The Six Nations: New faces to keep an eye on

With the Six Nations less than a week away and the respective national coaches having selected their squads for the first time this year, northern Europe is preparing itself for its annual celebration of international Rugby Union. To put this year’s competition in context, England are the holders, both of the Six Nations title and the Grand Slam, after sweeping all comers last year. Wales and Ireland finished second and third respectively, with Scotland having finished a disappointing fourth with only two victories. France had their worst Six Nations since 2013, finishing fifth and perennial underdogs Italy lived up to their billing, finishing bottom of the pile having lost all of their games. Since then, Ireland have undoubtedly improved, beating the world champion All Blacks in the autumn, whilst Scotland, France and Italy have also demonstrated varying improvements. Wales have been largely static since this time last year, having a disappointing autumn in which they barely managed to beat Japan and were crushed 8-32 by Australia. Ahead of this year’s tournament, we look at the new faces that could make an impact.

For England, Eddie Jones has selected three uncapped faces to supplement an already dangerous team, in the form of Nathan Catt, Mike Williams and Alex Lozowski. Jones has tweaked his resources in response to injury problems and will look to give Lozowski game time especially, even though Owen Farrell and George Ford currently occupy his chosen positions. Catt has been a regular workhorse for Bath in recent years and can be thought of as David Barnes with added mobility. Jones’ final addition is Leicester’s second-row cum flanker Mike Williams whose season has been blighted with a succession of injuries, but whose worth lies in hard carrying and his ability to fill different positions if required. Even though it is unlikely any of these three will start against France on the opening weekend, it is assured with Eddie Jones at the helm that they will have been brought into a team with a purpose in mind. Without a defeat in the last fourteen months, Twickenham will be expectant of back-to-back English Six Nations triumphs for the first time since 2000-01.

France, England’s opponents on the first weekend, have also resisted making wholesale changes following an autumn in which they lost to New Zealand, beat Samoa and fought Australia to a loss. Guy Noves has opted for four new faces in his squad of thirty-two, with Louis Picamoles the only non-France based member. The four in question are full-back Geoffrey Palis, flanker Fabien Sanconnie, lock Arthur Iturria and prop Mohamed Boughanmi. Palis has been part of the French set-up before having been selected for (but didn’t play in) the 2014 Six Nations. Iturria is part of table-topping Clermont’s title push this season and as one of only four locks selected is likely to get playing time even as the least experienced player selected at second-row. Mohamed Boughanmi plays for this year’s surprise package in the Top 14, La Rochelle, who currently sit second in the table having only lost four times this season. Weighing in at nearly 23 stone, he will complement the more mobile Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani, but will likely be called in if France succeed in forcing their opponents into an arm wrestle. Tall and rangy, Brive’s Fabien Sanconnie is the surprise inclusion in Noves’ squad. Considering the relative scarcity of top-level back row options available to Noves in the post-Dusautoir era though, Sanconnie has a good chance of making the match-day twenty-three in a squad that is crying out for inspiration.

Coming off an impressive autumn, Ireland appear to be England’s biggest challengers and will be relishing the opportunity with England coming to Dublin on the tournament’s final weekend. Keeping with the theme of continuity, Joe Schmidt has selected only three new names, keeping faith with an already well balanced squad. In the backs, Schmidt has added wingers Andrew Conway and Rory Scannell, whilst hooker Niall Scannell is the sole new-cap in the forwards. All three are Munstermen. With the injury to Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell will provide competition for James Tracy for the number sixteen jersey behind captain Rory Best and could easily leapfrog the Leinsterman into the twenty-three for the Scotland game. Less likely to see action are the two new wingers who face competition from established faces such as Keith Earls (who seems to have settled on wing as his favoured position), Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe. Both have had impressive seasons with Munster though, and with Schmidt a coach predisposed to new ideas and emerging talent, it would be a surprise if one of them didn’t manage to secure a run-out at some point during the tournament.

A worryingly inexperienced squad for Italy this year, although with only one uncapped player in the thirty-two. Conor O’Shea will not have under-estimated the challenge however, and after a scintillating victory over South Africa in the autumn, will be looking for real signs of the progress Italy perennially lack. Zebre’s Federico Ruzza is the sole new name at second-row, supporting Josh Furno, Marco Fuser, George Biagi and Dries van Schalkwyk. In truth, it would be hugely encouraging if Italy could win just two games in this year’s championships with games at home against Wales and France likely to be pencilled in for that purpose. The back-row duo of Sergio Parisse and Glasgow’s Simone Favaro will be key if this is to occur because otherwise the team appears largely bereft of elite talent, particularly with the loss of Leonardo Sarto to injury.

In his final Six Nations as Scotland coach, Vern Cotter has selected two uncapped names in an increasingly dangerous Scotland side. Following the selections of Simon Berghan and Cornell du Preez, do not expect a revolution in tactics from the Kiwi head coach, although Berghan has a better chance at gaining game time now that W.P. Nel has sustained yet another injury. Du Preez, also of Edinburgh has more experience of high-pressure games having previously played in Super Rugby for the Kings, but is behind John Barclay, John Hardie, Rob Harley and Hamish Watson in the back-row pecking order and will almost certainly spend more time in the stands than on the pitch. On a pleasing note for the Scots, this continuity will ensure that talents like Huw Jones and Tommy Seymour should be given the game-time to fulfil their potential, and Warren Gatland will no doubt be watching.

Rob Howley’s Wales team are in flux once again following a disappointing Autumn, and although a knee-jerk action has not occurred, Howley had opted for seven uncapped players in his thirty-six man squad. Of those, the most promising is free-scoring Wasps’ flanker Thomas Young, who has had a storming season in Coventry, winning repeated man-of-the-match awards and gaining both journalistic and popular acclaim for his hard work-rate and speed in attack. Eddie Jones may well regret not convincing the twenty-four year old to defect to the Red Roses. Alongside him in the forward pack are the Ospreys duo of Rory Thornton and Olly Cracknell. Although talented, they are unlikely to get much game time with likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Young standing in their way. Wales’ regular search for a reliable third-choice Scrum Half has landed upon the Scarlets’ Aled Davies, who barring an injury to either Rhys Webb or Gareth Davies will have to make do with running out during the warm-up, but is definitely one for the future having marshalled the Scarlets’ impressively during their draw against Saracens in the European Champions Cup. Leicester’s Owen Williams has also been selected and will fight it out with Sam Davies for a spot on the bench behind Dan Biggar, but his being part of a reeling Leicester Tigers’ team will not help his chances. Howley’s final original selections come in the form of wingers Steff Evans and Ashton Hewitt. Evans performed very impressively in the Scarlets’ Champions Cup match against Saracens and would be unfortunate to miss out on the twenty-three considering the competition. Hewitt on the other hand hasn’t had the opportunity to play in the Champions Cup this season and may not be ready for Wales’ tough schedule with three games away from home.

Altogether, all six nations have opted for continuity over change in their squad selections, perhaps a surprise considering we’re less than two years through the next World Cup cycle and with players such as Parisse and Bowe in the twilight of their careers. Of those selected, I believe that Wales’ Thomas Young will have the greatest rookie impact from across all six sides, but the Six Nations is by nature unpredictable, and considering the new law changes around the tackle area, it may only take one misjudged hit to fundamentally alter a player’s impact upon the tournament, leaving the door ajar for someone else to seize the initiative.

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