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SO here we are, that time of year again. For the next eight weeks, international rugby takes over, featuring five of the top 10 ranked countries in the world, battling it out for European supremacy, and Italy joining Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland and France from a respectable 15th world ranking. Three games a week, 15 in total. The tears, the jubilation; the highs and the lows. It is the Guinness Six Nations 2019. Nineteen years of its six-team format, over 125 years' worth for the founding four – but this year will be the most exciting yet.
IRELAND go into this Six Nations as favourites: All Black-beaters and the world number two side, with the World Rugby Player of the Year running the show in Johnny Sexton. The four provinces have all qualified for the quarter-finals in either the European Champions or Challenge Cup, the first time this feat has been achieved. The high of the autumn can only act as one cog in the Irish machine, rumbling towards the World Cup favourites tag on behalf of the Northern Hemisphere.
A tricky opener awaits the Irish: England in Dublin; a 2013 6-12 victory was the last time the Aviva fortress fell to the only Rugby World Cup winners of the Northern hemisphere. Do not expect the Sexton heroics of last year's opening fixture, a match-winning drop goal in Paris, but do envisage a high-ball contest, back-row dominance, and a close final score. Ireland will not be at full strength however, Tadhg Beirne (knee), Iain Henderson (finger) and Kieran Marmion (ankle) are just three of the home sides' injuries.
The winner of this is likely to be favourites for the Grand Slam title, alongside the victors of the Friday night battle in Paris, between France and Wales. Ireland has an abundance of talent waiting on the wings in the form of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls. Seven tries in last year's tournament put Stockdale alone at the top of the try scoring table, earning him the title of Championship player of the year in the process.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are favourites, that is for certain. A win over England in the opening week would be followed by visits to Scotland and Italy, setting up a potential Grand Slam decider against Wales in Cardiff.
Player to watch: Joey Carbery has been lighting up the Guinness PRO14 and the Heineken Champions Cup with his ability to control and change a game. Since his move to Munster from Leinster, Carbery has found his game as fly half, but can turn his hand to full back as easily, and is really forcing opposition sides to think. He will be given a chance from the bench or against Italy and with it, he must show why he is Sexton's successor.
THE dragon is quietly huffing and puffing coming into this competition, nine wins on the bounce and only two away from a national record. Wales are quiet favourites for this year's tournament, behind Ireland. Two away fixtures kick off the 2019 Six Nations for the Welsh, to France and Italy. Warren Gatland and his team will be hoping for a different outcome to when they last played at the Stade de France, a 20-18 loss with over 100 minutes on the clock.
Gatland has set his team up nicely for this tournament, wins over the likes of Australia and South Africa have given the men in red confidence. However, untimely injuries will be a concern for the Wales head coach, who is in his last tournament with the Cardiff-based side. Scott Williams (back), Leigh Halfpenny (concussion) and Taulupe Faletau (arm) are all unavailable through injury, and the blistering Rhys Webb is ineligible through his club (Toulon).
Paris has been home to some great contests between these two sides, and Friday's away side have only lost on one of their last three visits to the French capital. The winner of this game is likely to challenge either Ireland or England for the Grand Slam. Wales finish the tournament at home to Ireland in what could be a winner takes all clash under the likely closed roof. Wales certainly have good odds on clinching the title, and it would not be surprising to see dancing leeks throughout Cardiff should they down the Irish in the final weekend.
Player to watch: Jonah Holmes may not be the first Welshman on everyone's lips. Many did not know of the Leicester Tiger wing’s ability until he tore Northampton Saints to shreds at Twickenham. His ability to step and tackle one-on-one will be an asset to Wales this year. He may not have Halfpenny's kicking boot, but he offers so much potential in open play.
THE sleeping Lion or the out of season rose? This seasons Six Nations can arguably be seen as Eddie Jones' ultimatum. If they win, does he stick to the same side and risk-taking only two scrum-halves to the World Cup? If they perform badly, does he perform an exodus and change his squad just before the rugby calendars biggest event?
England are a side who have the squad to win the Six Nations, but something says otherwise for the Twickenham-based team. A Sam Simmonds ACL injury and Dylan Hartley’s injured knee really does leave England without a one of her leaders.
An opening fixture away to defending Champions, Ireland will be the one and only test Eddie Jones and his side look toward; a win in the Irish capital could really give England a chance this year. England also travel to Cardiff in what is bound to be an incredible match. Home ties against the other three sides including France in ‘Le Crunch' will provide the Twickenham crowd with the exciting rugby so many fans demand.
England are not favourites, but maybe that is the way they like it. A win in Dublin could set the Eddie’s boys on their way to a Triple Crown, but is that really possible this year?
Player to watch: Dan Robson, so often the form scrum-half in the Gallagher Premiership. The sniping number nine has been around the England set-up since Jones called him up in 2016, yet he has not played for the national side. He is certain to play in 2019 however as he is one of only two scrum-halves in the England set-up and the Wasps man will be eager to prove his worth this year.
ON the form of the Autumn Internationals, Scotland deserve to be talked about as a potential winner of this tournament. Wins over Fiji and Argentina showed that the Edinburgh-based side are ones to watch. However, losses to South Africa and Wales, along with a substantial injury list forces one to reconsider Scotland's chances. It would be typical for the Scots to open their campaign with a shock loss to Italy, but this year feels different. Clinical and organised under Gregor Townsend with a new-found flair puts Scotland in a place where they are truly unpredictable.
Three uncapped hookers make the wider Scotland squad due to injuries to both Fraser Brown (knee) and George Turner (ankle). Scotland's front-row woes do not stop there either with Zander Fagerson also out with an ankle injury. Up to 19 players could be unavailable before the start of the tournament but the presence of Finn Russell will bring a soothing tone to Townsend's ambitious squad.
Scotland last lost against Italy in 2015, a 19-22 defeat at BT Murrayfield. The Azzurri will head to Murrayfield with the annual confidence they seem to find after a less than successful previous year. Scotland will be expected to beat the Italians on home soil before challenging Ireland the following week, again at home. Two home fixtures in the first two weeks could provide Townsend's men with the confidence they need to travel away to France and England and compete.
Player to watch: Sam Skinner currently applies his trade down in Exeter for the Chiefs at lock or in the back row, poached from the England set-up by some savvy Scotland scouting which qualified him for north of the border through the Scottish Exiles. Skinner has shown his versatility for Scotland already in the Autumn Internationals and will be eager to prove himself in his first Six Nations campaign. The Exeter forward has shown his ability on and off the ball, he will be a credit to the Scots during this tournament.
"QUI allons-nous être aujourd'hui?" Surely the underlying motto of the French? At the start of every tournament, the rugby world looks on with bated breath as to which France will turn up on the pitch. Les Bleus last won the Six Nations in 2010 with some aplomb, securing the Grand Slam. Since then, they have spent eight years like a yo-yo, up and down the table without making too much of an impression. With Jacques Brunel at the helm, a U20 World Championship under their belt, and challengers in both of the European competitions, this year feels distinctive.
France will be without the likes of Teddy Thomas (thigh) and Mathieu Babillot (shoulder) for the tournament due to injury. However, the depth of the French squad has not been this strong in a long time. Romain Ntamack and Demba Bamba are uncapped stars in the making, they are included in the 31 strong squad less than a year after lifting the U20 Championship title.
There is a general trend with France: when Toulouse play well, the national team follow suit. The Top 14's leading club are into the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, and are performing like the Toulouse of old. Surely a good omen to the national side?
A good performance from the Frenchmen against Wales could send them on a journey towards the World Cup. Completely written off by the bookies (18/1 found for the Six Nations and 28/1 found for the World Cup), the Parisian-based side could provide the surprise profit margin leading into Spring.
Player to watch: Romain Ntamack, like his father Émile, has made his name at Toulouse as a promising star of the future. The centre was one of the French U20 World Championship winners and has taken his form into his club game. He is deservedly in line for his first senior French cap this year and the 19-year-old could become the next French legend of a centre.
THE Azzurri so very often seems to be present but not involved. Conor O'Shea knew he would need time; Italian rugby has deeply rooted issues in its regional and club play, let alone at national level. Can the sixth nation cement their place in the competition, with growing talk of alternatives coming along?
A timely 28-17 victory against Georgia silenced many critics of the Italian play, and the two Italian regions in Zebre and Benetton are performing at a much higher level than pre-O'Shea. It must be said however that Italy's last three home victories, including a win over South Africa, have come outside of Rome.
In what is likely to be Sergio Parisse's last Six Nations tournament, the Azzurri host Wales, Ireland and France while traveling to Scotland and England. The opening game against Scotland is set to be hotly contested, and the away side on the day will believe that fortress Murrayfield can be sieged. Without the likes of Jake Polledri (ankle), Italy may look a little one dimensional in attack, but Michele Campagnaro is sure to be a spark in an Italian backline who is improving annually.
Player to watch: David Sisi has not enjoyed the most settled of careers, a total of five clubs in seven years. The German-born, former England U20 player is Italy's only uncapped player in this year's Six Nations. The flanker is currently tearing up the field in Italy, playing for Zebre in the Guinness PRO14, and will be a perfect replacement for the injured Jake Polledri.
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The Six Nations: THE greatest international annual competition returns this February for what is set to be the most exciting chapter of the tournament's history. The volume of injuries sees younger talent fighting to start on the world stage, and in a World Cup year, expect bolters. Sit down with friends and family and soak up the atmosphere because, for the next two months, European rugby reigns supreme.
2019 ARRIVING IMMINENTLY...