The 2020 Six Nations is already upon us and all of France, Scotland and Italy will be desperate to do markedly better than they managed last year - but what is an achievable level for the sides to aim for?
The 2019 Six Nations was an incredible tournament in which Wales came out as the ultimate winners, clinching the Grand Slam and casting all before them aside in a performance across the competition that was supremely impressive. While the Welsh exceeded expectations with a supreme showing, a number of other teams really underperformed, with this being true for none more so than the Six Nations bottom three, with the sight of France, Scotland and Italy all making up the bottom three coming as less and less of a surprise with each passing year.
With expectations for the three already low, what is a reasonable place to aim for for the three teams, and how unlikely is it that any of the trio will finish at the top of the table?
France come into this Six Nations with some cause for optimism after what was actually a fairly good 2019 World Cup campaign all things considered. An incredibly tight 23-21 win over Argentina got their Group C campaign off to a rocky start before they were able to outlast the USA 33-9 in a match in which they once again struggled for fluency. Then came their tightest game of the group as they were pushed all the way by Tonga in a 23-21 win. Tonga looked very good on the day as they put everything into the match as they looked like they were on the cusp of an improbable win, however, the French once again saw the game out to go into their final game of the group against England with a chance at top spot. Of course, the awful weather in Japan saw England vs France cancelled, meaning a game against Wales in the quarter-finals beckoned.
This quarter-final saw France absolutely dominate the first 40 minutes with Wales on the back-foot in a game they were expected to win against a misfiring French side. However, a completely needless red card for French lock Sebastien Vahaamahina after he blatantly elbowed Wales’ Aaron Wainwright changed the course of the game and saw France go from dominant to merely hanging on, and the rest as they say is history. France went on to lose the game 20-19 and were knocked out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage.
Despite this petulant and idiotic red card for France robbing them of a potential place in the semi-finals, there is room for optimism for the French. The World Cup campaign itself could have been one which saw the French battling in a tight match before ultimately losing, however, they were instead able to grind out three wins from three in their group, with winning ugly not something they are known for. Fabien Galthie has taken over as the manager of France after their early exit form the World Cup and he has handed 19 uncapped players call ups to the squad for the Six Nations, including fly-half Louis Carbonel and flanker Cameron Wokim, while the likes of Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard have been omitted.
While the squad is a very exciting one, what is perhaps most intriguing from a French point of view is the unveiling of their new backroom staff and, in particular, former-Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards. Edwards had been a part of Warren Gatland’s Wales team for 12 years and helped to take the side from defensively inept to one of the most miserly defensive lines in world rugby. Edawards has transformed Alun Wyn Jones et al into something of a defensive behemoth and, with Wales not firing all that well in attack over the last few years, they have leant even more on that ace card in defence, with Edwards managing to ensure it has been a trump card for many years. Now, France will benefit from the defensive intelligence of Edwards and while we are not expecting near-immediate miracles, we feel that a genuinely ferocious French defence coupled with that flair they are so famous for means they could actually become a force in world rugby again.
Of course, this will take time and we do not expect Edwards to work wonders. Indeed, a tough opener against England in France sees their campaign start in difficult circumstances, but even in defeat there can be positives and, no matter what the result in that first match, they must ensue they come away with some positives, rather than the scars that the 44-8 hammering left them with. Honestly, we feel that a second or third placed finish is there for the taking as Wales and Ireland both have new coaches at the helm, however, this is tempered with the fact France are in a period of transition too. Whereas both Ireland and Wales have been left in a state of solidity by the men that have just departed, Galthie picks up this side at a pretty low ebb, but with the likes of Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud two of the real standout finds of this French team in recent years, we feel there is definitely room for optimism.
France’s Six Nations Squad:
🏆 Voici les 42 joueurs retenus pour préparer le Tournoi des #SixNations 2020 !
Les Bleus débutent leur préparation à Nice le 19 Janvier et vous donnent rendez-vous le dimanche 2 février au Stade de France contre l’Angleterre à 16h !#NeFaisonsXV #XVdeFrance pic.twitter.com/a8AJ4PjSh9
— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) 8 January 2020
Where to start with Scotland? The side have made strides in recent years in front of their own fans at Murrayfield but they time and time again fail to replicate this when on the road. To often has a decent Scottish campaign been undermined by the fact they are simply not good enough when they go to play a team away, while they are seemingly eternally stuck in the ground between being a Tier 1 nation and a Tier 2 nation. Right now, the Scottish players have to deal with having the expectations of a top side but the riches of a team someway below those above them. This is the exact opposite of where the Scots want to be, with their shortcomings highlighted in Japan last year.
Scotland went to the World Cup knowing that finishing at the top of a group that contained Ireland was always going to be a stretch, but second-place was supposedly well within their grasp. However, they did not ever recover from an opening day defeat to Ireland as they were completely ground out of the game by the Irish forwards, eventually losing 27-3 to their far better opponents. Victories over Samoa (34-0) and Russia (61-0) once again buoyed the confidence of both players and fans, but these were wins that were expected, with bonus point worthy showings the very minimum of what they had to put in.
However, these victories would give them a false sense of security, and they were undone for the second straight game when playing an opponent of a higher quality. Japan came into the match knowing that a win would see them through and, usually, this sees a side struggle to hit the heights of their previous displays, but the tournament hosts were in fine form on the day as they tore Scotland apart again and again in a display of incredible ability. Scotland meanwhile did fight back, but this fire from them only came when they were done by a heavy amount of points and supposedly out of the contest. In the end, Scotland were consigned to another loss, and the embarrassment of getting knocked out at the group stage of the tournament, with the Scottish the only side from the United Kingdom to fail to get out of the group.
Going back a little further, Scotland had finished their 2019 Six Nations campaign on a high after a gripping 38-38 draw with England at Twickenham. The travelling side had trailed 31-0 before battling back in fine style to lead 38-31. While their comeback was the stuff of fairytales, they were once again guilty of not seeing something through to the very end and crumbling under the weight of expectation, with England coming back with the final play of the game to level things up following George Ford’s try. Of course, the comeback in of itself was the major takeaway from the game for both sides, however, it would have felt like a loss for Scotland after all of their hard work was undone in the final moments – although it would have also felt like a defeat for England too.
In the upcoming Six Nations, Scotland must improve. Fourth and fifth-placed finishes are not good enough for a side that do display glimpses of being an outfit that can trouble the better teams. Their battle with England at Murrayfield is in the right area of the UK this year, with the side always far more potent at home, however, trips to face Ireland and Wales will not be easy. It should be noted though that if Scotland are going to beat Ireland and Wales away, they have not had a better chance in some years. Both sides have had to replace their managers recently and while both boast a wealth of talented players, things do not always click in the first few games. Therefore, Scotland, who are a largely settled team with Gregor Townsend having been at the helm since 2017, know exactly what they should be doing and how they are needed to play.
This year, a third-placed finish is likely where they will feel is around par and while we agree, we also disagree with this notion. Scotland have a very settled squad and coaching staff that have been in the Six Nations and done it and so should be looking at building, while the fact that big players have retired for the better teams along with changing of the guard in management means that this is a time of transition for Wales and Ireland in particular. However, Scotland’s two Achilles’ heels remain the fact they are a hugely over-hyped side (from a fan’s perspective) meaning that the pressure and expectation is always far bigger than it should be, while they still really struggle to win on the road, with their draw with England in extraordinary circumstances followed by a very comfortable loss against a very ordinary and frankly beatable French side last year. Until Scotland learn how to consistently challenge on the road and not just capitulate as the game goes on, we don’t think they will get anywhere near silverware, with the likes of England, Ireland and Wales streets ahead of them, while it should be worrying for the side that France, who have underperformed for a long time, are still a far better team than them.
Scotland’s Six Nations Squad:
SQUAD ANNOUNCEMENT 🏴
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) 15 January 2020
Italy come into the Six Nations in arguably a worse place than they started it last year. Coaches and players have come and gone at a steady rate over the last few years as the Italians look to match the success of their football team with very little luck. Italy have, for the last four years in a row, come rock bottom of the table, with the side battling hard at home but ultimately getting very little reward for their efforts, before travelling and taking a pasting on the road from their opponents. While Italy have improved in recent years, it has not been at the same rate as their opponents. The likes of England, Wales and Ireland have all continued to up their levels and both England and Wales performed very well at the recent World Cup, and while Ireland did peak too early, the level they were playing at in 2018 was supreme, as they defeated all of England, Wales, Australia and, most impressive if all, New Zealand. Even Scotland and France have moved forward, and positively for them, they seem to have the players to call upon to turn a game. Italy however, have stagnated of late.
Their major loss is the retirement of talisman and captain Sergio Parisse. The influential flanker was Italy’s go to man for years but this clearly took it’s toll on the star. Parisse’s ability to drag his team forward was something that endeared him to fans of all teams, while his raw talent and longevity in the game have made him a mainstay of the Italian team since 2002. However, while Parisse has said he will say goodbye to the fans during the 2020 Six Nations, Italy’s plans will be to look to the future and at his replacement, although it rarely turns out that the immediate replacement for a star like Parisse is the player that takes his place as soon as he retires. From an Italian point of view, most eyes will be on Italy’s openside flanker in this year’s tournament.
This time around, Italy will be looking to close the gap between themselves and the teams above them, with a 23 point gap between themselves and Grand Slam champions Wales, while, more worryingly, they finished a massive nine points behind Scotland in fifth. Their trail of results made for sorry reading as, after a decent performance against Scotland in round one in which they battled well in the second-half to eventually lose 33-20, they lost 26-15 to a misfiring Welsh side in a drab game, 26-16 to a Irish outfit that struggled to ever get going, 57-14 against England at Twickenham, and 25-14 against France. With the exception of their hammering at the hands of England, Italy did not get beaten by any of the other sides by more than 13 points, and while this could be seen as an improvement, none of the four sides ever got anywhere near their top gear, and yet they still won. This is the most damning indictment of Italian rugby at the moment as they are simply not good enough to win games even when their opposition are struggling to get going at all.
Worryingly for Italy, the likes of Japan and Fiji have made strides in ability recently and, with neither currently affiliated to an annual rugby competition, either would be welcome additions to the Six Nations, with Fiji giving Wales a real game in the World Cup, while Japan beat both Ireland and Scotland to top their group last year. Italy meanwhile defeated the minnows of their group before getting absolutely hammered by South Africa and getting away with an abandoned game against New Zealand in which they would more than likely have been beaten heavily by the then world champions. This year’s Six Nations is a massive chance for Italy to try to close the gap on the teams above them, otherwise it will be just yet another year in which they finish a long way short of the rest, and perhaps the mutterings of Fiji and Japan being better competition for the other five may get louder.
Italy’s Six Nations Squad:
— Italrugby (@Federugby) 13 January 2020
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