Traditionally, the Six Nations Championship has been Europe’s version of the best versus the best. It has been a showcase for the best players. At least that has been the intention.
The sense of growing excitement before every Championship is no different this time. The Six Nations is truly an incredible event for its unremitting ability to enthral and that will happen again.
However, modern professional rugby is a sport in uncertain times. Physicality has reached extremes and while that means that the power in the tackles and the sheer weight in the collisions have become ever greater and more of a diversion in themselves, it has left a trail of broken bodies across Europe.
Injury levels across the international game seem higher than ever. I attended the NatWest Six Nations Championship launch last week, a traditional event where all six coaches are part of the show and talk about their hopes for the forthcoming competition. This year’s launch, though, sometimes appeared to be a case not of who had the best team but whose doctors were working the hardest.
England have lost their two first-choice no8s, one of whom is the hugely influential Billy Vunipola. England also have worrying injuries at loosehead prop. However, their problems are nothing compared to Scotland; Scotland are unfortunate in that almost all their injuries are focused around the tight five, specifically the front row. The number of Scottish injured front-rowers is near to double figures.
However, no one has an injury crisis quite like Wales. For the Welsh, injury has preyed on their Lions – their very best. Last summer, there were five Welshmen in the starting Lions XV in the magnificent series against the All Blacks; of those five, four are injured. Alun Wyn Jones is the only one left standing. It doesn’t end there; their two starting half backs, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, who both went on the Lions tour, are also out injured.
What does all this mean? I don’t think it means that the occasion or the sheer traditional grandeur of these Six Nations occasions will be diminished. And with so many key players out injured, it means that we will get to witness new young players being promoted and given their opportunity. I think, for instance, that we will see a fair bit of Sam Simmonds, the Exeter 23-year-old who will be hoping to do as good a job as possible of filling Vunipola’s boots. He has huge potential.
However, what we will clearly not be witnessing is the ultimate showcase of the best versus the best, and this will clearly have an influence on the outcome. There is no point in pretending otherwise. This Six Nations will be heavily influenced by two elements: how good or bad is your injury situation, and who has the greatest strength in depth.
In that regard, Ireland and England are the favourites. Ireland are the least hit by injury. The players they will be most missing are Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose, but they can survive in their absence. And England have 12 clubs – 12 professional outfits which are professional player production lines – so they should be able to cope too. That said, Vunipola is not the kind of player who can simply be replaced by the next in line. The next in line is Nathan Hughes, who is injured too. But even Hughes isn’t a Billy; no one is.
The key fixture in the first weekend is in Cardiff where Wales play Scotland. Scotland are looking more competitive this year than they have ever since 2000 when the Five Nations first became a six team competition. Theoretically, this Six Nations has more competitive teams than ever, but Scotland have to fulfil their promise and get themselves up and running in Cardiff, and Wales just have to get off the starting line. And I think Wales are going to struggle.
If Wales lose to Scotland, their next two games are away fixtures against England and Ireland and you could easily see them being three defeats from three, under pressure and backs against the wall, before we have even got out of February.
Scotland could genuinely make a serious dent on this Championship. They have both France and England at home, in Murrayfield, and if they continue where they left off in the autumn, with a rousing victory over Australia, they could win both those games too. But they have to get that fast start against Wales.
Here the whole injury phenomenon comes into play. Wales are massively weakened in the back row and all across the backs. It just so happens that the one area where they are strong and haven’t lost key players is in the tight five, the very place where injury has rendered Scotland weak.
If Wales can keep it to a tight game based around set-phase, then they could frustrate the life out of Scotland. If Scotland cannot win their scrum or lineout, then Wales can do a job of keeping the ball away from Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg and nullify the dangers of the Scottish backline.
Conversely, the fixture list has been kind to England. England start with Italy, away, which is a great opportunity to move up through the gears; in that respect, a home game against Wales is an ideal second fixture. By the time they get to Scotland and their subsequent toughest contests, players will be returning. England could certainly go unbeaten all the way to the final weekend.
This time a year ago, the bookies and the predictions were all talking up a big last-weekend-of-the-Championship showdown between the heavyweights, Ireland and England. And it never happened – because Ireland lost in the first weekend to Scotland. That merely indicates how the Six Nations rolls and how many storylines are played out.
Nevertheless, I think we may be set, this year, for the storyline that never played out last year. Again, England play Ireland on the last weekend of the Championship; again, they could both be chasing a Grand Slam.
Injuries will play a huge role in this Six Nations, and they could be the undoing of Scotland and Wales. England and Ireland are strong enough to survive. And if they do go both unscathed through to the final weekend, I’d back England to win it.