Racing Post rugby expert Graham Woods shares his informed opinion on who could claim bragging rights for 2016.
From World Cup flops to Six Nations favourites via a change of coach, England are the bookmakers’ fancy to top the table. They have always had a strong squad so the theory must be that new man at the helm Eddie Jones will finally get the best out of them, and they have a nice start with their opening games against last year’s bottom two Scotland and Italy, though it all depends on how quickly they can adapt to a change of direction.
After their World Cup hopes appeared to be dashed by injury blows, Wales showed in the autumn that they have the depth in their squad to cope and they have a clear edge in terms of continuity as their rivals deal with new coaches, retirements and injuries. Their first clash against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday will be crucial, and they also face a trip to Twickenham, but they won at both venues last year.
The two-time champions are without some of their key leaders following Paul O’Connell’s retirement and injuries to Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy and Ian Henderson among others, while fly-half Jonny Sexton also looks out of sorts. In Joe Schmidt they have a coach whose strategy and attention to detail are second to none, but this could be a tough campaign for the Irish.
Les Bleus have finished in the bottom half of the table for the last four years and were pretty abject at the World Cup, but hopes are high in France that new coach Guy Noves will lead them back to their swashbuckling glory days. It may win them a key game or two, but it’s hard to foresee a title challenge from an inexperienced squad.
The Scots have been backed for success after being denied a World Cup semi-final place in such cruel and controversial circumstances. They are much improved under Kiwi coach Vern Cotter but their backline has been hit by injury and from last year’s wooden spoon to title contenders would be a huge leap.
The Azzurri are long odds-on for bottom spot as they seem to be running out of steam in coach Jacques Brunel’s last campaign. They rely heavily on star man Sergio Parisse, are still searching for a fly-half and look desperately in need of a summer shake-up under new management.
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