COACH: Eddie Jones
2020 SIX NATIONS: 1st
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2000, ’01, ’03, ’11, ’16, ’17, '20
SCHEDULE: R1 vs. Scotland, R2 vs. Italy, R3 at Italy, R4 vs. France, R5 at Ireland
OUTLOOK: England is winning trophies again under Eddie Jones — just not in the way many of the team’s fans would like. Since the return of rugby after the coronavirus outbreak, the English have captured the delayed 2020 Six Nations in October and then the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup in December, making them the bookmakers’ favorites. They’ve been effective, sure, but hardly a joy to watch -- especially considering the depth of talent at Jones’ disposal. Field position, good defense, and a strong kicking game have been the watchwords -- a pragmatic approach governed by how referees are interpreting games and also weather conditions, according to Jones. So will it be more of the same in this Six Nations? Again, Jones insists his team will “adapt” to the conditions. “We are trying to find a way to dominate for every minute of the game,” the Australian says. “Some games, that might be through the set-piece, some through the breakdown, some ruck and run, some ruck and kick.” It might be folly to expect anything too expansive in the opener against Scotland as England looks to avoid getting off to a losing start, as it did last year in Paris. Resources are stretched in the forwards, though, with props Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler unavailable for various reasons while lock Joe Launchbury and flanker Sam Underhill are out injured. Three of England’s first four matches are at home -- albeit without fans at Twickenham -- so a Round 5 trip to Ireland could, as often in recent years, determine the destination of the title.
NEW FACE: Paolo Odogwu. He leads the English Premiership for defenders beaten and meters made, and is its second leading try-scorer. He has dyed dreadlocks, designs clothes, and wears personalized boots declaring social statements and showing superheroes and wrestlers. He is of Nigerian and Italian descent, and likens himself to an NFL running back. No wonder Odogwu has been described by England coach Eddie Jones as having “a bit of X-factor,” and no wonder the winger has been fast-tracked into the Six Nations squad. “He’s been consistently dynamic in being able to break the line,” Jones says of Odogwu, who plays for Wasps. “I like his ball-carrying ability. He has the ability to beat people. He’s got a good sense for the line and is such an enthusiastic player.” The 23-year-old Odogwu’s status as one of the standout players in the Premiership this season was underlined in a two-try display against Bath this month, when he outshone opposition center Jonathan Joseph -- who subsequently has been left out of England’s squad. Expect Odogwu to be among the reserves for the opening matches, providing cover for wing and center. His cameos off the bench should be great to watch.
QUOTE: “We want to play good, effective rugby. And effective rugby is getting the ball to the other end of the field and scoring points. That is the currency we play by. If we can do it by running and passing and being attractive, then we want to do that. If we can do it by kicking, we will do it that way.” England coach Eddie Jones.
TITLE ODDS: 11-10
— By Steve Douglas
COACH: Fabien Galthie
2020 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2002, ’04, ’06, ’07, ’10
SCHEDULE: R1 at Italy, R2 at Ireland, R3 vs. Scotland, R4 at England, R5 vs. Wales
OUTLOOK: France had the element of surprise last year and took advantage to play some of its best attacking rugby for many years, falling just short of a first title since the 2010 Grand Slam. Much more will be expected of Fabien Galthié’s youthful side, which has thrived under the try-scoring leadership of back-rower Charles Ollivon coupled with the dynamic halves of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Ntamack's slick, intuitive passing and composed kicking complements the more explosive Dupont, who was voted the tournament’s best player last year. Dupont's electric running from the back of the scrum provided the platform for France’s newfound running game and he linked play superbly with centers Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa. France’s talent pool runs so deep that a team composed almost entirely of fringe players and reserves nearly beat Six Nations champion England in the Autumn Nations Cup final, losing only 22-19 in sudden-death extra time after leading 19-12 seconds from the end of regulation. France is well capable of ending its title drought, although Galthie’s plans took a significant hit when Vakatawa injured his left knee playing for his club last weekend. He was one of the tournament’s best midfielders last year. Although he should not be missed for the opening game in Italy, his absence may be more keenly felt away to Ireland on Feb. 14. So Galthie will hope he recovers in time to face England one month later and Ntamack’s absence after breaking his jaw is not long either.
NEW FACE: Flyhalf Louis Carbonel could be the next young talent to burst onto the scene the way Ntamack did at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The 21-year-old Carbonel has two test caps and could get a chance to impress against Italy if Ntamack fails to recover in time from a double fracture of the jaw. He sustained it playing for his club Toulouse one month ago. Ntamack played alongside Carbonel when France won the Under-20 World Cup in 2018. Carbonel then won it again the following year and he is France’s highest point-scorer in that competition. He has already got on the board for the senior side, too, converting a late try against Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup and landing two penalties in the final against England. But in both games he went on for the equally gifted Matthieu Jalibert, who was outstanding against England and more likely to start in Ntamack’s absence.
QUOTE: “Our objective is to win matches and titles. It’s our immediate and permanent objective.” France coach Fabien Galthie.
TITLE ODDS: 11-4
— By Jerome Pugmire
COACH: Andy Farrell
2020 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2009, ’14, ’15, ’18
SCHEDULE: R1 at Wales, R2 vs. France, R3 at Italy, R4 at Scotland, R5 vs. England
OUTLOOK: Before Paul O'Connell came face to face with the Ireland team this week in practice for the first time as the new forwards coach, he had already been phoning his new charges to talk about how to improve everything. Lock Iain Henderson says, "He's got a mad love for rugby and an even madder love for lineouts.” O'Connell was hired this month by coach Andy Farrell, who told him to just be himself. The rugby great retired five years ago after his fourth World Cup. Captain Jonathan Sexton, who played beside O’Connell for Ireland for seven years, believes his former captain could be a tonic to the team management that Farrell was when he became Joe Schmidt’s assistant in 2016. O'Connell is known for his attention to detail, being utterly professional, and maximum effort. He's expected to turn nasty a pack that has been manhandled by England of late, and fix a lineout that has been unreliable. Ireland finished third in the last two Six Nations and Farrell admits they aren't at the level of England and France, who gave the Irish their only losses last year. Farrell says he's still piecing together a champion side. Last year, he debuted 11 players. This year, he’s bagged O’Connell and welcomed the return of props Tadhg Furlong and Dave Kilcoyne and backs Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour after injuries. Jacob Stockdale, whom Farrell was turning into a fullback in the autumn, could recover from a knee injury by round three. Sexton believes he will be fit to play the opener against Wales after limping off in club action last weekend with a hamstring complaint. The captain’s attitude can’t be faulted, but Sexton's body continues to betray him at 35. The schedule appears to favor Ireland, as its biggest rivals will come to Dublin, France in round two and England on the last weekend. But it has lost in Cardiff and Edinburgh too often recently to underestimate those trips.
NEW FACE: Tadhg Furlong has 44 caps but his face hasn’t been around the Ireland camp since February, when he was hurt in the loss to England in the Six Nations. Back, hamstring, and calf injuries conspired to keep him sidelined until this Saturday, when he was appearing for his Leinster club for the first time in more than a year. Without the feared tighthead prop, Ireland blew a chance at winning the Six Nations in Paris. Andrew Porter filled in for his clubmate admirably in the autumn and will likely start the tournament as Furlong gets back up to speed. Porter may even be switched to loosehead. But Furlong's reputation precedes him; has since before he was a teenager when he was tearing up games of hurling and football. But rugby was his first love, and he was the British and Irish Lions tighthead in the 2017 drawn series in New Zealand, and is expected to resume the role against South Africa this year.
QUOTE: "We want to go into that game against England with something on the line, that is where we were last year against France but we did not turn up on the day. We want to put that right.” Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton.
TITLE ODDS: 7-2
— By Foster Niumata
COACH: Franco Smith
2020 SIX NATIONS: 6th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, ’13
SCHEDULE: R1 vs. France, R2 at England, R3 vs. Ireland, R4 vs. Wales, R5 at Scotland
OUTLOOK: One win would make the campaign a success after Italy was whitewashed last year for the fifth successive time. The Azzurri haven’t won in the championship since 2015 against Scotland. The last home win was in 2013. Franco Smith started the last Six Nations as interim coach and despite his side losing two of the matches without even scoring, he was given the job on a permanent basis before the end of the interrupted tournament. Italy also lost its three matches in the Autumn Nations Cup as it failed to win in a calendar year for the first time in the professional era. There were positive signs for Italy, though, in that tournament as they stayed with Scotland and France for an hour and led Wales but then fell away. Smith also used only 26 players and it is hoped the time together will pay off in terms of cohesion and instinct because it’s a young group. Giosuè Zilocchi and Danilo Fischetti, 24 and 23, have established themselves in the front row, and halves Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney, and fullback Jacopo Trulla were in the under-20s a year ago. “Our very young squad has an average age of just over 24,” Smith says. “This is a squad under construction and the talented youngsters we have need to get experience on the field. That’s how we can achieve aims that we have all set for ourselves.”
NEW FACE: Paolo Garbisi was a highlight in a dismal 2020 for Italian rugby. Garbisi is the accurate and composed flyhalf Italy has missed for two decades. He burst onto the scene against Ireland on October, scoring 12 points — including a try — on debut. The 20-year-old Garbisi didn’t look back as he swiftly established himself as a regular. He produced some deft touches and showed a growing tactical nous under constant pressure from opposition. Garbisi looks to be forming a promising halfback partnership with teenage scrumhalf Stephen Varney that could be the future of Italian rugby.
QUOTE: "Being among the players who are technically more ‘senior’ is not a weight, it's a responsibility.” Italy captain Luca Bigi.
TITLE ODDS: 500-1
— By Daniella Matar
COACH: Gregor Townsend
2020 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, ’06, ’13, ’18
SCHEDULE: R1 at England, R2 vs. Wales, R3 at France, R4 vs. Ireland, R5 vs. Italy.
OUTLOOK: Scotland had everything to play for: A rare six-win streak, and a shot for a rare tournament trophy at the Autumn Nations Cup. But it lost to France at Murrayfield and ultimately finished fourth, the same position it finished in the last Six Nations. Even with momentum and confidence and home ground advantage, Scotland didn't have the wherewithal and conviction to make a breakthrough. Captain Stuart Hogg believed they might have taken a step back. Blame some of that on coach Gregor Townsend who, despite hardly advancing Scotland since 2017, received in December a two-year extension to lead the team to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Townsend didn't play his best hand in the Nations Cup, wanting to save it until next week when Scotland goes to its oldest foe, England, to try and win at Twickenham for the first time since 1983. He'll almost have his best hand, too. Playmaker Finn Russell, who walked out on the team a year ago and wasn't forgiven until October, has recovered from the groin injury that forced him to miss the Nations Cup. Former British Lions lock Richie Gray is back from concussion, and Newcastle No. 8 Gary Graham appears for the first time since 2019. All are in form. The main concern is hooker, as former captains Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally are out with neck injuries. Their replacements are George Turner, with four starts, Grant Stewart and the uncapped Ewan Ashman and David Cherry. Defense was a point of pride a year ago, with a tournament-low 59 points conceded. But it was wasted by a mediocre attack which produced only seven tries, half the output from the previous year. If Russell can stay fit, Hogg is excited by what they might conjure: "He's almost coached the boys around and put us into positions where he wants us. It's a totally different mindset that he's got and we're absolutely loving it.”
NEW FACE: Cameron Redpath was the talk of the squad selection. The 21-year-old Cameron is the son of former Scotland captain Bryan Redpath, who retired after his third Rugby World Cup in 2003. But Cameron has been groomed in England, where he lives. While he played for Scotland Under-16s and Under-18s, he also played for England Under-18s and Under-20s. Eddie Jones picked him for England's tour of South Africa in 2018 and the last Six Nations but Cameron didn't play. But blocking his path to an England jersey were Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Marchant and Ollie Lawrence. Bryan always hoped his son would commit to Scotland, and Cameron finally did last month after a few years of talking with Townsend, a former Scotland teammate of Bryan's. Cameron is also comfortable at flyhalf, and former England and British Lions wing Ugo Monye calls him “the real deal” and ”phenomenal.” Monye adds: "Fair play to Scotland, he'll add so much.”
QUOTE: "The big thing for us is we want our fans to look at us and see a bit of themselves in us. By that I mean boys that are willing to go to dark places, work incredibly hard for each other and we are looking to lift a nation.” Scotland captain Stuart Hogg
TITLE ODDS: 16-1
— By Foster Niumata
COACH: Wayne Pivac
2020 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2005, ’08, ’12, ’13, '19
SCHEDULE: R1 vs. Ireland, R2 at Scotland, R3 vs. England, R4 at Italy, R5 at France.
OUTLOOK: After a stop-start year leading Wales’ post-Warren Gatland era, Wayne Pivac emerged with three wins from 10 games -- and they were against Italy (twice) and Georgia. It’s no surprise, then, that the New Zealander heads into the Six Nations with his future very much uncertain. Not least due to the fact he reportedly has a break clause in his contract, allowing the Welsh Rugby Union to sever ties with Pivac halfway through his four-year deal up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Exceeding a fifth-place finish in the last Six Nations seems to be a must for Pivac, who is trying to implement his own, more adventurous style on a team that was so used to a rigid, well-drilled game plan under Gatland. The last player Pivac would have wanted to lose going into the tournament is Alun Wyn Jones, the stalwart lock and captain, but test rugby’s most-capped player looks to be winning his fitness battle after a knee ligament injury to be ready for Wales’ opener against Ireland on Feb. 7. The 35-year-old Jones’ presence will help Wales’ attempts to regain the physical upper hand it often had under Gatland but which has slipped during Pivac’s short tenure. Maybe that is why Dan Lydiate, the doughty flanker and supreme chop-tackler, is back in the squad after more than two years away from international rugby. Wales lost to Ireland, Scotland and England in the autumn and they will be the first three opponents for the Welsh in a campaign when Pivac’s men face three away games -- one of which, against Italy in Rome in Round 4, could end up being a wooden-spoon decider on current form.
NEW FACE: Dan Lydiate. He may be a 64-test veteran, but Lydiate is a fresh face on Pivac’s watch. Wales appeared to have moved on from the 33-year-old flanker, whose last match for his country was in November 2018 against Australia, but strong performances for the Ospreys in the Pro14 have convinced Pivac that Lydiate still has something to offer. That he has been preferred to up-and-coming back-rowers James Botham -- the son of former England cricketer Ian Botham -- and Shane Lewis-Hughes is something of an about turn by Pivac, highlighting the situation Wales finds itself in and Lydiate’s current form. “We think Dan is the form No. 6 in the competition and has been throughout the season,” Pivac says. “He brings a wealth of experience and he’s back playing some of his best rugby.” Lydiate’s best work has always been in defense, his chop tackle and line speed being one of the cornerstones of Wales’ Grand Slam triumph of 2012 when Lydiate was voted as player of the tournament. While he’ll never offer the kind of attacking threat of openside Justin Tipuric or even No. 8 Taulupe Faletau, what Wales will get with a Lydiate-Tipuric-Faletau back row is balance and experience. “I’m better than the player I was then,” Lydiate says, comparing himself to his 2012 version. “It’s a long time ago and the game has changed a lot. You have to develop as a player.”
QUOTE: “No matter what you do in attack, if you don’t have the platform to launch from then it makes things very difficult. To improve in that area is a big drive for us.” Wales coach Wayne Pivac.
TITLE ODDS: 10-1
— By Steve Douglas