The 2018 Six Nations kicks off on February 3rd, with the 2019 World Cup only 18 months down the line.
Now is the time to trial and execute new combinations as head coaches ponder who will make their starting XV in Japan. Come next year’s Six Nations, the time for experimentation will surely be over.
In the meantime, of course, those coaches will also be trying to win the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby competition.
With 15 matches to look forward to between now and March 17th, let’s assess the state of each team heading into the tournament.
Head coach Eddie Jones’ side have been leading the pack since the Australian’s appointment following the 2015 World Cup.
A grand slam in 2016 was backed up with the title in 2017 – a final day loss away to Ireland was all that denied them another undefeated campaign and ended a record 18 match unbeaten run, level with New Zealand’s world record.
But there have been recent undertones of apprehension. While England did win all three of their autumn internationals – against Argentina, Australia and Samoa – performances were not convincing.
‘The back line is as exciting as ever, with try-scoring potential in every position, and a hat-trick of titles should still be the aim’
Jones described the Argentina victory as a “grindathon”, while the 30-6 win over Australia was dominated by the visitors’ misfortune at the hands of the TMO when at 13-11 down in the second half the Wallabies had a try contentiously disallowed.
Three late tries flattered the hosts that day, while a dominant 48-14 result over Samoa taught us very little considering the standard of the opposition.
England will rely once again on ever-efficient fly-half Owen Farrell, who has proven himself as a world-class talent. Similarly, Farrell’s Saracens team-mate Jamie George has raised his profile courtesy of some strong performances for the British and Irish Lions – whether the hooker will start over captain Dylan Hartley is a call only Jones can make.
Back row frailties are a concern. Billy Vunipola’s fractured arm has ruled him out of the tournament, while his deputy Nathan Hughes will also miss the start of the Championship.
Exeter’s Sam Simmonds has been impressive but questions still linger as to whether he is more effective as a flanker. This leaves “apprentice” Zach Mercer as England’s next best option at No.8.
Jones has been insistent that the 20-year-old Bath forward should remain on the sidelines while learning from his elders, but his impressive club performances, combined with a lack of other options, may bring his debut forward.
The back line is as exciting as ever, with try-scoring potential in every position, and a hat-trick of titles should still be the aim.
Injuries may be an issue in certain positions, namely in the back row, but England are still the second-ranked side in the world behind only the All Blacks. Home fixtures against Wales and Ireland are invaluable, and Jones’ side must take advantage.
Head coach Gregor Townsend has breathed new life into what was a lacklustre Scotland attack, with full-back Stuart Hogg as its fulcrum.
It has been many years since the Scots have had a genuinely world-class player, but Hogg certainly is, and despite being injured since December, opponents will still regard him as a serious threat.
Scotland will also be buoyed by the return of Greig Laidlaw from a fractured ankle, while Finn Russell will continue to pull the strings at fly-half.
Scotland enjoyed a remarkable second half of 2017. They beat Australia in Sydney during the summer and continued their progress in the autumn.
Samoa were professionally dealt with before the Scots came agonisingly close to the greatest victory in their history as they gave the All Blacks an almighty fright, losing only by 22-17.
Hogg’s ultimately unsuccessful dash to the line in the last play nearly took the roof off Murrayfield’s stands.
But it was their sensational win over Australia a week later that would have brought the most pleasure, as the home side piled over 50 points past the 2015 Rugby World Cup runners-up.
While perhaps not quite ready to put together a serious title challenge, it would be foolish for anyone to expect an easy match against them.
England named eight uncapped players in their initial squad for the tournament, meanwhile Ireland have only one. A settled squad is an invaluable asset for head coach Joe Schmidt, who will be looking to build on an impressive autumn.
Back row CJ Stander was outstanding in the 38-3 win over South Africa – the largest margin of victory for Ireland over the Springboks – and his interference at the breakdown will be essential to nullifying the Championship’s expansive back lines.
Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray remain one of the world’s most effective half-back combinations, if they continue to conduct those outside them as they have done in recent years, the Irish will be mightily difficult to stop.
A trip to Paris in the opening round will be no easy test, while they wrap up the tournament with the most difficult challenge of them all, against a vengeful England at Twickenham – having denied them the grand slam last year.
Ireland have been a perpetual disappointment at the World Cup, never getting beyond the quarter-finals, but Schmidt’s current side look like the real deal with players that could walk into any international side.
In the lead up to Japan 2019 they will be desperate to prove they can compete on the world stage, and that lead up starts now.
Wales have enjoyed success over the past decade playing ‘Warrenball’, a forwards-based game devised by coach Warren Gatland and designed to sap the energy out of the opposition through prolonged phases and repeatedly breaking the gain line.
It has been very effective but unfortunately for Wales, others have started playing it, too.
Now the New Zealander must devise a new strategy but without all the weapons in his arsenal. As of next season, Gatland must prepare for life without some of his biggest names.
‘Wales are underdogs, but if their new style of play can find its rhythm they will be a very difficult side to put away’
Players must play their club rugby in Wales or have over 60 caps if they play abroad. One of the casualties will be scrum-half Rhys Webb who is moving to Toulon next season, possessing has only 31 caps.
Full-back Liam Williams is another who is in danger of losing his eligibility. The Saracen has won 45 caps and will need to play most, if not all, of Wales’ fixtures in 2018 if he is to be selected next year.
Both will be enormous losses, and Wales need to find a way to replace them. This year’s Championship may be considered a trial run for Gatland, testing new combinations of those who will be eligible for selection under the new rule.
One particularly exciting prospect is Scarlets flanker James Davies, who has been in stunning form in the Pro14. Seen as a direct replacement for the injured Dan Lydiate, Davies is disciplined defender with lightning quick hands whose call up has been labelled as “criminally overdue” considering the flanker is 27 years old.
Compared to the rest of the tournament frontrunners, Wales are underdogs, but if their new style of play can find its rhythm they will be a very difficult side to put away.
Head coach Jaques Brunel faces a huge task, having only took charge in December following the sacking of Guy Noves after two years in the job.
Noves was dismissed after a disappointing autumn, not winning once in four games, including a 23-23 draw to Japan. He only won seven of his 21 games in charge, so France will be eager for a fresh start, and Brunel is certainly aiming for one.
The ex-Italy coach called up 19-year-old fly-half Matthieu Jalibert to potentially make his international debut, and chatter in France suggests he is quite the talent, a player with natural speed and game management whilst improving constantly.
Comparisons with New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett aren’t entirely unfounded.
France’s build-up to the tournament has been disrupted by off-field issues, specifically Mathieu Bastareaud’s suspension for making a homophobic remark whilst playing for Toulon.
Whether he returns after his three-week ban is speculative, but what is certain is that they will miss his brutality in the midfield, and with fellow centre Wesley Fofana also injured – and set to miss the entire tournament – France will have big shoes to fill.
The current starting half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau have a combined age of 42, but despite their inexperience were ever-present during the poor autumn.
But bear in mind two of those four games were against the All Blacks, with another against South Africa, so this upcoming tournament with more even opposition should be a real indication of France’s future heading towards Japan 2019.
Italy’s results in the autumn tell us very little about their current state. A loss to South Africa and win against Fiji came either side of another loss to Argentina, where they conceded 17 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes to lose 31-15.
The Azzuri play like their countrymen drive, unpredictably, but in head coach Conor O’Shea they have a trump card.
The Irishman’s tactics against England last year – where his players refused to commit to rucks, thereby stopping them from legally forming and causing utter chaos at the breakdown – set off a chain of events resulting in the laws being changed, but it did temporarily halt an England side who were previously on top form.
England eventually came through 36-15 winners, but the visitors’ performance was not to be forgotten.
Trips to Dublin, Paris and Cardiff make life very difficult for the Italians, but under the leadership of the inspirational Sergio Parisse there will be no shortage of passion.
1. England – Grand Slam winners