In part two of the RBS 6 Nations preview, Gloucester and Wales star Richard Hibbard looks at the chances of the remaining five country's in this year's tournament. Part one looks at Wales' hopes - Check that out here.
One team for who 2016 was an undoubted successful was England. An unbeaten season sees Eddie Jones’ men go into the tournament as favourites despite a host of injuries.
“I think the only way it (2016) could have got better for them is if they got to play New Zealand with the strongest squad. But honestly what a year for them – such a massive effort and a change of sorts with Eddie coming in. He really seems to be bringing out the best in the squad he’s got.”
But are those injuries going to hinder their progress this year? Can fans expect another perfect season? “I know even with the injuries they got, that they'll still be extremely strong this year. Playing in this league (Aviva Premiership Rugby), you play against boys not in the squad or on the cusp of it, and you think “wow someone must be playing extremely well to be keeping this bloke out. It will be tough though. Doing what they did last year - they are currently sat on top of the mountain with that trophy, with all the other teams climbing ready to knock them off them top. What they’ll have this year is when they play teams, you’ll find that team plays an extra 10% better than they normally would just because they are playing the current top dogs!”
Ireland are never far away when it comes to the final reckoning. Last year they ended third, but with Joe Schmidt having committed his future to the side, and off the back of a huge win over the All Blacks, are they likely to be in with a shout – or is this still a re-building time post-Paul O’Connell?
“Even without the legendary Paul O’Connell they are still a very, very experienced squad and that shows with a lot of their results last year. And they’ve got some fantastic young players coming through, it’s almost a prefect mix.”
But Champions? “Again, like Wales, I really do think they are peaking at the right time, and even their provinces have been going well in the league and European competitions. They definitely have to be seen as challengers this year.”
2017 will be the final RBS 6 Nations for Scotland coach Vern Cotter, who is set to be replaced by Gregor Townsend after the tournament. Can his team give him a send-off to be proud of, especially since their upturn in form since reaching the Rugby World Cup quarter final? “The boys will definitely want to give Vern a good send off in this tournament, while at the same time impressing Gregor” Hibbard said. “Having spoken to a few of the players who’ve played under Vern, the boys have responded very, very well for him, and have been producing some great performances.”
Is Scotland’s success down to whether or not Greig Laidlaw is on form? “I don’t think they overly rely on Greig. However, what his team know and what I know is that he’s deadly off the tee. A team gives a penalty away anywhere near his range then they know he’s going to really punish them. His leadership is also massive but they have plenty of other talent.”
2017 will see another familiar face involved in the tournament, but not for one of the home nations. Conor O’Shea will begin his first campaign as head coach of Italy, looking to improve on last season’s 0-5 record. Will Conor be able to turn the Azzuri round?
“I think they’ll definitely perform much better under Conor. They'll show improvement this campaign, but it doesn't just happen overnight for them. He also has to improve what’s underneath the national team, from youth level to the top. I expect them getting better each game they play under his command.”
The perennial talk around the tournament is that the emerging European nations deserve a crack at a place in the tournament. Does Hibbard think that the likes of Georgia should get more opportunity?
“It’s a very tough question this one, as much as I would like to see a relegation system, I don't think the quality underneath these 6 Nations is quite there yet. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it’s bad, just this tournament is unrelenting, and it will be tough for anyone coming up into it. The teams below it are not a million miles off a chance to prove themselves, they just need a few more consistent seasons.”
As ever, the enigma of the 6 Nations is France. As England will attest in the Grand Slam decider in March, when the French purr, they purr. But overall in 2016, they scored only 82 points from their 5 games, some 40 fewer than Scotland in fourth place. Where have the Swashbuckling French team gone?
“It’s still there” Hibbard explained. “They just produce it less and less. With defenses getting better, it’s difficult for teams expected to bring flair. It is also quite hard for any coach within the French structure. With such naturally gifted players, who play so well just off the cuff, you really are stuck between a rock and a hard place in coaching them.”
Can they ever return to their former glories, when they were the team to beat in the 6 Nations, or does their club game have an adverse effect on their national team? “I think they believe that themselves, by installing new quotas on how many non-French players teams can have. That will automatically make many more young French players come through. It may take a few years to happen, but they have the quality to get back to their glory days and if not better improve on them.”
It is certainly an intriguing 6 Nations in prospect. There are a myriad of issues for each country to deal with, from injuries, new coaches and renewed motivation. The only guarantee is that as we enter the business end of the rugby season, those cold weather and long nights will be put to the back of our minds, and international rugby can warm us all up.
The only guarantee this year in the RBS 6 Nations is that every game will use a Gilbert Match-XV Ball. Gilbert are the official ball supplier of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, and are used in each of those country’s home matches. That means that every game in the 2017 tournament will be using Gilbert. Gilbert are also the official the official ball supplier of Australia, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, United States, Canada and many more.
Get the Match-XV Ball here
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