The Natwest 6 Nations tournament is the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby competition and includes 6 of the top teams in the world. It will decide who is the de facto European champion and is currently restricted to 6 teams, including Italy, France and the four UK teams of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and reigning champions England.
These 6 teams, plus Georgia, have all qualified for the next Rugby World Cup due to be held in Japan in autumn 2019. Qualifying matches for the inclusion of other European teams in the world cup competition are still in progress including Spain, Russia, Romania, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, who are all amongst the world top 30. Debate continues to rumble on about expanding the six nations tournament to take in fresh teams.
But in the meantime, this year’s competition gets underway with the first three games to be played on Saturday 3rd February. Part of the appeal of the competition is the high standard of play and the unpredictability of the results; all of the teams are evenly matched, and at the peak of their performance having just completed a round of international tests against the southern hemisphere teams last autumn.
England, the reigning champions, start as favourites, and have the strongest forwards line-up; but they are often criticised for lack of attacking flair and for dumbing down the game into a forwards battle which makes for a poor show.
While Italy based on recent performance does not look likely to challenge England’s title and are rank outsiders according to the bookmakers, they can nevertheless spoil the chances of the other four teams, all of whom have a respectable chance to topple England.
France, who play three games at home in Paris, will face England on the penultimate weekend of the championship on 10th March. Always inventive and creative, they nearly toppled England at Twickenham in 2017, but their form will be tested by Ireland whom they face in their opening game at Stade de France on Saturday 3rd February. Ireland has been given odds of 11/4 to win the championship and is second favourites after England.
In the other championship opening game, Scotland face Wales at Cardiff Arms Park; Wales have home advantage in three of their games but do not have the same firepower as Scotland in their back line.
The six weeks of international rugby are always an entertaining and exciting contest. Partly because it is played with such sporting passion, but also because the results are so unpredictable.
Watch out for the teams with younger players, who are preparing their squads for the World Cup in Japan 2019. We should expect to see the emergence of some talented new stars in this year’s six nations.