Looking at his long injury list, with no fewer than 13 players missing through injury or suspension, even Eddie Jones did not see England’s Six Nations odds, starting on Saturday, February 3rd. “You read the papers and we may as well not turn up,” he smiled. “We’ve got no hope!” Oddly enough, however, the betting sites would beg to differ, making England not only the favorites but odds-on to win the tournament.
With an impressive 23 wins out of 24 games since they were knocked out of the 2015 World Cup by Australia, Eddie’s side would appear to be the team to beat. That said, Ireland is also on one heck of a roll, with their domestic teams “dominating Europe” as Jones puts it, and they could easily spoil England’s grand slam party at Twickenham on the last day of the tournament. They certainly have good form as the party poopers, spoiling England’s grand slam hopes in both 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, Scotland has also been quietly making progress, running even the mighty All Blacks close this summer as they continue to improve from the perennial wooden spoon contenders.
So, will one team conquer all before them on their way to a grand slam in the Six Nations 2018? Or will it turn out to be one of those years like 1973’s famous five-way tie where everyone has a shout and the mathematicians have their work cut out to separate the side? More importantly, what impact will the ever-growing problem of injuries have on the championship?
Injuries in rugby have been more frequent and serious ever since the sport went professional in 1995. Gone are the days when overweight forwards lumbered aimlessly around the pitch, fruitlessly chasing swift, skinny backs. Today, everyone on the team is muscle-bound, with players harder and fitter than they have ever been. This has raised the intensity of the game and the impact of the tackle, leaving injured players strewn on the battleground, with few being lucky enough to survive the season unscathed.
To illustrate how tough it has become out there, you only need to look at the Premiership. In the first four weeks of the current season, the top 12 teams had no fewer than 82 injuries in their ranks. And that’s at the start of the season when everyone is feeling fresh and rested after the summer layoff. Imagine how hard it feels now, after being battered week in, week out by some of the biggest and the best players in the game.
England v Barbarians, 2013
Having taken England from eighth in the world to second, it’s fair to say that Eddie Jones has his sights set on matters beyond this spring’s domestic squabbles. He wants to take England to the number one spot, and to World Cup glory in Japan next year. Before that, however, he must negotiate a significant reshuffle in a side that has been torn apart by injuries and suspensions. Among the big names missing out are the unstoppable Manu Tuilagi, Lions winger Elliot Daly and powerhouse Semesa Rokoduguni, with James Haskell, who received a surprisingly long four-week ban for a high tackle, missing the first two games, and journeyman Joe Marler also benched by the disciplinary panel.
England’s biggest problem lies at number eight, with the world-class Billy Vunipola suffering a broken arm that could keep him out for the whole of the tournament, and his backup at the base of the scrum, Nathan Hughes, also out with a knee injury. The next taxi off the rank is Zach Mercer of Bath, but Eddie Jones has often said that he is not ready for the international game.
Of course, even with an unlucky 13 unavailable, England still has strength and depth where it counts, with an embarrassment of riches in the center and back divisions, and they will still be the side to beat, especially as they are not the only ones to be suffering injury problems.
Italy v Wales, 2013
Wales has had a miserable time of it lately, finishing a poor fifth last year and losing ever more members of their squad as the tournament gets closer. Dan Biggar’s shoulder injury this weekend adds to a long list of big names on the bench, including Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Rhys Priestland, with the influential George North also a doubt after taking a knock last week.
It’s not all bad news for Wales, however, with the return of their talismanic coach, Warren Gatland, after his hiatus managing the British and Irish Lions. They can also call upon the services of the Premiership’s top try scorer, Josh Adams.
Many people’s favorites for the tournament, Ireland, will be missing a couple of regulars due to their change of club. Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo will no longer be available for selection since their move to French side Racing 92. Like in England, such moves overseas are frowned upon by the national selectors, and render the player ineligible. Ireland also must contend with a long list of injuries of their own, with Sean O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Tommy O’Donnell and the linchpin, Jamie Heaslip, all watching from the stands.
Like their Cardiff cousins, the Dubliners will be boosted by the arrival of a young talent of their own, with Jordan Larmour scoring freely for Leinster where he is giving seasoned international Rob Kearney serious competition for the fullback jersey.
Scotland v Ireland, 2009
For Scotland, the big news is the return of Greig Laidlaw, after almost a year out of the game with injury-related problems, including a broken leg. He returns to the side, though not the captain’s armband, which will be retained by John Barclay. However, the Scots are also missing several key players, especially in the front row where Ross Ford, WP Nel and Zander Ferguson are all absent from injury, and Simon Berghan is suspended. With an inexperienced front row of uncapped players and with key players like Stuart Hogg also missing, Scotland may not be able to gain the platform they would like to launch their much-anticipated revival in the Six Nations.
With Japan 2019 just around the corner, Eddie Jones won’t be the only coach with his eyes focused beyond the final in March, and so in some ways, it is no bad thing for teams to be blooding new youngsters. Better to join the high-octane pace of international rugby now than in 12 months’ time when the learning curve would have to be far steeper. England will also have half an eye on their long-awaited clash with world number one side New Zealand on November 10th. It is their first meeting since 2014, and the first chance to see just how good this England team really is.
With so many injuries, so many exciting new players and so much more on the horizon for all the teams, there is a significant amount to play for over the 15 games and seven weeks of rugby that is to come. From kickoff in Cardiff at 2:15 p.m. on February 3rd to the final whistle in Cardiff around 7:15 p.m. on March 17th, this is set to be a truly memorable year for the Six Nations. We’ll be watching.