Last weekend’s return of the Six Nations Championship may have lacked the extravagant play of last year’s Rugby World Cup, but the three fixtures did not lack for excitement, commitment and intensity. That drama continues this weekend with fans asking which team will prevail in this wide-open championship.
All the questions asked before France played Italy in last weekend’s opener are still pertinent. Can the Italians bring forward a new generation? Can the giants of club rugby France and England produce national teams to match their club dominance? Will Ireland overcome devastating injuries to gain a historic third consecutive title? Do Wales have the guile to match their brute force, and can Scotland turn potential into results?
Offering the most answers are England. A powerful display at Murrayfield showed traditional English forward power. Combined with a well taken second try by Jack Nowell, the performance showed what England are capable of.
No one can doubt England have talented individuals, but now Eddie Jones’s team, after a disastrous home World Cup under predecessor Stuart Lancaster, must take the confidence gained from that performance and marry power and flair to deliver the title.
Another positive for England in their quest is having both Wales and Ireland visit Twickenham. But home advantage also brings expectation, and these games will test the leadership, character and fragile discipline of new captain Dylan Hartley. Can he lead them to a first Grand Slam since 2003?
Sunday’s opponents Italy fought valiantly at the Stade de France only for Sergio Parisse to miss a late drop-goal attempt which denied them victory. Perhaps it is symbolic that the chance fell to the great veteran. Italy have no one to replace him and any chance of success for them lies with him. What will they do when the 32-year-old eventually retires?
France, the only other team with the Grand Slam still available to them, have the advantage of playing their first two games at home. However, Ireland are a completely different opponent to Italy. Despite a draw against Wales taking away their Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes, Ireland will still believe they can land a third championship in a row.
Joe Schmidt’s men will take great encouragement that their injury-ravaged team could produce such a performance in an intense battle with Wales. The return of Lions pair Sean O’Brien and Keith Earls will only enhance Irish hopes of an away victory.
France were lucky to avoid defeat to Italy. It is worth noting that, on the same weekend, France’s top club side Racing 92 defeated southern hemisphere Super Rugby champions the Highlanders of New Zealand, highlighting that the talent that makes their clubs so strong is not of the homegrown variety. France look a long way from being the great entertainers of European rugby that won so many titles playing with fearless adventure.
Despite Scotland not having beaten Wales in Cardiff since 2002 the match at the newly renamed Principality Stadium is the standout tie of the weekend. After surviving the opening Irish torrent in Dublin last weekend Wales may feel slightly aggrieved not to have left with a win.
But Wales have received a huge boost in the return of the talismanic Dan Biggar after recovering from what was feared to be a possible three-week-recovery ankle injury in just five days.
Wales coach Gatland feared the worst when Ospreys outside-half Biggar limped off the 16-16 Six Nations draw with Ireland last Sunday.
“The medics thought that it was a three-to-five-week injury,” Gatland said.”But the scan came back clear and he’s worked really hard. He’s made a pretty miraculous recovery really.”
The key battles lie in all areas. Will the “miraculous” return of Biggar give Wales an advantage in the battle of the standoffs? Can Scotland’s Gray brothers compete at the lineout against the twin towers of Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris?
Who will secure the breakdown, with Scotland mimicking the Australian tactic of playing two openside flankers. Jamie Roberts was exceptional against Ireland in blunting the talents of Robbie Henshaw. Can he do the same against Mark Bennett? And finally, which of the two fine captains, Sam Warburton and Greig Laidlaw, can inspire their men the most?
These teams have contrasting styles – Scotland look to move the ball quickly to find space for talented runners like Stuart Hogg, while Wales are hugely physical with giants like George North smashing opponents. Who will win a potentially high scoring affair – Scottish potential or Welsh know-how?
No one who has been following the championship over the last decade can doubt the danger of the Welsh under Warren Gatland. They know how to win this title, while Scotland have faced many false dawns.
As ever the Six Nations, in its early stages, asks more questions than it gives answers – and this is why we are compelled to return year after year.