The final Six Nations before a Rugby World Cup is often talked up as a barometer as to which northern hemisphere team will go on to excel on the sport’s biggest stage later that year.
It doesn’t normally ring true.
Clive Woodward’s England romped to a Grand Slam in early 2003 and, within eight months, was also lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.
But recent history shows that is very much the anomaly.
In 1999, France earned the wooden spoon in the last Five Nations, yet reached the World Cup final that year.
France won the 2007 Six Nations but — the shock quarterfinal win over the All Blacks aside — was well below par in a home World Cup and was beaten by a ragged England in the semifinals.
In 2011, England won the Six Nations with a game to spare under Martin Johnson, only to deliver a pitiful World Cup campaign on and off the field and be dumped out by France in the quarterfinals.
The winner of the 2015 Six Nations, Ireland, was then outplayed by Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals.
NEW PODCAST! Sean Maloney and Stephen Hoiles take a lighthearted look at the 2018 rugby season that was with Andrew Swain, Scotty Stevenson and Karl Te Nana
So, all is not necessarily lost for the teams who fail to win the 125th edition of Europe’s annual rugby extravaganza.
And this year, more than any other, there will be some top teams falling short.
Northern hemisphere rugby has rarely been in a better place at international level.
Ireland is pushing New Zealand close as the world’s top ranked team after beating the All Blacks in November for the second time in two years, Wales and England make up the top four in the rankings, while the Scots under Gregor Townsend are as competitive against the southern hemisphere giants as they have been for some time.
The home unions played the Rugby Championship teams nine times in November, and won seven of them.
Of the traditional European heavyweights, only the French are letting themselves down and are now below Fiji in the world rankings in ninth place.
Yet who would bet against Les Tricolores — the most mercurial rugby team of them all — finding some form out of nowhere?
Ireland starts the tournament as the outstanding favourite and is looking to retain the title after sweeping to the Grand Slam last year.
In Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton, the Irish have the world’s best coach and player of 2018, and the team won 11 of its 12 Tests last year.
“Ireland are the best side in the world,” England coach Eddie Jones said, throwing in an early grenade in the pre tournament mind games.
But the titleholders don’t have it easy.
They start with a home match against England (February 3 AEDT) — this fixture has been on the final weekend the past two years, with a Grand Slam at stake on both occasions — and then head to Murrayfield to play Scotland in round two.
They finish against the Welsh in what should be a thunderous finale in Cardiff.
Also counting against Ireland are injuries to locks Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne that rule them out of the start of the tournament, while Sexton might not be fit for the England match as he recovers from a knee injury.
After battling each other in club play, Ireland captain Rory Best said facing England first up “is a great way to refocus minds.
We have to get ready for a monster Test match.”
Wales might be third favourites with British bookmakers, behind Ireland and England in that order, but Warren Gatland has his side in fine shape heading into World Cup year and his final few months as coach of the national team.
Wins over South Africa and, at long last, Australia in November put the Welsh on a nine match winning run.
An opening night victory in Paris could launch them to a first Six Nations title since 2013.
“If we win that first game in Paris, that will set us up,” Gatland said.
“We’ll have a really good chance to win the Six Nations.”
The other big title contender is England, which steadied a rocking ship by winning three of its four November Tests and pushing New Zealand all the way in the one it lost.
Jones said he has the strongest England squad he has ever had at his disposal and, for once, doesn’t have a long list of injuries to contend with.
With longtime captain Dylan Hartley injured, Owen Farrell has assumed the leadership and is proving to be the player the English cannot do without.
Surely they’ll do better than last year, when a fifth place finish set in motion a tough few months for Jones after an almost flawless start to his tenure that included Six Nations titles in 2016 and ‘17.
With these three teams potentially set to run each other close, it may be that the Six Nations champion will be determined on the final weekend for the first time since 2015.
The wooden spoon might have been awarded before then.
Italy continues to be the whipping boy of top level European rugby, finishing in last place in four of the last five years.
Its last win in the Six Nations was at Murrayfield in February 2015, that being the Azzurri’s only victory in the tournament’s last five editions.
Expect another blank in 2019.
— A LOOK AT THE TEAMS IN THE SIX NATIONS —
COACH: Eddie Jones
2018 SIX NATIONS: 5th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2000, ‘01, ‘03, ‘11, ‘16, ‘17
OUTLOOK: The storm has seemingly passed for Eddie Jones following the toughest period of his tenure as England rugby coach.
His team had a positive set of results in November — only a late disallowed try against New Zealand denied the English a sweep of victories — and he has the best bill of health in terms of injuries than he can remember.
It means the cockiness and cheekiness has returned to the chirpy Australian, with Jones happy to throw some “grenades” to the media before the opening game against Ireland.
That match will likely decide if England can win the tournament for the third time in four years.
The team will attempt to overpower the Irish in Dublin.
If they pass that test — and it is a big “if” against the world’s most in form team — England still has a trip to Cardiff to come in round three, with France’s visit to Twickenham sandwiched between them.
It couldn’t be a much tougher start.
The return to fitness of the Vunipola brothers and Chris Robshaw is crucial, while Jones will hope bulldozing centre Manu Tuilagi can stay healthy to cause havoc out wide.
EYES ON: Owen Farrell.
He’s the captain, the goalkicker, the one true world class player in the back division.
Farrell is a player the English simply cannot do without if they are going to wrest the title back off Ireland.
The prime example came in England’s Test against Japan in November.
England was 15-10 behind at halftime and in something of a mess, yet Farrell’s introduction sparked a turnaround in a 35-15 win.
He also escaped sanction for two shoulder tackles in November.
He surely won’t get away with it a third time.
With Dylan Hartley injured, Farrell has gone from co-captain to sole leader of the team.
Jones just has to hope Farrell is ready for the crucial opener in Dublin.
Farrell has just had an operation to clean a thumb tendon, and will miss much of the buildup to the Ireland game.
QUOTE: “We have always had good squads but this is probably our strongest squad.” Eddie Jones.
— by Steve Douglas
COACH: Jacques Brunel
2018 SIX NATIONS: 4th
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2002, ‘04, ‘06, ‘07, ‘10
OUTLOOK: It once again looks bleak for France, which has not won the Six Nations since 2010.
France won it in style that year, averaging 27 points per game on the way to a Grand Slam and reached the Rugby World Cup final the following year.
But living in the past won’t help this side.
Confidence hit a new low in November when the French lost for the first time to Fiji, and at home.
It prompted burly centre Mathieu Bastareaud to describe his own team as “little boys.”
France captain Guilhem Guirado has long complained about France’s chronic lack of discipline and an inability to cope under pressure, evident the past couple of years in the way France lost games at the end.
Brunel seems to have made his mind up to use this tournament as a stepping stone for the World Cup, saying only 75 per cent of the team is in place.
He has five players with no international experience, so young players are coming through. But so were they last year when Brunel called up 10 players under the age of 23.
It turned out to be a miserable 2018, punctuated by a 3-0 reverse in Tests in New Zealand and infuriating last gasp home defeats to Ireland and South Africa.
Something has to change, but whether it will under Brunel is doubtful.
Instead, France may have to look for outside help and hire a foreign coach with a more ruthless perspective to get French rugby going again by using its talent base in a more constructive and objective way.
EYES ON: Romain Ntamack.
The name will sound familiar to rugby fans, particularly to long suffering followers of the French side who dream about the old days when French flair was envied and respected.
The 19-year-old centre is the son of former France winger Emile Ntamack, one of the finest wingers France has produced and a player capable of spectacular tries from distance.
His son plays differently, but has already shown for club side Toulouse that he has remarkable composure and maturity for his age.
He can take a tackle and, for good measure, he’s a decent kicker.
Brunel could pair him alongside Bastareaud or Wesley Fofana, who is playing in his final Six Nations.
QUOTE: “I don’t have a miracle cure. I’m aware of our weaknesses but I believe in our strengths.” Jacques Brunel.
— by Jerome Pugmire
COACH: Joe Schmidt
2018 SIX NATIONS: 1st
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2009, ‘14, ‘15, ‘18
Ireland is the world’s best team right now, despite the rankings.
But it’s one thing to reach the summit, and another to stay there, as New Zealand coach Steve Hansen warned the Irish two months ago.
A year ago, an England side bidding for a hat trick carried a super sized target on its back and crumbled.
Ireland will be the target this time, and how it copes with that will determine where the trophy ends up.
Can it maintain the focus and drive after its greatest year?
There’s no doubt Ireland is good enough to retain the championship, even with only two home games.
By finishing in Cardiff, where Wales wait eagerly, Ireland might even have to win the title on points difference.
But great teams thrive on making history, and in 90 years only two have achieved consecutive Grand Slams: England in 1991-92, and France in 1997-98.
Ireland has a great shot at joining them, thanks to one who knows how to carry a target more than most, Jonathan Sexton.
The irreplaceable flyhalf will receive another great platform to dictate proceedings from the likes of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, and a fit again Conor Murray.
EYES ON: James Ryan.
In a team full of names, Ryan is fast becoming one.
After leading Ireland to its first Junior World Cup final in 2016, Ryan made his senior debut off the bench a year later in mid 2017 against the United States, before debuting for his Leinster club.
Thanks to a remarkable engine that produces a phenomenal workload, the lock not only survived at Test level but thrived and impressed.
By his fifth Test he was first choice for Ireland and featured in a Six Nations Grand Slam, Ireland’s first series win in Australia in 39 years, and a first home win over New Zealand.
The 2.03m university student showed his mettle by subduing Brodie Retallick, the world’s best lock, and Maro Itoje last year, and he’s still 22.
In Ryan, Ireland appears to have unearthed the successor to Paul O’Connell.
Ryan makes most of his contributions head down around the rucks, where defences are thickest, making double digit tackles, and double digit carries.
Also, he scrummages behind indispensable tighthead Tadhg Furlong, contributing to the power on that side.
“Because he is so special people keep expecting it from him,” lock partner Devin Toner says, “but he keeps on stepping up.”
QUOTE: “A little bit of fear is a good thing, it drives you on.” Ireland captain Rory Best.
— by Foster Niumata
COACH: Conor O’Shea
2018 SIX NATIONS: Last
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 4th 2007, ‘13
OUTLOOK: Italy has finished last 13 out of 19 times, and there is little to suggest this year will be any different.
Since replacing Jacques Brunel, O’Shea has won only six of his 28 games in charge, with none of those victories coming in the Six Nations.
Italy has lost its last 17 matches in the tournament, dating to 2015.
However, all talk of replacing Italy in the Six Nations was nailed on the head in November when it beat Georgia, the best of Europe’s second tier sides.
O’Shea’s position was also reaffirmed this week by federation president Alfredo Gavazzi after rumours of change started in the French media.
O’Shea took on the job in 2016 not only to coach but also to transform Italian rugby from the ground up, and the results are starting to bear fruit.
Treviso missed out by just a point from qualifying for the playoffs in the European Challenge Cup.
O’Shea has debuted a ton of new talent, and he says they gave their best performance of sustained commitment in November in a 26-7 loss to Australia, after the Georgia win.
That’s the standard he’s asked his side to meet or surpass in every match of this Six Nations. Do that, he says, and they will be very competitive.
Italy has three home matches, but its best chance of ending its record tournament drought is the opener at Murrayfield, against Scotland.
The Scots are, by far, the side beaten by the Italians the most often — seven, including two at Murrayfield.
EYES ON: Ian McKinley.
The Ireland-born flyhalf’s remarkable story could reach another milestone if he makes his Six Nations debut, eight years after retiring after losing the sight in one eye.
During a club game in 2010, a teammate accidentally stood on McKinley’s left eye and perforated the eyeball.
He retired the following year after losing sight in the eye.
But McKinley returned to playing rugby in 2014 using specially manufactured goggles, and played for Viadana and Zebre before joining Benetton in 2016.
Having qualified for Italy on residency grounds, he kicked a late penalty on his international debut to help the Azzurri beat Fiji 19-10 in November 2017.
His last Test was last November against Ireland.
QUOTE: “We can learn a lot from other countries, but a lot of people can learn a heck of a lot from the way this team conducts itself.” Conor O’Shea.
— by Daniella Matar
COACH: Gregor Townsend
2018 SIX NATIONS: 3rd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: 3rd 2001, ‘06, ‘13, ‘18
OUTLOOK: The good news for Scotland is it has three home games.
Murrayfield will be frothing for Italy first up, then Ireland second, and Wales later.
The bad news is the two away games, in Paris and London where Scotland hasn’t won for a long time.
The Scots have yet to fix the mental block they have away from home, from being out of their comfort zone, which has prevented them from becoming a great side.
Instead, they remain merely a good one, a side that hasn’t beaten anyone on the road apart from Italy in nine years, and hasn’t won three tournament matches in a row in 23 years.
And yet, Scotland has the goods: a strong tight five, and a lethal back three, pivoting on a savvy scrumhalf and flyhalf with some X factor.
But at flux is the back row and midfield.
Without John Barclay, who has yet to return from Achilles tendon surgery, and Hamish Watson, who is set to miss at least three matches after breaking his hand, the struggle at the breakdowns will continue.
Centre Huw Jones is in the squad but hasn’t played for Glasgow because of injuries.
Glasgow and Edinburgh reached the European Champions Cup quarterfinals together for the first time, which has added to the pressure on Gregor Townsend to harness their confidence and combinations into an even better national team.
EYES ON: Greig Laidlaw.
He’s the scrumhalf, captain, goalkicker, and glue who holds Scotland together.
But just a year ago he was an afterthought.
He was out for most of 2017 after breaking a leg and tearing ankle ligaments.
New coach Townsend made Barclay captain, and Ali Price established himself as the No 9. But then the 2018 Six Nations started and Scotland was smashed in Cardiff.
Laidlaw started the next game against France, contributed 22 points to a win, and finished the match at flyhalf, reminding of his versatility when Finn Russell imploded.
After Barclay was injured last season, Laidlaw was restored as captain.
More than half of his Scotland caps are as captain.
He’s a natural, walking the fine line in being able to employ the gameplan and give teammates the confidence to cut loose.
His smooth goalkicking also relieves Russell and Stuart Hogg.
Laidlaw has captained Edinburgh, Gloucester, and his current club Clermont, which made him its first foreign skipper.
That’s because he backs himself, and his team.
He’ll turn 34 at the Rugby World Cup, and Scottish fans will hope he’ll celebrate it in Japan.
QUOTE: “You see the teams that win championships and Grand Slams, they are consistent and win even when they’re not at their best. That has to be the next step for us.” Scotland centre Huw Jones.
— by Foster Niumata
COACH: Warren Gatland
2018 SIX NATIONS: 2nd
BEST SIX NATIONS RESULT: Champion 2005, ‘08, ‘12, ‘13
OUTLOOK: Wales’ players are not planning any farewell presents for coach Warren Gatland ahead of his final Six Nations in charge of the team — “There will be no cakes and candles in our camp,” captain Alun Wyn Jones said — but one last championship victory wouldn’t be a bad way to say goodbye.
Gatland will be leaving his Wales job after 12 years at the helm following the Rugby World Cup in Japan so the Welsh have an added motivation heading into this tournament.
Recent results should also raise hope of a first Six Nations title since 2013.
They are on a run of nine straight wins, including an unprecedented four from four in November, and two more are needed to tie the record set by the class of 1910.
Wales opens with trips to France and Italy before hosting England for what could prove to be a historic match.
How fitting it would be if it comes down to a decider — potentially for the Grand Slam — on the final weekend in Cardiff between Ireland and Wales, Gatland’s past and present teams.
EYES ON: Gareth Anscombe.
There’s rarely a bigger debate in Welsh rugby than who should wear the country’s hallowed No 10 jersey, and it is currently a three way fight between Gareth Anscombe, Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell.
Anscombe is the man in possession after starting the wins against Australia and South Africa in November.
His running game from flyhalf gives Wales a new dimension, especially alongside speedy scrumhalf Gareth Davies.
The experienced Biggar is reliable and clearly a better goalkicker, but would be a more conservative pick.
As his team gradually evolves from “Warrenball,” Gatland is likely to choose Anscombe for the Six Nations.