick on and make an impression on the international stage.

2nd Place: Ireland

The Irish look set to take the silver medal for the second year in a row, beating out the Scottish by virtue of their fortunate fixtures list, which sees them play two away games, to France and England, as well as three home games. The Autumn Internationals proved to be a simple obstacle for the Irish to overcome, coming away with three wins from three, and with a great deal more knowledge of their squad depth than before, with players like Bundee Aki and Jack Conan emerging as viable options within the team. Put simply, if Ireland are to claim second they will need to impose their well oiled game plan on Scotland and Wales, who are currently miles ahead of the Irish in terms of broken field running and offloading play. If Ireland fail to control majorities of games, they will not be able to compete in the chaos of open field, although they have two of the games top playmakers in Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray. The halfback pairing should be capable of dominating games with their accurate kicking game, although they look set to fall short against an England team in dominant form at home.

Top Try Scorer: With the Irish having adopted a rigorously structured and heavily controlled game plan, there is less room for game breaking outside backs and more of a requirement for savvy, hard working operators out wide. To this end, the likely top try scorer this season is likely to come up front, with Rory Best likely to take the gong. With his role in maul tries often underestimated, the Irish captain and stalwart is capable of poaching some easy finishes this season. Keep an eye on back row dynamos CJ Stander and Josh Van der Flier as well.

Up and Coming: 20-year-old wunderkind Jordan Larmour has been a revelation for Leinster this season, lighting up open play with some dazzling footwork and exceptional tries, serving as a source of inspiration for grizzled veterans Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney, who have hitherto rediscovered their best form. Larmour is unlikely to feature heavily in this year’s championship if Joe Schmidt has a full roster to pick from, although the fullback has clearly enjoyed taking every single opportunity that has come his way this season. Should he be given a shot, most likely against Italy, expect Ireland to produce some fireworks with a new weapon in their arsenal.

3rd Place: Scotland

Despite some serious improvement in their all-round game, the Scots look will likely lose out against the English and Irish this year. While England should be too powerful to conquer, even at Murrayfield, the Scots are also away in Dublin for their fixture with Ireland, which should give the edge to Joe Schmidt’s well drilled side. Regardless, Gregor Townsend has done a fine job with this young team, who will only get better in the coming years. Spearheaded up front by young athletic forwards like Zander Fagerson, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson, this team also possesses some lethal backs in the form of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, and thats without mentioning much of the talent that’s coming through the ranks in the country. The Scots should have too much speed out wide and confidence up front to lose out to a Wales team that are still finding their feet with a new style of play, as well as a resurgent Italy and a French side in freefall.

Top Try Scorer: With an abundance of possible options in the outside backs, its difficult to pinpoint exactly where Scotland will score most of their tries. If they can gain some dominance up front, expect Huw Jones, formerly of Western Province, to continue to impress on the international stage. The outside centre has proven he’s a capable finisher, but more than that he possesses a superb all round skill-set, and could potentially light up the competition, along with the rest of Scotland’s talented backline.

Up and coming: Another in-form Scottish back, Byron McGuigan, with two caps to his name, has the potential to shine at international level. Gifted with natural speed and surprising strength in contact, the Sale Sharks winger showed plenty of grit and finishing ability in his starting debut against Australia. With the amount of talent available to Scotland out wide, McGuigan may struggle for game time, but when he gets a run you can expect him to seize the opportunity.

4th Place: Wales

The Welsh dragon is entering another period of ambiguity, with Warren Gatland’s time winding slowly to an end, and with a decidedly new gameplan to undertake. In the Autumn internationals, the Welsh played with refreshing vigor, with noticeably more desire to dominate contact and get the offload away. With exciting talents in the backs, and up front, particularly the Llanelli Scarlets contingent who have been dominating the Pro14/12 competition over the past two seasons, this team certainly has plenty of potential to entertain, but might not have what it takes to overcome the three teams above who seem to be more comfortable in their processes and talents. Despite this, expect fireworks from the Welsh back row, who have talent to burn with the likes of Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau and Aaron Shingler vying for spots, working well with skillful halfbacks Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar.

Top Try Scorer: With a multitude of lethal finishers available in the Welsh squad, including the likes of Northampton’s George North, it is a massive compliment to Scarlet’s Steff Evans to say that he seems like the most threatening of the lot. The winger has been in exceptional form for his club, has proven that he has both the power and determination to finish tries when given the opportunity, and is none too shabby at creating tries from nothing either. Certainly one to watch.

Up and Coming: Another talented Scarlet’s backrow, yet to make his debut, is the exciting James Davies. Davies possesses all the skills of a traditional international tearaway, but matches this with the kind of speed and skill in open play that saw him make it to the final of the Olympics sevens competition with Great Britain. He has been knocking on the door of the international scene for a long time, and could be the kind of player that would greatly suit Wales’ new style of play.

5th Place:  France

France look likely to beat out Italy in the battle for last place, merely by virtue of the fact that they face Italy at home in Paris. The French have a wealth of talent at their disposal, and should, on paper, be competing at the other end of the table with the players and resources they have. However, they are suffering from a number of significant off the field problems, with the Top 14 competition guilty of overplaying players to the point where the step up to international rugby is harder than ever before, while new coach Jaques Brunel’s track record with Italy in the Six Nations does not comfort either. While the French will be typically resilient in their efforts, and hopefully spirited in their traditional style of offloading game, they will lack the fitness and organisation to topple most of their northern hemisphere counterparts this year. Even if their new coach had not dropped Louis Picamoles, their most reliable backrower, Baptiste Serin, their most talented young scrumhalf, and Francois Trin Duc, their most experienced flyhalf, they would most likely still be in contention for nowhere higher than fifth place.

Top Try Scorer: Despite possessing some of the most lethal finishers in world rugby with Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, the French will most likely look to use their strong forward runners to finish off their tries with offloads in close to the ruck, as well as using size to dominate with the rolling mall. With this in mind, expect La Rochelle back-row Kevin Gourdon to play a prominent role. His attacking play was impressive last time round, and this year he will have to shoulder even more responsibility in the absence of Picamoles.

Up and Coming: Relative unknown Matthieu Jalibert will be given a baptism of fire should he start for France in their first game against Ireland. The 19-year-old flyhalf has the confidence of new coach Brunel, who will be intimately aware of the players potential after coaching him with Bordeaux. If it is a case of home bias, then the teenage playmaker may find it tough going at the highest level, although he certainly has the ability to thrive if the French pack can gain dominance.

Wooden Spoon: Italy

The annual wooden spoon should be bestowed upon the Italian’s this year, despite a recent upturn in fortunes thanks to the intelligent decision making of coach Conor O’Shea. Unfortunately for them, the two teams with whom they might be able to compete properly, Wales and France, will hold home advantage in their clashes this year. Nonetheless, we can be confident that the Italians will make every effort to entertain, as they are starting to develop a spine of talent around symbolic captain Sergio Parisse, particularly with halfbacks Carlo Canna and Eduardo Gori. However, this won’t be enough for them to serve as anything more than a source of debate over Georgia’s right to have a go in the Six Nations yet again this year.

Top Try Scorer: Leonardo Sarto has played an impressive part in a free flowing Glasgow Warriors outfit this year, showcasing his dangerous finishing abilities and impressive power in contact. While Italy will more than likely struggle for parity at the set piece and contact area, Sarto and some of Italy’s backs should cause some problems for other teams.

Up and Coming: Keep an eye on New-Zealand expat Jayden Hayward. The talented utility back possesses a level head that seems common to all Kiwi backs, as well as packing plenty of punch on the speed front. He will continue to represent his adopted country with pride, after some promising appearances in the November internationals.