Hot on the heels of a rousing Rugby World Cup, the RBS Six Nations returns imminently, with the opening round serving up three compelling fixtures for the first weekend of February.
The 2016 tournament is poised to be as competitive off the pitch as on it, with ITV throwing their hat into the broadcasting ring for the first time. However, it is the battle for head-to-head honours that takes centre stage on opening Saturday, as renewed rivalries in Scotland and France precede a mouth-watering showdown on Sunday afternoon between the two most recent champions.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy
France vs Italy
Saturday 6 February
Contested for the first time in 2007, Italy have wrested the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy from France’s Gallic grip on two occasions, but have never beaten the French at the Stade de France and will likely find it difficult this time, against a home side handed a blank canvas under new coach Guy Novès.
Though the French would power to a convincing 32-10 Pool Stage win over their Italian counterparts in the recent Rugby World Cup, it would prove the pinnacle of a disappointing tournament for Les Bleus. In the wake of calamities against Ireland and New Zealand and the all-out mutiny that ended the reign of Philippe Saint-André, Novès has omitted the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud, Rory Kockott, Noa Nakaitaci and Sebastien Tillous-Borde from his maiden Six Nations squad; with the retirement of skipper Thierry Dusautoir necessitating further change to the French line-up.
Entering the expanded tournament for the 16th consecutive season, Italy are still to win a Six Nations championship, but have left their days as perpetual whipping boys behind them, emerging victorious over Scotland at Murrayfield last season and notching up two home wins at the Stadio Olimpico in their 2013 campaign. The Azzurri found themselves as the odd men out in a particularly demanding World Cup pool, but have a host of capable players within their camp, including France-bound hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who will link up with Toulouse in the summer.
Scotland vs England
Saturday 6 February
Since 2009, England have held on firmly to the historic silverware, recording a 20-0 shutout of the Scots in their last meeting at Murrayfield; the first time Scotland had failed to register a point in the fixture since 1978. To stand any chance in this year’s Six Nations, Scotland will almost certainly have to beat the Auld Enemy, with Murrayfield the scene of their most recent victory over the English some eight years ago. The Scots have captured the Calcutta Cup on home soil by six-point margins in 1990, 2000, 2006 and 2008 and a repeat outcome would be just the ticket for Vern Cotter’s men, who showed sizeable improvement across a Rugby World Cup that saw the hosts falter dramatically.
With Stuart Lancaster falling on his sword in the wake of the subsequent inquest, new England coach Eddie Jones heads behind enemy lines with a depleted army at his disposal; his injury-ravaged squad without the likes of Ed Slater, Dave Attwood, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Dave Ewers, Kieran Brookes and Alex Corbisiero, and long-term casualty Manu Tuilagi handled with care as he slowly returns to the fray. Nonetheless, and in spite of their World Cup woes, English expectations remain typically high, with Jones himself adding flame to the fire by revealing his ultimate goal is for England to become “the most dominant team in the world”; with the process starting in Scotland.
Clash of the Champions
Ireland vs Wales
Sunday 7 February
One day after the 123rd Calcutta Cup clash, the Six Nations rolls on with the 123rd meeting of Ireland and Wales on the international stage. An enticing showdown in Dublin between World Rugby’s highest-ranked Northern Hemisphere sides, the last four Six Nations tournaments have seen Ireland and Wales claim a pair of titles apiece; and this highlight of the initial weekend could prove pivotal in determining the destiny of the 2016 championship.
Wales have won two out of three meetings with their Irish friends at the new Aviva Stadium since it opened in 2010 and will look to build on this record off the back of a strong Rugby World Cup showing. Entering his eighth Six Nations as Dragons coach, Warren Gatland will once again be without British and Irish Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny and Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb, who both continue to be impeded by the injuries that ruled them out of the autumn tournament. However, the resilience and adaptability that characterised their World Cup classics with England, Australia and South Africa bodes well for the prospects of a healing and hardened Welsh XV with experience in key positions across the park.
For Ireland, Leinster’s Garry Ringrose had been tipped to start at centre, by no less an advocate than the mighty Brian O’ Driscoll. However, the 20-year old turned out to a notable omission from Joe Schmidt’s squad, in a move that caught some observers by surprise. It had been thought the in-form Ringrose’s inclusion might provide the Irish with a timely injection of fresh blood; particularly after they stumbled to a disappointing 20-43 defeat to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals, losing captain and 2015 Six Nations Player of the Tournament Paul O’ Connell to international retirement thereafter. With Rory Best assuming the skipper’s armband for the 2016 campaign, Sunday’s game in the Irish capital will ultimately see two familiar sets of adversaries face off; but could it be a tournament too far for the reigning Six Nations champions? Or will Irish eyes be smiling at their Celtic cousins’ expense as this huge weekend of rugby draws to a close?
Which of the Six Nations are you backing for victory on the competition’s first weekend? Let us know via @KitbagUK. Kitbag.com is your online home for Six Nations 2016 team wear and fan apparel, with a range of products available for supporters of all six sides.