Jonny Sexton – masterful player
Ireland have won the last two tournaments outright and will be after a hat-trick which will be unprecedented in Six Nations, or earlier versions of the competition.
But the embarrassing way that light-footed Argentina bumped them out of the RWC in the quarter-final does not bode well, and neither does the list of injuries they have, nor the retirement of Paul O’Connell.
The good news for Ireland is that no 6N team has the high tempo game that Los Pumas had that day to overcome their predictable game plan.
Overall, few of the national players performed well for their clubs in the recent European Rugby Champions Cup tournament in which no Irish team progressed to the quarter-finals.
And because of absences, the tight five has only hooker Rory Best and lock Devin Toner as the best available in their position. That could affect the driving of the pack, and also the set pieces. Tight-head prop and tight-head lock are particular concerns.
Iain Henderson and Luke Fitzgerald will miss the tournament as will stalwart winger Tommy Bowe after knee cruciate surgery. Although flyhalf Jonny Sexton, their most influential player, is listed to play, he looked dusty at Wasps recently and hadn’t been in great form anyway.
Centres Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw are expected to run-on, but will be underdone.
Their bench will have to play above themselves because their biggest two rivals are not affected so much by injuries; but with adversity comes the opportunity to test inexperienced players, and they will be involved in test matches, after all.
The leadership of both O’Connell and his likely successor, Peter O’Mahony, will be missed but their absence may be partly offset by the advent of loosie CJ Stander, who looks like foreman material, and is now eligible for Ireland.
Don’t look for much adventurous rugby from Ireland: they have a limited number of players available and use a limited approach. If their high game was not so good and Sexton not such a master tactician it may be otherwise, but they will play to their strengths if their depleted pack allows it.
Ireland have three home games this year but two are against the two weakest teams, on paper; so the advantage doesn’t signify so much.
Players to watch: 1. Jonny Sexton, 2. Conor Murray; 3. Devin Toner
Sergio Parisse – class act of the team
The introduction of the Azzurri has made Six Nations a lesser competition compared to the old Five Nations it replaced. They have finished last, ten times out of 16, and never finished higher than fourth.
Their 6N highlight last year was when they were awarded a penalty try in the 79th minute against Scotland at Murrayfield and beat them 22-19, and there was not much joy in the RWC either: their best performance was in a gritty 9-16 loss to Ireland
Italy have ten uncapped players in their squad and they are not well-known; but who can say there is not a future star amongst them?
The Azzurri showed some strength in recent times in scrummaging but as the practitioners aged they resorted to trickery that was easily noticed. But they have a decent back row with flankers Alessando Zanni and Simone Favaro, plus the class act of the team, no. 8 Sergio Parisse, the talismatic skipper.
If their forwards show up to play Edoardo Gori could shine at scrumhalf, but the injury to his talented partner, flyhalf Tommaso Allan, will be a crushing limitation for the back line this year.
Further out young centre Michele Campagnaro will help a depleted midfield, but Andrea Masi, who snapped an Achilles tendon in the RWC will miss the competition.
There is no reason to suspect Italy will will win more than one game and to do that even, they will have to improve their goal kicking
Italy will not expect to beat France in Paris in Round 1, and has never beaten England, their Round 2 opponents, but they will be licking their lips waiting to play Scotland at Stadio Olimpico in Round 3.
Players to watch: 1, Sergio Parisse, 2. Michele Campagnaro, 3. Edoardo Gori
Greig Laidlaw – the craft of a ringmaster
Scotland have never won Six Nations, which started in 2000, and are not likely to win it this year either. They have lost their last seven games in the competition and have won only four in the last five seasons—and three of those were against regular wooden-spooners, Italy.
Although they were last in the 2015 Six Nations they were the European team that came closest to progressing to the RWC semi-finals, since they would have rolled the Wallabies in the quarters but for a dodgy penalty awarded against them.
Coach Vern Cotter doesn’t have a real hook to hang his hat on but if he get his players in the same frame of mind as when they had Australia rattled, he will do well.
Helped by the craft of ringmaster Greig Laidlaw, the emergence of flyhalf Finn Russell and centre Matt Bennett, plus the occasional brilliancies of fullback Stuart Hogg, Scotland is a potent force if they get enough ball through their pack. But they have to improve all aspects of their defence, including first-up tackles..
Their first game is against England at Murrayfield, and Edward Jones is already taking long range pot shots at Scotland sitting back smiling like a rat with a gold tooth. Apparently England haven’t had enough time together and they have to play away. Poor lambs; they can’t be favourites surely, says Edward.
No doubt the Scotland fans will like to return fire in song after the game— that the Flower of Scotland vanquished the English invader “and stood against him, proud Edward’s army, and sent him homeward, tae think again”.
Oh, for William Wallace in the second-row for Scotland; he was big enough they say—and he took no English prisoners.
Players to watch: 1. Greig Laidlaw, 2. Matt Bennett, 3. Jonny Gray
Justin Tipuric – I’d have him in my team
Wales played some commendable rugby in the RWC despite losing players before and during the tournament, but they couldn’t score a try against 13 Aussies in their pool game, nor defend against the one chance South Africa had in the quarter-final.
Despite that killer Bok try they had the best defence in the tournament giving up only three tries. Their flaw was not scoring enough of them—only four in as many games (not counting their opening romp against Uruguay).
Perhaps with Jonathan Davies and some others on deck against Australia they would have found a way to score a try that day, but the players present did not have the backlog of attacking instincts that a southern team would have had against 13 defenders.
Wales lost only one match in Six Nations last year (in their opening game at home, against England) but they finished just third because they didn’t get enough lollies in the Round 5 scramble for points differential.
With Sam Waburton under-done after injury I hope that coach Warren Gatland plays Justin Tipuric on the open side. He was born in the wrong country; if he was an Aussie and Michael Hooper was born in Wales, he’d be a bigger star than he is now. He was made to play the Aussie way.
I wonder if there is a faint possibility of Wales playing with a more expansive style. Attack coach Rob Howley would like to give it a shot but I can’t see it happening, and I am picking them to win the chocolates with their old style.
Players to watch: 1. Alun Wyn Jones, 2. Dan Biggar, 3. Justin Tipuric