Six Nations: Ireland set to rival England for title but it looks like more misery for France
England's bid to make it a hat-trick of Six Nations titles will be fraught with challenges over the next two months, with Ireland appearing the side best placed to deny them.
Last year: Champions
Eddie Jones has never failed to win the Six Nations championship. That amounts to a grand slam in his first season in charge in 2016, then another title 12 months later.
The loss to Ireland last year, which still didn’t stop England winning the title, remains the lone defeat Jones has suffered in his 23 Tests in charge to date.
And yet England’s coach has been doing his best to talk up the chances of everyone else ahead of the start of 2018, especially Ireland and Scotland.
Doubtless it is a ploy to deflect pressure. And he has a point that his side are injury ravaged. But isn’t everyone?
Last year: Second
Ireland always qualify their hopes of winning a grand slam in “even” years with the fact they have to play away matches in Paris and Twickenham.
At least the first of those should be less of a stress this time around. France are at best in flux, at worst in meltdown, while the Irish have the majority of their senior stars fit and ready to go.
In Tadgh Furlong, they have perhaps the eminent front-row forward in the game, while the Jonathan Sexton-Conor Murray axis could lay claim to a similar label among half-back partnerships, at least in Europe.
Last year: Third
It used to be the case that France were infused with optimism in the first Six Nations after a British & Irish Lions tour had taken place the previous summer. They won it in 2006 and 2010, after all.
Optimism is in short supply, though. It is difficult to imagine a worse build up to a tournament. The police raided the headquarters of the French Rugby Federation last month. They sacked their coach, Guy Noves, after a miserable autumn.
Few are hopeful that there will be much of a new-coach bounce under Jacques Brunel, but teenaged fly-half Matthieu Jalibert could at least provide some spark.
Last year: Fourth
There could be some exciting breakthrough players in this competition, notably Jalibert for France, Ireland’s Jordan Larmour, or a number of the Scarlets contingent with Wales.
Scotland might have two of the most eye-catching, already-established attackers, though, in fly-half Finn Russell and fullback Stuart Hogg.
Their success or otherwise – as well as that of the team – will be wholly dependent, as ever, on the platform the forward pack can lay.
Pity, then, that Gregor Townsend, the coach, is without a variety of front-row forwards at the start of this competition. Still, hopes springs that the Scots can reprise the verve of their autumn.
Last year: Fifth
Warren Gatland is back in situ after his Lions sabbatical. Wales fans will be thankful for that, after the disappointments of another Rob Howley interim term last year.
Whether Wales are certain to return to the tried and tested of direct, to-the-point Warrenball is debatable, however.
Gatland has thrown in a number of players from the Scarlets, the sparkling Pro 14 champions. Perhaps the greatest intrigue will surround how Rhys Patchell fares at No 10, and Josh Adams, the Worcester Warrior, on the wing.
Injuries make a title challenge appear unlikely, but Gatland is used to upsetting the odds.
Last year: Sixth
At least Italy got under the skins of England at Twickenham last year, when they held a half-time lead, but Conor O’Shea, their coach, wants to prove they are more than a non-rucking gimmick.
The Irishman has his work cut out to achieve that. OK, so things have been looking up in the club game for Italian sides Zebre and Treviso this season, and O’Shea has spoken in upbeat terms about some of the talent coming through the ranks. Plus, of course, Sergio Parisse is still around.
All that said, it feels like they are set for another year of incremental progress, rather than significant achievement.
Updated: February 1, 2018 05:43 PM