Six Nations Preview: Can Wales Repeat As Champions?

It’s the dawn of a new season in rugby. With it comes one of the most historic tournaments in the world of the sport.

The Six Nations Championship—featuring England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy—has centuries of triumph, agony and tension tied to it, making it one of the most storied and watched rugby events on Earth. Over five matchweeks, those six countries will duke it out for the crown, as they have almost every year since the Home Nations (sans France and Italy) started the event in 1883.

At its core, the Six Nations is a showcase of some of the world’s elite rugby talent, squaring off week-by-week for nearly a month-and-a-half as stars are born and glory is pursued. Here’s what to keep an eye on for each team once the tournament starts next month.

NOTE: All match starts are listed in Eastern Time (US) and are subject to change.

England

World Ranking: no. 3

Six Nations Titles: 2000-01, 2003, 2011, 2016-17, 2020

What To Watch For: After winning the event in 2020, many considered England’s fifth-place performance the next year as an embarrassment, picking up just two wins and not winning the Calcutta Cup (against Scotland) or the Millennium Trophy (against Ireland) for only the third time since the Six Nations era began in 2000. Nevertheless, the English rebounded toward the end of the year and closed off 2021 on a strong note, demolishing Tonga (69-3) before getting successive wins against Australia (32-15) and South Africa ( 27-26) on home soil for a big confidence boost headed into the Six Nations. Coach Eddie Jones named his squad over the past week and fly-half Owen Farrell will be named his country’s captain if he’s healthy, as the 30-year-old hasn’t played since picking up an ankle injury in the end-of-year international against Australia.

Six uncapped players feature in Jones’ 36-man squad, with notable omissions including two starters in the South Africa win—openside flanker Sam Underhill and center Manu Tuilagi—who both were not named due to injury. Scrum-half Ben Youngs could also pass legendary prop Jason Leonard as his country’s most-capped player in the tournament as he sits two behind tying the 2003 World Cup winner for appearances for England.

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. Scotland, 11:45 am Feb. 5
vs. Italy, 10 a.m. Feb. 13
vs. Wales, 11:45 am Feb. 26
vs. Ireland, 11:45 am March 12
vs. France, 4 pm March 19

Ireland

World Ranking: no. 4

Six Nations Titles: 2009, 2014-15, 2018

What to watch for: Did any team in the world have as good of a set of year-end internationals as Ireland did? You’d be hard-pressed to find an example. Coach Andy Farrell’s side stomped a solid Japanese team 60-5, then won its third match over New Zealand in five tries— after previously not beating the All Blacks for 111 years—on a historic night Nov. 13 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. A 53-7 thumping of Argentina capped the year off for good measure. Still, since winning its last edition of the Six Nations in 2018, the event hasn’t been kind to the Irish, finishing third in each of the last three tournaments. Farrell’s pace is fast and frenetic, with fly-half Johnny Sexton named captain for the third successive Six Nations after reaching the 100 caps mark against Japan last November.

However, wing James Lowe, who scored a try and made a critical late tackle in the win over New Zealand, wasn’t named in Farrell’s Six Nations squad released Wednesday after picking up an injury at provincial level. Uncapped fly-half Michael Lowry and wing Mack Hansen were named in the squad in potential hopes to find some extra form on the attack.

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. Wales, 9:15 am Feb. 5
vs. France, 11:45 am Feb. 12
vs. Italy, 10 a.m. Feb. 27
vs. England, 11:45 am March 12
vs. Scotland, 12:45 pm March 19

France

World Ranking: no. 5

Six Nations Titles: 2002, 2004, 2006-07, 2010

What To Watch For: With a year to go before France hosts the Rugby World Cup for the second time since 2007, Les Bleus would love nothing more than to capture some early-season silverware headed into what’s a critical campaign for the country. The French have been right on the cusp of a Six Nations title for two years running, finishing runner-up to England in 2020 then again to Wales in 2021, with scrum-half Antoine Dupont—the player of the tournament in 2020—returning to the fray with a possible captaincy in mind as flanker Charles Ollivon (France’s captain the last two tournaments) can’t wear the bracelet as he recovers from a knee injury.

Dupont was the captain in all three of France’s end-of-year internationals, including when coach Fabien Galthie’s men pulled off a blistering 40-25 win over New Zealand on Nov. 20 in Paris for Les Bleus’ first win over the All Blacks since 2009. Performances like that took Dupont to the World Rugby Player of the Year Award at the end of last year—and could take his country to its first Six Nations title in over a decade next month

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. Italy, 10 a.m. Feb. 6
vs. Ireland, 11:45 am Feb. 12
vs. Scotland, 9:45 am Feb. 26
vs. Wales, 3 p.m. March 11
vs. England, 4 p.m. March 19

Scotland

World Ranking: no. 7

Six Nations Titles: none

What To Watch For: Is this the year it finally happens? Dating back to the Home Nations and Five Nations eras, Scotland has had its share of championship glory against its neighbors with 14 outright titles in its history. However, since winning the final edition of the Five Nations in 1999, a historic drought in the event has since enveloped the country with no championships and four wooden spoons (last place) since 2000, the second most only behind Italy. But Scotland’s squad for this Six Nations is strong, with coach Gregor Townsend raving about the 39-man roster’s depth and key pieces.

Wing Duhan van der Merwe, the leading try scorer at last year’s Six Nations, is back in the fold again, as is world-class fly-half Finn Russell, who should make up one of the more polished attacks in the competition. But there’s plenty of excitement for the return of center Cameron Redpath from ACL surgery in May, who was one of Townsend’s best players on the park in his international debut in last year’s Six Nations opener against England—Scotland’s first win in 38 years at Twickenham Stadium in London. Fullback Stuart Hogg, Scotland’s new all-time leading try scorer after scoring his 25th against Japan in November, will captain his country for the second straight Six Nations.

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. England, 11:45 am Feb. 5
vs. Wales, 9:15 am Feb. 12
vs. France, 9:15 am Feb. 26
vs. Italy, 9:15 am March 12
vs. Ireland, 12:45 pm March 19

Wales

World Ranking: no. 8

Six Nations Titles: 2005, 2008, 2012-13, 2019, 2021

What To Watch For: The reigning champions were magical 12 months ago after a poor 2020 in which it went 3-7 overall. The team stormed to a Triple Crown title in last year’s Six Nations—beating all the other Home Nations—with wing Louis Rees-Zammit erupting into a star with a man-of-the-match performance against Scotland that included the try of the tournament.

But with the squad’s regular lock, captain and the world’s most-capped rugby player Alun Wyn Jones, out injured, it’s fly-half Dan Biggar who’ll get the armband for the first time for coach Wayne Pivac’s squad. Even more interestingly, lock Adam Beard was named vice-captain for what’s sure to be a telling tournament at the position in advance of the 36-year-old Jones’ eventual retirement, whenever it comes. With numerous stars from the 2021 title run returning, Wales ‌still enters this year’s tournament as a bit of a wild card. The team lost to New Zealand and South Africa but beat Fiji and Australia at the end-of-year internationals at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. How this year’s opening Six Nations match against Ireland in Dublin goes is probably a decent barometer of what’s to come.

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. Ireland, 9:15 am Feb. 5
vs. Scotland, 9:15 am Feb. 12
vs. England, 11:45 am Feb. 26
vs. France, 3 pm March 11
vs. Italy, 10:15 am March 19

Italy

World Ranking: no. 14

Six Nations Titles: none

What To Watch For: Six consecutive last-place finishes in the Six Nations may signal impending doom once again this year for the Azzurri. But, look deeper and you’ll see there’s quite a bit of optimism in the Italian camp. Former All Black and World Cup winner Kieran Crowley was appointed as head coach of the team in the summer after several stellar seasons coaching club power Benetton, promptly getting his first win helming the country in a 17-10 victory over Uruguay in the Autumn Nations Series —Italy’s first Test win in two years.

Playing five of the world’s top-10 teams in a span of about a month-and-a-half certainly makes this year’s Six Nations an uphill battle, but the squad should already have plenty of chemistry with their manager. All of 23 players named to the 33-man Six Nations squad play for Benetton, with most having significant experience under Crowley from his time there. One of those is New Zealand-born loose forward Toa Halafihi, one of the rocks of the Benetton defense since his arrival in 2018 and a player who qualified to play for the Italian national team under residency rules. His Benetton teammate, flanker Michele Lamaro, will captain the side throughout the tournament.

Six Nations Schedule:
vs. France, 10 a.m. Feb. 6
vs. England, 10 a.m. Feb. 13
vs. Ireland, 10 a.m. Feb. 27
vs. Scotland, 9:15 am March 12
vs. Wales, 10:15 am March 19

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