By Scott Mills - Rugby guru & Outlaws 2019's Fantasy Six Nations Winner.
The 2019 World Cup was an amazing advertisement for rugby for on and off the pitch.
England gave it everything, but South Africa were just too good on final day.
Wales started to play some rugby in their last games under the Gatland regime. Scotland are still yet to make the most of their devastating backline.
Japan’s performances won the hearts of all the neutrals with their all-out action endeavours.
Ireland were arguably the strongest team from the northern hemisphere leading into the World Cup but were found out and left it too late to find a Plan B.
France dazzled in patches and Ntamack and Vakatawa announces themselves on the world stage.
Italy showed some guts and it appears to have been the final sight if one of the greatest players of my generation in Sergio Parisse.
What does this all mean for the toughest annual international spectacle in rugby?
I'm soooo excited for this one. There’s not much between the teams. It's been tight over the last few years, and it usually comes down to how the fixtures fall.
This is where my bets gone; (along with some recommendations) on "player watch" for your fantasy teams. You're welcome...
6th - ITALY
They just don't have the depth to compete I'm afraid. The new coaching set up may help but without their talisman Parisse they are going to struggle. That said, watch out for one of the stars of the tournament in Luke Polledri. The man punches well above his weight, and one of the beat ball carriers at this Six Nations. Italy will be worth watching just for him.
5th - SCOTLAND
You could flip a coin to decide 5th between France & Scotland. But without the current world best 10 in Finn Russell Scotland are out before they even get going. It was he who single handedly got that Scottish backline firing for one of the greats second halves of rugby I have ever seen when they played England last year.
I hope for rugby’s sake he’s back for Round two, but if you lose your opening game you’re going to struggle. Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg are the obvious players to watch here.
4th - FRANCE
With Shaun Edwards’ in the coaching team, long gone are the days of asking whether the world beating France turn up or the whipping boys... England won’t be carving them open like last year, mark my words. A very youthful squad with some amazing talent.
The half backs rival any in the world and a back 3 that can afford to leave out the French qualified Raka is scary.
For me they won’t make top 3. Too much experience has departed, and they are building straight for the next World Cup. Vakatawa will get a lot of headlines but for those newer to rugby watch Ntamack, the fly half, that man is something else!
3rd – WALES
There’s not much between the top 3. Wales take the hit and come in 3rd though. I think the coaching appointments are brilliant, but the rugby philosophy under this new team will be a bit different to what a lot of the squad are used to, and it will take some time to adjust to. There’s not many wholesale changes in the players so it’s like teaching old dogs new tricks. It’ll come good and be great to watch, but take away the incredible back row wales hold, and they won’t have the punch for top 2.
The exciting return of Rhys Webb is one to keep an eye on but I'm jumping onthe band wagon and saying Rees-Zammit is going to be a world beater, he’ll show glimpses of that in this year’s Championship. For those meat heads, keep an eye on Wainwright, he’s the second coming or Sam Warburton.
2nd – ENGLAND
This was a tough one for me to write. If Eddie Jones does the unexpected -below-then England win, and I would so love to be proved wrong about this prediction. Without Billy Vunipola and deciding to leave out Nathan Hughes, it suggests a change in the way England are going to play...queue the excitement.
Rather than a big bruiser predictably carrying over the game line, are we going to see a more super rugby Chris Boyd influenced backrow? Energy, power and dynamism over brute strength. I'd love to say yes.
Pundits are saying though, if you were going to see a culture shift in the back row then surely Simmonds and/or Dombrandt have to be part of it?! Great point and I tend to agree as those boys could play 10, they are that comfortable on the ball, but they have picked a certain Ben Earl (player watch right here). Ignore the fact that he plays for Saracens, this man is everything Sam Simonds is, plus he has a Schalk Brits side-step.
If - and it's a big if - Jones backs him and he has Curry, Underhill and Ludlam fighting to pack down either side of him that is tasty, really tasty.
Put that with the World Cup pairing of Lawes and Itoje, who destroyed teams in the row as the big carriers, not only will England not miss Billy V, I'm throwing it out there that they’ll be better!
If that's the pack England pick, they win the 6 nations if Farrell played 10. But I don’t think they will. Based on the backs that have been picked Farrell isn’t yet going to become designated as the outright 10 he should be, so England won’t win the title. Ford’s a great player, but Farrell's better.
This here is the sole reason I can’t see England winning. Too much of a mentality shift, an exciting one that bodes well for the future, but I think when you combine the coaching changes with this, it’s too much too soon and has been played cautiously with the players left out. If they had Simmonds there, I’d get it, but too many unknowns to comfortably put my hat on England doing it.
1st - IRELAND
A lot of fans and pundits are all saying Ireland peaked a couple of years ago and got found out. I agree, but that doesn’t mean they are past it.
Andy Farrell brought a rock steady defence when he joined the coaching set up and as top dog, he’ll demand more from some very talented players… Would you dare argue with the big man?
Sexton to captain is a smart one. They are not planning just for the next World Cup and Sexton’s appointment tells us just that. They are using this Six Nations to restore some pride after an awful World Cup campaign; and for Farrell to introduce himself on the world stage as the big chief.
For me the big call out is at hooker. You could say with Best retired and no Cronin they are light at hooker, but Ulster have been going great this season.
I could be wrong, but Herring is solid and Kelleher runs the show at Leinster, and we all know how unstoppable they have been in Europe this year.
Let’s not forget they are throwing to Ryan & Henderson, two of the best second rows around. The back row is still strong but Wales and England out muscle them here now.
Player to watch has to be Jordan Larmour. The boys electric, and anyone keeping Dave Kearney out has some serious talent. Doris starting at number 8 is worth a watch too.