The 2019 Guinness Six Nations takes on greater importance with this autumn’s World Cup rapidly approaching.
Here, we examine five talking points heading into the tournament.
Ireland Strong Favourites
Acclaimed the best team in the world by England head coach Eddie Jones, Ireland rightly enter the Six Nations as odds-on favourites with another Grand Slam in their sights.
In Joe Schmidt they have probably rugby’s finest coach, and in Johnny Sexton the reigning world Player of the Year, but their whole squad is stocked with talent.
How they deal with expectation will be crucial, as will a schedule book-ended by showdowns with title rivals England and Wales, but they are unquestionably in the driving seat.
Owen Farrell alone will lead England against Ireland and Italy, at which point co-captain Dylan Hartley could return from a knee injury for the round-three clash with Wales.
It is a key tournament in the development of the outstanding Saracens playmaker, whose shoulder-led, swinging-arm tackle technique somehow escaped censure during the autumn.
As skipper, he must also learn to soften his communication with officials – a point highlighted against Sale recently when his confrontational manner earned a reprimand from referee Matthew Carley.
More Focus on Officials
Angus Gardner admitted he should have penalised Farrell for his ugly tackle against South Africa and Jaco Peyper also spared the Lions fly-half sanction when Australia visited Twickenham three weeks later.
The incidents are reflective of the inconsistency seen from officials, who are now operating under tremendous pressure amid a World Rugby-enforced crackdown on dangerous hits designed to enhance player welfare.
What constitutes a dangerous hit warranting a yellow or red card is still being debated, and it is only a matter of time before a high-stakes game is decided by a controversial refereeing decision of this kind.
Wales - Under the Radar
Warren Gatland has made the bold prediction that if France can be toppled in Paris on February 1, then Wales have a “great chance” of winning the Six Nations, adding “we’re in as good a position as anybody”.
Wales are on a run of nine successive wins and could overhaul the national record of 11 in what will be Gatland’s last Six Nations as their head coach.
The New Zealander is right to be bullish and with attention focused on Ireland and England, his team can glide under the radar – a tactic which could also serve them well at the World Cup.
The Fall of France
France’s malaise is an ongoing concern and there is no evidence they will arrest their slump any time soon.
Indeed, their last match was a 21-14 home defeat to Fiji, which was great for Pacific islands rugby, but continued the sense of despair across the Channel where the national team continues to suffer from the club game’s reliance on overseas players.
Rugby is better for a competitive French team and cannot afford to see one of its superpowers remain on the periphery.