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Six Nations is back with fans but without a clear favorite

January 29, 2022 GMT
FILE -France celebrate after defeating New Zealand in the international rugby union match at the Stade de France, in Saint Denis, north of Paris, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Ahead of the upcoming Six Nations, France is improving quicker than any test nation ahead of hosting next year’s Rugby World Cup, and Wales has pedigree with four titles in the last 10 years. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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FILE -France celebrate after defeating New Zealand in the international rugby union match at the Stade de France, in Saint Denis, north of Paris, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Ahead of the upcoming Six Nations, France is improving quicker than any test nation ahead of hosting next year’s Rugby World Cup, and Wales has pedigree with four titles in the last 10 years. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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FILE -France celebrate after defeating New Zealand in the international rugby union match at the Stade de France, in Saint Denis, north of Paris, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Ahead of the upcoming Six Nations, France is improving quicker than any test nation ahead of hosting next year’s Rugby World Cup, and Wales has pedigree with four titles in the last 10 years. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

England is the highest ranked and most well-resourced rugby team in Europe.

Ireland is on an eight-test winning run including knocking over the All Blacks.

France also has a recent victory over New Zealand and is improving quicker than any test nation ahead of hosting next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Wales won the 2021 championship out of nowhere and has pedigree with four titles in the last 10 years.

Good luck picking a winner in the upcoming Six Nations.

The northern hemisphere rugby tournament that rarely fails to deliver is rolling around again — this time with fans and less certainty than ever about where the trophy will be heading.

Of course, there are some cast-iron guarantees around the Six Nations: Fiercely sung national anthems, press conference jibes from Eddie Jones, post-match chaos at railway stations outside Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium. Oh, and it’s fairly likely Italy will be limping to the final weekend already sure of the wooden spoon.

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But almost everything else seems up in the air, especially given what transpired over the autumn internationals, which ended with European rugby sticking out its chest with pride.

For the first time since 2002, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were all beaten on the same weekend — by France, England and Wales, respectively. Ireland also devoured Argentina on that statement weekend for the northern hemisphere that provided the perfect set-up for the Six Nations.

The French are the favorites this year. They have the world player of the year in scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, a mighty pack, a sense of togetherness, a coach with a plan in Fabian Galthie, and momentum from a first home win over the All Blacks since 2000.

Galthie called the Nov. 20 victory a “moment of truth” and now is the time to break a drought that feels almost as long. Not since 2010 has France won the Six Nations, a travesty for a country with so much rugby talent.

Les Tricolores have had back-to-back second-place finishes, losing out last year after a final-round loss at home to Scotland when a 21-point win was needed to overhaul Wales.

As for the Welsh, retaining the title just got that much harder with stalwart lock Alun Wyn Jones likely to miss the whole tournament because of a shoulder injury sustained in the autumn tests. Jones is just one of a number of key injury absentees for coach Wayne Pivac, who is also without George North, Ken Owens and what could have been the starting back row of Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

The fact the Welsh are starting out at Ireland and also have to visit Twickenham makes their title defense even tougher.

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England can never be discounted but this tournament might be filed in the drawer marked “transitional” with Eddie Jones still rebuilding a team for the 2023 World Cup. The absence of Owen Farrell for the whole Six Nations because of injury denies England leadership in the back division and an ice-cool goalkicker, while putting more focus on the rising star of English rugby, flyhalf Marcus Smith. Jonny May, the team’s most likely try-scorer, will also likely miss the whole tournament.

Jones survived a fifth-place finish last year, despite it being arguably England’s worst ever display in the championship after losing to all three Triple Crown rivals — Scotland, Wales and Ireland — for the first time since 1976 and having their most points conceded in a campaign.

Then again, beating Australia and South Africa in November highlighted the strength in depth available to England, which is something the Irish can also boast.

Not to mention their three wins in five years over New Zealand — most recently by 29-20 on Nov. 13 — that can only embolden Andy Farrell’s side going forward. Ireland scored a total of 142 points in wins over Japan, the All Blacks and Argentina in November and will have the backing of a home crowd for three of its five matches.

It’s the away match against France in round two that could determine the destination of the title, though, and the French have beaten the Irish the last two years in the Six Nations.

With Italy, now under the stewardship of New Zealander Kieran Crowley, almost a lock for last place these days — after all, the Azzurri haven’t won a game in the Six Nations since February 2015 — the last question to ponder is where Scotland fits in.

For the last few years, it has been from third to fifth — and a class above Italy after an 11-year period from 2004 where they mostly vied for the wooden spoon. The Scots have the ability to compete with the favorites, though, and don’t be surprised if they give old enemy England a bloody nose in round one in the oldest international fixture of them all.

For that’s the weekend that will see full capacity crowds back for Six Nations matches for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak. As it stands, only Italy — where attendance is capped at 50% — is expected to have limits on the number of spectators.

The tournament loses so much of its luster without fans in stadiums, even if the drama hasn’t abated during the pandemic, with the last two editions settled in the final round. Expect more of the same this year.

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