Gerry Thornley: France primed to end Six Nations drought
Last year fresh in the memory with Ireland best placed to threaten England and France
Matthieu Jalibert will offset the blow of missing Romain Ntamack for France. Photograph: Franck Fife/Getty/AFP
The pecking order has never appeared so clear-cut. Like never before, last year’s Six Nations is still fresh in the memory, having finished less than four months ago and, of course, it was franked by an Autumn Nations Cup which ended just over eight weeks ago. Not much water has passed under that bridge.
What’s more the final, playoff weekend of the hybrid ANC compounded the sense of déjà vu as – fans or no fans – it repeated the results of the opening weekend of the 2020 Six Nations to ensure the same finishing order too: England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy. That also reflects where each country is in the world rankings.
For the 2021 Six Nations, the bookmakers have the same order in the betting save for one deviation, making Wales fourth favourties over Scotland, even though Gregor Townsend’s team bossed the Welsh at the breakdown to deservedly beat them in Parc y Scarlets eight weeks ago and host them at Murrayfield in round two on Saturday week.
Certainly that would appear to be the general perception of Ireland’s threshold, with anything above third a positive improvement and anything below it viewed as a disappointing fall.
Andy Farrell’s first campaign had uncanny echoes of Eddie O’Sullivan’s first in 2002, when Ireland finished third behind France and England after losing in Paris and London by 44-5 and 45-11, while handsomely beating the three below them, Wales (54-10), Scotland (43-22), and Italy (32-17).
The following year?
As well as beating the Celts and Italians, Ireland edged out France at home and took the title to a Grand Slam shoot-out against England at Lansdowne Road, albeit losing 42-6.
In, eh, normal times, this being an odd year, and ne’er a truer word, it’s said to better suit Ireland, what with France and England coming to Dublin, witness Ireland’s Grand Slam in 2009 and title in 2015. Then again, the 2014 title and 2018 Grand Slam incorporated the biennial itinerary encompassing treks to the big two, so perhaps this is overplayed.
If any of the celts is best equipped to take it to France and England it is Ireland. Paul O’Connell could be an inspired appointment, especially if it sharpens up Ireland’s lineout. Like most teams, much of Ireland’s game is predicated on that primary source of possession, and with Tadhg Furlong back in harness, James Ryan and Caelan Doris providing real energy and ballast, Ireland’s pack looks well equipped to go up a notch on last year. Plenty of ball-carriers too.
Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony, like Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, are also in prime form, and with David Kilcoyne, Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Jordan Larmour also making timely returns to fitness, Ireland should be tough for any team to beat. If the more flexible game we saw in the autumn continues to evolve, Ireland can at least be contenders going into the final weekend.
The way they signed off the ANC against Scotland also provides evidence that they can cope with living, literally, in a bubble. A key, of course, is the conductor-in-chief Johnny Sexton staying fit. It would be nice if the midfield did so for once as well, and ditto the props given the lack of cover in the squad.
These odd years are also tailored for a strong Welsh challenge, what with main rivals Ireland and England coming to Cardiff (these three countries have won the last 10 titles).
The last time Ireland were in the Principality Stadium (where they’ve lost on their last three Six Nations visits) Wales sealed a Grand Slam, as was the case in 2007, while they beat England in a title shoot-out there in 2013.
But you sense if any team will miss a full house it is the Welsh. Wayne Pivac could certainly piece together a strong team, but he seems between and betwixt both moving on from a venerable, high achieving side to the 2023 World Cup (while still retaining his job) and also developing a daring, offloading style he harnessed over three years at the Scarlets.
By contrast, Scotland became noticeably more pragmatic last year compared to the risk-taking, high tempo side that stormed back for a 38-all draw on their last trek to Twickenham and went down with all guns blazing against Japan in the World Cup.
But last year’s fare was without the mercurial, risk-taking Finn Russell, and now he’s back. Interesting. Very interesting.
They go to Twickenham, where they haven’t won since 1983, as chipper as ever, but while Fraser Brown is a loss it’s hard to think of a stronger Scottish squad since the turn of the millennium.
England actually look vulnerable. They’ve been de-powered by the loss of Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Launchbury and Sam Underhill, not to mention Manu Tuilagi, a host of front-liners are lacking rugby (not least their Saracens core), their coaches have been in isolation and, of course, there’s no fans at Twickers either.
Nothing about the Italian teams’ form in the Pro14 or Franco Smith’s callow squad, now missing Matteo Minozzi as well as Jake Polledri, suggests they can arrest their 27-match losing sequence in the tournament any time soon (not least with France and England first up).
As with England, France have been hit hard by injuries, to Romain Ntamack, Virimi Vakatawa, Demba Bamba and Camille Chat, but as the performance of their B/C team in the ANC final at Twickenham demonstrated, they have a deep reservoir of talent.
Indeed, Matthieu Jalibert might well overtake Ntamack as their 2023 World Cup outhalf (with Ntamack at 12?). But for injury might already have done so. Jalibert is class, and is even more inventive in opening defences, while he also has the brilliant Antoine Dupont alongside him.
Les Bleus haven’t won a title since 2010, partly because they haven’t won in Dublin for a decade and in Twickenham for 16 years. But that last trek to London should make them less spooked by the prospect, and if ever there was an odd year to break one or more of those sequences, it’s this one.
So, the final pecking order then? France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy.