State of play – a look at each of the Guinness Six Nations 2020 squads
Yes, this is an exercise in killing time until the Guinness Six Nations 2020 kicks off...
"The board is set, the pieces are moving."
Quoting Gandalf might not be the standard way to buildup towards the Six Nations, but here we are. Much like the white wizard staring into the depths of Mordor, there is a sense that it's all about to kick off soon.
A mere 12 months ago, it was pretty easy to overlook the tournament, as all eyes were on the World Cup. Now that it's all over and done with and none of the northern hemisphere's teams were able to lift the Webb Ellis trophy, bouncing back by winning a Six Nations is exactly what the doctor ordered.
This year feels like the beginning of a new era. Four of the six teams have new coaches, and every single one of them have said farewell to some of the players they have relied on in the past.
Taking into account the squads, form and fixture list of each team, here is our report on how each team is approaching the tournament:
- Head coach: Andy Farrell
- Captain: Johnny Sexton
- Squad's average caps: 28.1 (1012 in total)
- Squad's average age: 26yrs 9mths
Try and think back to that morning of Saturday, 19 October (as much as you probably don't want to). Irish international rugby wouldn't have exactly felt like it was in the best place, and the thought of hitting the reset button after four years of progress wasn't an appealing one.
Skip forward a few months, and the mood is certainly more positive. A new coach and a raft of young trailblazers are just some of the reasons to view this tournament as a fresh start, on top of some terrific performances from Leinster and Ulster in particular.
It doesn't seem like Farrell is looking at this championship as a chance to totally hit the reset button. While there are plenty of new faces, Ireland has the oldest average age of all six teams and only Wales have more caps within their squad.
The 2023 World Cup is of course going to be the long-term goal, but it's important to remember just how far off it is. Ireland have a tour to Australia and a Lions series to think about in the next 18 months alone, so there will be plenty of opportunity for the five uncapped players in this squad, as well as the chance for others to follow suit.
Captain Johnny Sexton is still a key man, especially with Joey Carbery out for the foreseeable future. Five solid performances are all Ireland need to be in the running, but away trips to Twickenham and Paris will be the real litmus test of where their heads are at.
- Head coach: Fabien Galthié
- Captain: Charles Ollivon
- Squad's average caps: 8.3 (350 in total)
- Squad's average age: 23yrs 10mths
It's beyond a cliché at this stage, but you know the old adage that you never really know what French team will turn up? Yeah, we genuinely don't have a notion what kind of French team is going to turn up.
Take a look above at the experience in this 42-man French squad, and compare it to Ireland's 36-man squad. The four Irish players with the most caps (Healy, Sexton, Earls and Murray) have 379 caps between them, which is more than the entirety of the French squad.
Experience isn't everything, but any coach willing to bring in 36 players with 20 caps or fewer is one who means business. Some of the names being cut are guys you'd expect to make the starting XV, with Yoann Huget, Rabah Slimani, and Maxime Medard chief among them.
Maybe that's exactly what France needs – to get rid of any dead wood. It also doesn't hurt that a bulk of this youthful squad won the 2019 World Rugby Under 20 Championship...
You can expect big things from this youthful French side. While it may be too soon for them to win the championship, an opening round clash with World Cup finalists England is definitely cause enough to take over the telly that Sunday.
- Head coach: Eddie Jones
- Captain: Owen Farrell
- Squad's average caps: 27.6 (995 in total)
- Squad's average age: 25yrs 6mths
One of only two sides to have the same head coach as last year, it's no secret that England are in a very strong position. Having demolished the All Blacks in a way rarely seen before, England themselves fell victim to an exceptional South African side in the World Cup Final last year.
Call this a hunch, but Eddie Jones doesn't strike me as a man who likes silver medals. Veterans like Jack Nowell and Dan Cole have gotten the chop, and youngsters like 19-year-old winger Josh Hodge are being given a chance to shine.
Overall there is a good mixture of youth an experience, with only three players out of 36 over the age of 30. Jones has a knack for picking the right youngsters, with the likes of Tom Curry becoming one of the top flankers in the world after making his 2017 debut at the age of just 18.
Expect more of an evolution rather than revolution. There isn't much of a need for England to change tactics or personnel, but Jones is clearly already building towards the 2023 tournament.
It's a tough opener for England in Stade de France, but you would expect them to come out on top. If the likes of Sinkler, Itoje, and Farrell can put in the kind of performance that we saw against the All Blacks, it's hard to see any team stopping them.
- Head coach: Wayne Pivac
- Captain: Alun-Wyn Jones
- Squad's average caps: 30.9 (1176 in total)
- Squad's average age: 26yrs 7mths
You could argue that Ireland and Wales are in pretty comparable situations, and approaching this tournament in a similar way. Both have new head coaches who are well accustomed to their predecessor's systems, and both have opted to maintain a core of experienced players.
In terms of experience, Wales have more caps than any other team in the tournament, and more than Italy and France combined. In Alun-Wyn Jones they have one of the most reliable and consistent operators in the game, and three home games against Italy, France and Scotland would be games they'll expect to win.
Repeating the Grand Slam of 2019 will be no mean feat, but the quality is most certainly there. Despite having access to more experience than any other coach, Pivac has also called upon five uncapped players (including the championship's youngest player in Louis Rees-Zammit) to be part of this year's squad.
No disrespect to Italy (we'll get to them later), but a home clash against the Azzuri is the dream Six Nations opener for a new coach. You would expect Wales to win comfortably and get a bonus point, and that will certainly help build confidence ahead of a trip to Dublin.
Wales didn't reach a World Cup semi-final by accident. This is an excellent side capable of playing top quality rugby, and adding a new set-up into the mix makes them a serious prospect for lifting the trophy.
- Head coach: Gregor Townsend
- Captain: Stuart Hogg
- Squad's average caps: 20.3 (774 in total)
- Squad's average age: 26yrs 3mths
Naming Stuart Hogg as captain was a bit of a puzzler. On the one hand he is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous fullbacks out there, but few would have thought he would be used as a skipper.
But that's just what Scotland do best, isn't it? Having someone like Jonny Gray as captain would have been predictable, and that certainly doesn't fit the Scottish mould.
There isn't really any reason to expect big things from this Scotland side, but then again there isn't any reason to rule it out. The quality is there and depth is growing, but Scotland still seem to struggle once you take them out of Murrayfield.
Consistency has been the holy grail for Scotland for many years, and this year is no different. A strong squad littered with experienced operators like the aforementioned Hogg and Gray are joined by six uncapped players, five of whom are coming straight from Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It would be pure conjecture to make a call that Scotland will push for the championship, as they have shown nowhere near the consistency required. What you can expect is the usual strong performances at home, but losing Finn Russell for the opening rounds is sure to have a negative effect.
- Head coach: Franco Smith
- Captain: Luca Bigi
- Squad's average caps: 22.1 (775 in total)
- Squad's average age: 26yrs 6mths
Losing a player like Sergio Parisse is one thing, but it suddenly becomes much worse once you factor in how much Italy relied on their talisman. While the past few seasons had seen him past his best, the fact remains that he was the only truly world class player in that side.
Now that he is gone, alongside Conor O'Shea, it's tough to know where Italy stand. With a new interim head coach in place for the tournament, Michele Campagnaro's injury was the last thing Italy needed before an opening round trip to Cardiff.
There are reasons to be optimistic though, with Benetton showing signs of improvement over the past two seasons. Making the play-offs in the PRO14 last year is encouraging, with the hope being that even the slightest sniff of silverware reaching Italian hands being a source of confidence.
Overall this is an Italian team waiting for something to happen. Maybe it's a new talisman to pick up Parisse's crown, or maybe it's a head coach willing to continue trying to change Italian rugby from the ground up, as Conor O'Shea was trying to do.
All indications are that this tournament will be the same as ever, with Italy trying to avoid another wooden spoon. Picking up their first Six Nations win since 2015 would be the main goal, with a home clash against Scotland being the one they'll feel the most confident about.
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are joined in the House of Rugby studio by Jerry Flannery as they look back on the final round of Champions Cup pool games, ahead to Ireland's 2020 Guinness Six Nations under Andy Farrell and discuss Saracens' relegation.