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Six Nations power rankings: England first, Ireland second, France the joker in the pack

Eddie Jones’ side are favourites but if Ireland get off to a good start, they could spring a surprise.

The captains with the Six Nations trophy.
The captains with the Six Nations trophy.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Jan 28th 2020, 2:37 PM

1: ENGLAND

EDDIE JONES SAYS he wants England to be remembered as the greatest team to ever play rugby.

Eddie Jones says a lot of things.

It must be awful for a man with such an ego to realise the world doesn’t listen to what he has to say; the Springboks ignoring Jones’ claim last November that England would win the World Cup.

Still, if you spend enough time in Jones’ company, you’d easily be mistaken for believing the final of that tournament took place in Yokohama on October 26 rather than a week later in the same city. “We touched greatness,” Jones said. “We played a great game against the All Blacks.”

And then they followed it up with a mediocre one against the South Africans. In a sense those seven days in Japan were a microcosm of the Jones era. Across four years, they’ve been periodically impressive –particularly in that 19-7 victory over New Zealand – but often they’ve floated between brilliant and brutal, sometimes in the same game.

Remember last year’s Six Nations? Ireland were humbled in Dublin but Wales were hungrier in Cardiff. Later, England outclassed Scotland in the first-half at Twickenham, but didn’t show for the second 40 minutes. They won a grand slam and a championship in Jones’ first two seasons but have won just five of their Six Nations games since.

“We want to create some new history,” Jones said yesterday. “It is difficult to stay at the top. You have to have this relentless desire to be better, this relentless curiosity to find out what you can do better. And you have to have competition for places to keep players on their toes.”

The make-up of his squad doesn’t really back up his words for while Jones made 10 changes from his World Cup squad, seven of those were due to injury. Of the rest, Dan Cole, now 32, was a notable absentee but you can’t say the same about Jack Singleton or Ruadridh McConnochie.

Talk of eight newbies in the squad also needs a little context. Out of them all, Ben Earl may be only one who has a chance of playing in Paris.

He’ll wish Billy Vunipola had made it into this tournament; will wonder if the Saracens’ fall-out will poison relations in his squad while the rest of us will wonder if his grand statements about becoming the best team to play rugby is nothing more than a ploy to get people talking about something other than salary-caps and possible division in his camp.

Either way, he is right when he says “there is a lot of growth left in his team”. They were Europe’s best side in Japan and promise to be No1 again by St Patrick’s weekend.

2: IRELAND

You simply never know if a No2 has what it takes to step up to the plate and all you have to do is trace your steps through history’s pathway to come up with names of guys who failed to do so.

But who’s to say Andy Farrell will join that uninspiring list and be bracketed with Brian Kidd rather than in the Steve Hansen/Joe Schmidt category?

The reality is the new Irish head coach has served a proper apprenticeship with both Schmidt and Warren Gatland writing impressive references. “Andy’s world class,” was Schmidt’s assessment. “Is he ready? Absolutely,” said Gatland.

The whispers slipping out of camp thus far have been positive; that the players are relieved to be shot of Schmidt’s Monday morning reviews; that a change was needed. It certainly arrived at lunchtime today with that bold team-selection.

Sticking to his promise to pick players on form rather than reputation, Farrell ditched Peter O’Mahony. Remember Rory Best and Rob Kearney were already off-stage. Keith Earls is another to miss out on a part in this new production. That’s 365 caps gone with the stroke of a pen. 

The word from camp is there’ll be further change in terms of how the team plays; an emphasis on attack and risk coming at the expense of Schmidt’s conservative game-plan.

Will it work? You can only ever guess at this stage of the year but when you scan the fixture list and take into account the importance that momentum brings in this competition, it is not inconceivable that Ireland will defeat Scotland (who they haven’t lost at home to since 2010), Wales (who last won a Six Nations game in Dublin back in 2012) and Italy.

England will be a different story, one player privately saying the psychological scars have yet to heal from last year’s World Cup warm-up match. But the idea that Ireland could head to Paris with a chance of winning the championship isn’t a ridiculous one. Even if they don’t win the title this year, they will come close.

rory-best-dejected-after-the-game Rory Best's departure freshens things up for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

3: WALES

If it seems a little harsh to drop the defending champions down to third in the rankings then bear in mind they enter this competition without Warren Gatland, and also, minus their key centre, Jonathan Davies. Will George North fill that particular gap? Has he the defensive mindset to do so?

The fixture list isn’t kind to the Welsh, recent history showing that their better seasons have come on the back of having England and Ireland in Cardiff. On the road, they have struggled recently in London and Dublin, eight years having elapsed since their last competitive win in the Aviva, while four of their last five championship games at Twickenham have gone England’s way.

The French won’t scare them – indeed they have not won in Cardiff since 2010. But three wins won’t be enough to land the Welsh another title. And that’s all they’re going to get this season.

4: FRANCE

An asterisk accompanies this placement. Yes, they’re ranked fourth now, but when Stuart Barnes made the point in his Sunday Times column that they, along with England, are the only team capable of winning a grand slam, he was making a fair point.

They have the players to do it; the question is whether this season will be a year too soon for them. Only five of Fabien Galthie’s squad have won more than 20 caps; 28 having won fewer than 10. So yes, they’ve talent – Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas are world class – but gelling it together is a different story.

Look at their results over the last 21 years. Since 2012, the French have managed just one top-half finish in the Six Nations; whereas in the 13 years leading up to then, they got to two World Cup finals, two further World Cup semi-finals, won three grand slams and another two championships.

Finally, they seem to have settled on a strategy, but Mike Tyson’s famous advice – ‘everyone has a plan until they get smacked in the mouth’ – has never seemed more appropriate. How will the kids react when England’s pack comes growling at them this Sunday? What’ll it be like for them when they hear 73,000 Welsh voices in Cardiff? Yes, they could win a grand slam, but it’s likelier to be next year rather than this.

5: SCOTLAND

They are hard to predict in the sense that sometimes they defend poorly, the rest of the time abysmally. Under Gregor Townsend, they have produced some superb attacking play but can we expect this to happen in Finn Russell’s absence? The memory of the 27-3 defeat to Ireland in Japan won’t have faded yet, either. They’re decent at home but haven’t won away to Wales since 2002. As for beating Ireland this weekend. No chance.

finn-russell-scores-his-sides-first-try Russell's absence will hurt Scotland. Source: Craig Mercer/INPHO

6: ITALY

Any analysis of Italy is often one step shy of mockery. In this respect, perhaps we’re better off just sticking to the facts. Their first game is in Cardiff, where they have lost each time since 2006. Next it’s France, another away fixture. Outside of Rome, Italy’s record in the Six Nations reads: played 50, won two (against Scotland each time), drew one; lost 47.

In round three, it’s Scotland, the last team they defeated in this competition. That was five years and 22 games ago. To the Aviva in round four, where they have shipped 42, 46, 58 and 56 points on their last four visits to Dublin.

Finally, it’s England, the only one of the other competing nations they’ve failed to beat in the competition. Worse again, they have not got within 20 points of them in any game since 2013. We could go on, mention the fact they’ve conceded more than 200 points in three of the last four seasons, but you can’t be cruel. Last year, England were the only team to beat them by more than 13 points. Some team, sometime, will fall in Rome. The bet has to be the Scots.

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