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Stephen Ferris previews the Six Nations Championship

| 04.02.2021

And so another Six Nations championship begins this weekend, albeit not like everyone was hoping due to the global pandemic which is still causing havoc across the world.

We are very fortunate that the Six Nations is going ahead as planned, because there was a lot of speculation that the tournament would not take place.

I would be very surprised, like most people, if the tournament is uninterrupted and is concluded on the dates that are currently in place.

But, we’re all hoping that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that we can all look forward to an extremely competitive Six Nations tournament. You can check the latest tournament odds here.

Ireland

New coaching staff in Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and John Fogarty have had their bedding in period and now the fans want to see exactly what the Farrell blueprint is.

Paul O’Connell has been added to the coaching setup with Simon Easterby having a more hands-on approach with the Ireland defence. So many cogs to the coaching wheel but ultimately it’s down to the players selected in the squad to deliver on the big occasion.

Thirty six players have been carefully selected for this championship. Some very interesting calls have been made and in my opinion I think they are a little light in certain areas.

Only five props included, three of which have had little to no game time over the last six months. Dave Kilcoyne has been plagued with an ankle injury, Tadhg Furlong out for nearly a year with a back injury, and Tom O’Toole rarely been fit and seems second or third choice at Ulster.

I hope there isn’t an injury crisis in the front row area for Ireland, or it could be a nightmare trying to navigate your way through big games with inexperience and under cooked players.

Other areas of concern are in the backline. Jonny Sexton limped off with a hamstring injury in his last game, will he be fit to play against Wales? No Jacob Stockdale through injury so James Lowe and Andrew Conway come into the squad, both of whom have played hardly any rugby since the Autumn Nations Cup.

It feels like Ireland will rely once again on the older heads to get them through this competition. And if everyone stays fit and healthy, then they will have a good chance of winning it.

Ireland finished third in last year’s Six Nations. They have England and France at home this year who both finished ahead of them in 2020. If they can get off to a winning start against Wales away on Sunday, then I believe they can make a strong challenge for the title.

No Jacob Stockdale who has been a try scoring machine for Ireland in previous years, so the likes of Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour will have to fill that void.

Ireland are 7/2 to win the championship, and I feel that is about right considering how they finished off the Autumn Nations Cup, and also last year’s Six Nations.

I don’t believe Ireland are going to win the championship, but at 10/11 to beat Wales on the opening weekend I feel that’s hard to look past.

Wales

How on earth are Wales 14/1 to win the Six Nations?

Under Warren Gatland, Wales were feared by every team in world rugby. He seemed to be able to get the very best out of his players, week in and week out.

Now the Welsh squad is working under a new coaching ticket which has struggled massively to adapt. Wayne Pivac, who is the Head Coach, has come under huge criticism since taking over the reigns. His neck was on the chopping block during the Autumn Nations Cup because of not only the results, but the manner of the defeats.

I do feel sorry for him a little because he hasn’t had 80,000 Welsh fans cheering his team on at the Principality Stadium when playing at home, and we all know the atmosphere there is like no other. The best stadium in the world in my opinion.

But, how much time does Wayne Pivac have to turn things around? I certainly feel that if Wales don’t finish in the top three that he will be gone come the end of the tournament. I sincerely hope that I am wrong because he did a terrific job at the Scarlets and the success they had wasn’t built overnight.

When playing against Wales in the past you knew exactly what they were going to throw at you, but it was trying to stop it that was the hard part.

Not a particularly flash team, but a team who worked extremely hard for each other and always found a way to grind out results. World Cup 2019 semi-finalists, a team full of pedigree, but is this an aging team with not many young guys showing they can shine at international level?

I think they might spring a shock or two throughout this tournament, but they don’t have the strength and depth to challenge for the title.

The front row quality is a big concern. Rhys Carre got demolished in Dublin a few months ago. Leon Brown has been massively exposed at international level. Tomas Francis has fallen off the wagon a little. So it’s critical that the front row union get their act together and set a platform that has been missing this last 12 months.

The flying machine Louis Rees-Zammit makes the squad,  but will Pivac go with youth, or go with the experience of North, Josh Adams, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams? Time will tell. British and Irish Lions spread throughout the Welsh squad, and hopefully they can roar once again and get Wales back to winning ways.

It’s 11/10 for Wales to win against Ireland in their opening game. Wayne Barnes is refereeing so I’m expecting a very close match with potentially a yellow card or two.

Wales have Ireland and England at home this year. If they play to their potential they might be in the mix come the last weekend. Their final game is France away, and in my opinion their hopes of a Six Nations title will probably be over by then.

England

England’s loss to South Africa in the World Cup final seems such a long time ago, and it is I suppose from a rugby point of view.

Since then England have won a Six Nations title and won the Autumn Nations cup. They have lost only twice in their last 18 international games, those coming against South Africa and France.

England are a team who can beat anyone in the world and that’s why they are favourites once again for this year’s Six Nations at 6/5.

Why have the men in white been so consistent? Why are they so hard to beat? Well I think a lot of credit has to go to the coaching team for building a squad which can compete.

In their squad of 28 players, which they will be able to maintain throughout the tournament, you would be happy with any of these lads to go out and get the job done for their team.

Yes, England have a huge pool of talent to pick from, and arguably they play at a higher standard every week in the Premiership, but they are a very well drilled side that sticks to a game plan. A game plan that might not be too pleasing on the eye at times, but  it’s usually a winning one, and that’s all that matters at international level.

Power screams at me when looking at Eddie Jones’s squad. Massive, powerful, athletic, energetic, and cohesive. Everything you want really. The forwards always set the tone and with wrecking balls like Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Jamie George leading from the front, it’s going to take one hell of an effort to get one over on these lads.

What an opening fixture for England this year. The last time Scotland played in Twickenham it was an enthralling encounter that ended up 38-38 come the final whistle.

England are 1/9 to win, and the handicap a huge 16 points. With no fans in London I certainly feel that Scotland +15 is the bet of the weekend. Scotland won’t be rolling over in week one, and with Finn Russell back in their squad, it should be an epic clash.

France

France start their Six Nations campaign with an away game against Italy in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Usually a stadium that is full of atmosphere and emotion, but sadly, with Covid restrictions, we will only see empty seats on our TV screens this year.

This surely will be a huge advantage to France as the Italians rely so much on their home support who give them that extra energy. France I’m sure won’t mind in the slightest, and they will be looking to set down a marker for the rest of the teams to be worried about.

The French have been one of the most improved teams over the last year or two. Finally they seem to have some structure to their squad selection and their coaching staff.

Head coach Fabien Galthie and his blue army have kicked on well since their agonising defeat 20-19 to Wales in the 2019 World Cup quarter final.

They have beaten England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland over the last 12 months, so I’m sure they will be very confident in their chances of winning this tournament. However as history shows, it won’t be straightforward. France has not won the Six Nations since 2010. Yes that’s right, 2010. Will this be their year?

France have a few players on their injury list that definitely won’t feature in the opening couple of rounds. Hooker Camille Chat, backline players Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Virimi Vakatawa are all sidelined, and these guys are arguably starter’s in the French team.

It’s not all bad news. though, as Gregory Alldritt has been passed fit to join the squad. He was close to being named the best player in last year’s competition, so I’m sure he will be looking to win that accolade this time round.

They have lots of quality throughout their squad, and with the magician Antone Dupont leading the way, I feel they will be a very tough team to beat this year.

Second favourites behind England at 5/2 to win the championship, but with Ireland and England away from home I don’t feel they will have enough. Always entertaining to watch, and with Italy up first we should expect to see a few tries.

Teddy Thomas who is excellent week in and week out for Racing 92 will be threatening that try line, I would be tipping him for the first try.

Hopefully the weather is kind in Rome and France get to show what they are made of. A big win away from home sets it up perfectly for the following week against Ireland.

Scotland

Scotland kick off their Six Nations campaign with a match against England for the Calcutta Cup. It was a draw in the last game between these two in London, and Scotland will be kicking themselves that they didn’t get the win that day.

It’s been a long time since Scotland did a job on their biggest rivals, in fact the last time they won in England was 1983. Surely that long awaited win is just around the corner. Well, that’s what all the Scottish fans are hoping for.

Not a huge amount of experience in the squad selected by Gregor Townsend. A number of new faces experiencing Six Nations surroundings for the first time.

Four uncapped players in Dave Cherry, Ewan Ashman, Alex Craig and Cameron Redpath. All four lads playing brilliant rugby for their respective clubs, and they should all see game time at some stage during the tournament.

I’ve been impressed with some of the youngsters coming through the Scottish ranks and hopefully a few of them can deliver for their Tartan Army who I’m sure will all be watching from home.

Scotland are 16/1 to win this tournament. The odds are very much stacked against them due to having the reigning champions away from home in their first match. The handicap is around 15 points which I feel is huge considering it’s the opening game, and also Scotland have Finn Russell back in their ranks.

The relationship between him and Gregor Townsend seems to be patched up, so let’s hope Finn can bring his club form to the international stage. I believe he will, as this game is very much a shop window for the British and Irish Lions tour which is due to go ahead this summer.

A team which still feels like it’s just not up with the big boys. Absolutely Scotland can compete, but I don’t think they can do it for five straight games. Two home wins against Wales and Ireland, and an away win against Italy, will be a successful campaign.

Italy

The last time Italy won a Six Nations match was in February 2015 against Scotland. This is why they are 500/1 to win the Championship.

Franco Smith who is the Head Coach of Italy has named a 32 man squad. Hooker Luca Bigi will captain the Azzurri who will be wanting to end the run of 27 consecutive losses in the Six Nations.

However, I feel the Italian squad is going to struggle once again this year, and if they could win one game it would be a huge success

A couple players to look out for are Monty Ioane, who plays for Benetton, and is an extremely dangerous player with the ball in hand, and Maxime Mbanda, who is a ferocious ball carrier and he relishes the physical contact. Unfortunately a couple of players won’t make the difference to Italy, and with struggles at 9 and 10 over the years, game management has always been a struggle.

They have France at home in their opening game and they will give them a few headaches during the 80 minutes. The handicap of 21 points seems about right considering where the two teams currently are on their journey. Look out for high handicap markets later in the tournament when Italy is playing. Always worth backing the underdog when their backs are against the wall.

TIPS

ROUND 1:

Scotland +15 vs England at 10/11

Ireland -2 vs Wales at 10/11

Double here is 2.6/1

TRY SCORER:

Teddy Thomas first try vs Italy at 6/1

TOURNAMENT ODDS:

No Grand Slam- 10/11

Top try scorer- Teddy Thomas- 8/1

No triple Crown- 1/1

Top points scorer- Owen Farrell- 1/1

View the latest Six Nations odds.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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