We take a look at the outright betting for the 2017 Six Nations.
Make no mistake - this year's edition of the Six Nations isn't just a trials run for the Lions tour. The northern nations consider playing in this prestigious competition to be an absolute privilege, and the competitors will give all they have to take home gold medals at its conclusion, while the introduction of a bonus-point system will also reward attacking sides, and encourage more tries to be scored. As is always the case, a number of interesting subplots are beginning to take shape as the tournament draws nearer.
Will Eddie's England be able to maintain their unbeaten run and break the newly set All Blacks record of 18 consecutive wins? Can the Irish take the confidence and momentum of defeating the All Blacks in 2016 into this year? Will Wales fail or fly without Warren Gatland? Can Vern Cotter's resurgent Scottish outfit better their fourth place finish last year? Will the French finally show their true colours and score some wins? And can Italy build on their unbelievable result against South Africa in November, by avoiding the wooden spoon this time round? The fact that these answers and more will be played out over the course of the next couple of months is an intensely mouth-watering prospect. I myself, can hardly wait.
To Win Outright: 8/10
Wow. What a year Eddie Jones' side had in 2016. After a horrific home World Cup, Jones has managed to turn England from embarrassments to world beaters, and their 100% record over the course of last year speaks volumes for his coaching and man-managing ability. The problem with having had such an unbelievable year, of course, is that every side in 2017 will be looking to knock the defending champions off of their rather high horse, but if any side is equipped enough to deal with the pressures that come with such high expectations, it's this England side. Jones was applauded for changing England's defensive structures last season, and bringing in defensive coaching guru Paul Gustard, while also solidifying their troubling set-piece. Coach Jones has often been quoted as saying that this team still has a long way to go to challenge the All Blacks for world rugby supremacy, and this year's Six Nations will give us another opportunity to see how good they really are, while they will be further motivated by the fact that another Grand Slam would see them better the All Black's eighteen match winning streak.
The defending champions kick off their campaign at home to the French on the 4th of February, before travelling to the Principality for a tough clash with the Welsh a week later. On the 26th, after earning what would be a well-deserved break, Twickenham is again the venue when Sergio Parisse's Italians come knocking. Dylan Hartley will hope that an upset doesn't occur here, as his men would have a thirteen-day break to dwell on it before the Home Of Rugby again plays host, albeit this time to the Scottish. England end off their campaign on the 18th of March against arguably their biggest contenders for the title they won so magnificently twelve months ago, Ireland, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. If they are able to win all of their matches up to this point, they would have one-upped New Zealand's record of consecutive victories, with what would be their nineteenth straight win here.
Eddie Jones has opted for a very tried and tested formula for the competition, picking just three new caps in his squad of 34. The newbies include Leicester flanker Mike Williams, Saracens utility back Alex Lozowski and Bath prop Nathan Catt. James Haskell, Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell, Jack Clifford and Anthony Watson all return to the squad after missing the year-end internationals through injury. The squad flew to Portugal recently for a three-day training camp to adjust to a "warm weather" environment.
Despite not naming a captain in his side, it is almost a shoo-in that Northampton's Dylan Hartley will retain it come the tournament opener. Hartley hasn't played any rugby since being suspended for six weeks, for alleged foul-play on Leinster and Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien back on December 9th. Jones has been quoted as saying, however, that "Given he has a good couple of days training in Portugal I anticipate him being in the reckoning for the first Test team" when queried about the hooker's fitness levels. The coach has also expressed concern regarding the depth of leadership within the squad, highlighting the importance of blooding new leaders in the build-up to the next World Cup.
Injury has ended Chris Robshaw's hopes of making an appearance, and condemned first choice loose-head prop Joe Marler to a lengthy stint on the sidelines (although Jones has declared his chances of appearing in the first game against France as "51-49"). Manu Tuilagi has been ruled out of making a return to the England fray for this year's tournament, after damaging his cruciate knee ligaments playing for Leicester which has ruled him out for six months.
The Barmy Army certainly head into this year's competition as favorites to win it, and why not? Some of their performances over the past year have been spell-binding, with Jones really serving as the main catalyst that has propelled the English to a new stratosphere during this time. The next few months will really reveal how good this side is, with each game sure to be as fiercely contested as ever, as other teams look to knock England off their perch. Despite this, they will be confident of finishing in first place and maybe even breaking the All Blacks' winning streak to boot!
Player To Watch
Look no further than England's captain, Dylan Hartley. Hartley seemed to have cleaned up his act last year before his moment of madness against Leinster. Currently serving his six-week suspension however, he should be back for the start of this year's tournament. Having proved critics wrong and having led England with such distinction last season, England's no. 2 will want to prove to Warren Gatland that he is also the man to lead the British Lions against the All Blacks this year, and that Rory of Ireland is in fact second Best.
2016 Six Nations Record
Won v Scotland (9-15) | Won v Italy (9-40) | Won v Ireland (21-10) | Won v Wales (25-21) | Won v France (21-31)
To Win Outright: 9/4
All Blacks who? Joe Schmidt (himself a Kiwi) masterminded the end of the world champions' winning streak last November in Chicago, that allowed Ireland to record their first ever win over the Islanders. The 40-29 scoreline not only reflected just how much both sides threw at each other, but also reinforced the view that this current Irish team has the capacity to challenge the very best the game has to offer. Since Schmidt took over from Declan Kidney in 2013, the improvement in Ireland's game has been exponential, with Schmidt bringing a confidence and stability to his role that has worked wonders. However, after back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015 were followed up by a disappointing showing at the most recent World Cup (where the Emerald Greens were knocked out by Argentina at the quarter-final stage) and a third place finish in last year's edition of the Six Nations, they will be targeting an improved showing in 2017. With a host of 2013 British & Irish Lions in their squad, and a world class leader in captain Rory Best, the Irish will look to use the New Zealand win to propel them to this season's title.
Ireland begin on the 4th of February with a tricky opener at Murrayfield against the Scots, before travelling to Rome, seven days, later to tackle Connor O'Shea's Italians. February 25th sees a showdown with the French to mark Ireland's first home game of the season at the Aviva Stadium, while a huge game awaits them on the 10th March when they travel to the Principality to tackle the Welsh Dragons. Rory Best and his men conclude their campaign at home on the 18th March, when they host England in a potential title decider that is sure to live up to its billing as this tournament's most anticipated encounter.
An uncapped Munster trio of winger Andrew Conway and brothers Nial (hooker) and Rory Scannell (centre) have been selected by Joe Schmidt in his squad of 40. Rory Scannell, 23, was called up for Ireland's final match of the 2016 season against Australia in November, without coming onto the park. The fact that he can play across the backline (he has turned out for his club as a flyhalf, centre and fullback) may mean that Schmidt selects him on Ireland's bench as a utility back. His older brother Nial meanwhile, comes into consideration after the untimely injury to Ireland regular Sean Cronin while playing for Leinster. The 30-year-old sustained a hamstring tear in his side's Pro12 win over Zebre, ruling him out for 10 weeks. Scannell will hence battle it out for a place on the bench (behind captain Rory Best in the pecking order) against another Leinster no. 2 in James Tracey.
Fly-half Johnny Sexton is included, despite concerns over a calf injury sustained playing in Leinster's recent Champions Cup draw with Castres. Winger Keith Earls is fit enough to be included after overcoming a couple of worrying niggles, while Tommy O'Donnell, the Munster flanker, is recalled after last turning out for his country in last year's Six Nations. Schmidt has opted to ignore Ulster's dreadful recent form and has included six of their players in Best, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Stuart McCloskey, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble.
A number of high-profile absentees from the squad include Leinster duo Rhys Ruddock (backrower) and South African-born Richardt Strauss (hooker), Bordeaux's fly-half Ian Madigan, and another former Saffa in Connacht lock Quinn Roux.
Ireland go into this tournament as second favorites behind the defending champions England. Their showdown on the 18th March looks set to decide the tournament, although they will both be wary of complacency in the lead-up. That All Black win in November could prove to be a massive catalyst for the Irish, and they will back their game plan under the meticulous eye of coach Schmidt. The likes of Rory Best, Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner and Simon Zebo are experienced campaigners who have played a helluva lot of rugby together. Their wise heads, coupled with the youthful exuberance from the more inexperienced among them, should see them play some quality football this campaign.
Player To Watch
Captain Rory Best will look to live up to his name, and guide his side to glory this year. Despite his 34 years, the Test centurion continues to grind out quality displays for club and country, and his leadership could prove instrumental this campaign. Touted as a possible British & Irish Lions skipper, Best will have to perform out of his socks to prove that he is better equipped than England's Dylan Hartley, and their matchup on March 18th is shaping up to be a classic.
2016 Six Nations Record
Draw v Wales (16-16) | Lost v France (10-9) | Lost v England (21-10) | Won v Italy (58-15)
Won v Scotland (35-25)
To Win Outright: 7/1
For a nation with as esteemed a rugby-playing history as Wales, 2016's Six Nations campaign was certainly seen as a disappointment for the whole population, especially considering how well their football counterparts did at the Euros in France. With a settled and experienced side bursting with British & Irish Lions, playing under a coach (in Warren Gatland) going into his tenth season at the helm, much was expected of the Welsh last time out. That expectation eventually gave way to frustration, however, as they ended up finishing as runners-up to England, failing to add to their 26 Championship titles. This season, though, the men in red will be hoping to go one better and, despite the absence of Gatland (who is currently on a sabbatical from his role while preparing for the upcoming Lions series), will be confident that new coach Rob Howley can take them there
In any other campaign, a tournament opener at Italy would be ideal for the Welsh, however, after the upset of the year that occurred last November (when the Azzurri downed the Springboks in Florence), the Dragons will have to be on their toes. That February 5th game is followed six days later by arguably Wales' biggest showdown - a home game against last year's Grand Slammers, England (where the Welsh may look to put an end to the Red Rose's winning streak, pending the result of their opener against France). A two-week break thereafter could prove vital for Howley's men to recover and recuperate, before they visit Murrayfield on the 25th to tackle Vern Cotter's Scottish outfit. Another lengthy break will commence before they host Ireland at the Principality Stadium on the 10th, and then travel to Paris for a firecracker against the 'Frogs' eight days later.
The Welsh will be kicking off their Championship campaign without Sam Warburton as their first-choice captain, for the first time since he took over the reins in June 2011. The armband has been handed over to Test centurion Alun Wyn Jones, while Warburton looks to continue to regain the form that made him one of the most talented loose-forwards in the game during his early international career. Having already won 69 caps and a record 49 as captain (not to mention having skippered the 2013 British Lions) this could prove to be a solid call for Warburton, as he attempts to prove his worth before the New Zealand/ Lions series commences in June.
The Welsh Rugby Union's (WRU) senior player selection policy (SPSP) once again comes into affect during this campaign. This means that only three players who play outside of Wales are eligible for selection, in a policy that has been dubbed "Gatland's Law" (in reference to regular Wales coach Warren Gatland). This is a means to keep the majority of Welsh rugby players plying their trade within their home country, to maintain the standard of the game there. The three players that fall under "Gatland's Law" (and are thus included in the squad as "wild cards") include the Lions' trio of Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Toby Faletau (Bath) and George North (Northampton). The foreign-playing group within the squad not captured by the rule are Bath lock Luke Charteris, Toulon fullback Leigh Halfpenny, Gloucester flanker Ross Moriarty, Leicester flyhalf Owen Williams, Wasps flanker Thomas Young and Exeter prop Tomas Francis.
The uncapped contingent includes Williams, Ospreys lock Rory Thornton and flank Olly Cracknell, Scarlets scrum-half Aled Davies and wing Stefan Evans, as well as Newport winger Ashton Hewitt. The loss of the 129-capped Gethin Jenkins to a torn bicep will hurt the Welsh, but they should manage to offset his absence with a few more-than-capable backups.
Despite naming a squad brimming with talent, and with no less than ten British Lions to call upon, the Welsh will be hard pressed to challenge England and Ireland this year. They should, however, see off the likes of Italy, France and Scotland with ease. Hosting both England and Ireland could see them in with a shot in both matches, but ultimately these Welshmen aren't currently on the same level as the aforementioned and, with their coaching shake-up this year, they should finish in third.
Player To Watch
Ospreys' fly-half Dan Biggar really caught the eye at the 2015 World Cup, with some stellar performances (not to mention his trademark kicking technique). Now 27, and with half a century of Welsh caps to his name, Biggar will look to challenge the likes of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton for the coveted British Lions no. 10 jersey, and a big campaign may just be enough to book his ticket to the Land Of The Long White Cloud.
2016 Six Nations Record
Draw v Ireland (16-16) | Won v Scotland (27-23) | Won v France (19-10) | Loss v England (25-21) | Won v Italy (67-14)
To Win Outright: 22/1
Scotland have been on the perennial rise ever since Kiwi coach Vern Cotter took up the reins in May 2014, putting in some much-improved performances and even managing to reach the quarter-finals of 2015's RWC. With this year's edition of the Six Nations proving to be Cotter's Scottish swansong (he will be replaced in June by the Glasgow Warriors' Gregor Townsend), his charges will look to send him off on a high as they aim to build upon the foundations of their fourth place finish last year. Cotter has helped instil in his side a fierce determination and self-confidence that really has changed Scotland's fortunes during his time in charge, and his development of his players will almost certainly see a rise in Scottish representation in the upcoming Lions series (after just three were picked in 2013). Under the tutelage of captain Greg Laidlaw, and with last season's player of the year Stuart Hogg in their ranks, expect the Thistles to exhibit the full extent of their arsenal over the next few months.
Scotland get their campaign underway at Murrayfield in the tournament opener, when they look to test the luck of the Irish on the 4th February. The following Sunday (the 12th Feb) they travel to the Stade de France for a showdown with Guy Novès' French outfit, before resuming their crusade at home to the fiery Welsh on the 25th February. Saturday, March 11 offers arguably the biggest test of their tournament, with their away game at Twickenham, followed by a trip back home seven days later, where Laidlaw's men will look to dispatch Sergio Parisse and company.
The announcement of Vern Cotter's 37-man squad was largely business as usual, with his trademark consistency in selection not really giving journalists any "surprises" to write about. Cotter has once again opted to select 22-year-old Stormers centre Huw Jones, who made his Test debut in 2016, while the uncapped players in the side are New Zealand-born tighthead prop Simon Berghan and South African-born Cornell du Preez. Loose forward du Preez, who played for the Southern Kings in their Super Rugby debut back in 2013, has since been plying his trade for Edinburgh, where his "physicality in the contact point" has caught the eye of Cotter.
Most worrying amongst an injury list that already includes no. 8 Dave Denton, centre Peter Horne, wing Rory Hughes and looseheads Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland, is another South African in former Cheetah WP Nel. The tighthead, who has been a mainstay in the Scotland side since making his debut in 2015, injured his neck playing for Edinburgh and will miss the northern hemisphere showpiece. Having long been tipped as a potential Lions tourist, the 30-year-old will hope that his comeback is swift and that his past performances are enough to see him earn a spot for the June series.
Elsewhere, 36-capped centre Matt Scott earns a recall after missing out on selection in November, while he will face tough competition from the likes of fellow centres Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Jones. Laidlaw and Finn Russell look set to continue their half-back partnership, with 2013 Lions tourist Stuart Hogg adding flair from the fullback.
As well as Scotland has done over the past few seasons, to suggest that they are title contenders this time round would be misplaced. While they should see off the likes of France and Italy with ease, they may battle against the rest of the Home Nations. Their clash with Wales at Murrayfield on the 25th February may be their most important game, where a potential win could see them finish in the tournament's top three.
Player To Watch
Last season's player of the tournament, Stuart Hogg, will be going all out to ensure that he challenges Ireland's Rob Kearney, England's Mike Brown and Wales' Leigh Halfpenny for that coverted Lions no. 15 shirt. The Glasgow man is capable of some electrifying runs, and an improved tactical kicking game could see him take his game to the next level this competition. Someone who always looks to run his way out of trouble rather than kicking away possession, Hogg is certainly someone to watch this campaign.
2016 Six Nations Record
Lost v England (9-15) | Lost v Wales (27-23) | Won v Italy (20-36) | Won v France (29-18) | Lost v Ireland (35-25)
To Win Outright: 12/1
The rugby enigma that is France go into this season's Six Nations with an all too familiar sense of uncertainty about them. Coach Guy Novés goes into his second year at the helm and, once again, questions continue to circulate around how he will turn France's fortunes around. Their last Six Nations title came way back in 2010, and just four wins coming from their ten Tests in 2016 is not good enough for a nation with such a rich rugby history. Many have speculated that the French Top 14, the richest rugby union league in the world, has contributed to their fall from grace (as French clubs spend millions buying overseas talent, instead of investing in local players), but with the French Rugby Federation recently implementing laws to prohibit the number of foreigners clubs can have in their squads, results for the national team need to start coming thick and fast. Perhaps the best thing for Novés to do is develop his proposed game plan from scratch, and try build France up from the ashes. This takes time, however, and results need to start going France's way as soon as possible - they will be up against it this year.
The Frogs get underway on February 4th when they travel to Twickenham for a rather rough date with 2016's unbeaten English, before the Scots come knocking on the 12th February. A visit to the Aviva to take on Ireland is scheduled for February 25th, which precedes their final two encounters against Italy in Rome, and Wales at home on the 11th & 18th March respectively. France will look to put usual tournament whipping boys Italy to the sword, and will target their other two games with Scotland and Wales. They'll be hard pressed to beat Ireland and England this year, especially given their form of late.
Four uncapped players have forced their way into Novés' squad, including Castres' Geoffrey Palis (fullback), Clermont's Arthur Iturria (second row), La Rochelle's Mohamed Boughanmi (prop) and Fabian Sanconnie of Brive (back row). Novés has urged his debutants to "maintain a clear head when [their] hearts are beating fast", should they get an opportunity during the tournament. One other notable inclusion is that of centre Yann David of Toulouse, who last played for his country in 2009 against the All Blacks.
Eighthman Louis Picamoles (Northampton Saints) is the only player based abroad to earn the nod, as the Test half-centurion looks to add value in his ninth season as an international. There is space again for Clermont's South African-born Scott Spedding at fullback, although another Saffa in Castres scrum-half Rory Kockett misses out. Other notable exclusions include Toulon's centre pairing of Mathieu Basteraud and Maxime Mermoz, Stade Français fly-half Jules Plisson and Racing 92 fullback Brice Dulin.
In what has been a monstrous blow to France's hopes of performing well in the tournament, ace Clermont centre Wesley Fofana has been ruled out with a ruptured Achilles tendon. This may force the experimentation of a rather undercooked midfield, but Guilhem Guirado will still urge this side to push on despite this setback.
Who knows which French team will turn up this season? Although they haven't fired in many a year now, Les Bleus always have the capacity to spring a surprise and claim an unexpected win. Last November's game against the All Blacks was a perfect case-in-point of France pushing a side favoured to win right up until the closing moments of a game, when nobody saw it coming. If they put some consistency into their game, the French could be a force to be reckoned with. Until they show some real signs of improvement, however, don't bet on them winning the title this year.
Player To Watch
Fijian-born Virmi Vakatawa scored a try on debut last year against Italy, and the man who has been dubbed the "French Sonny Bill Williams" will look to repeat his scintillating form this season. Having scored a hat-trick from the wing in France's November victory over Samoa, Vakatawa has an X-Factor to boast about; something which has been nurtured playing in many HSBC Sevens World Series tournaments. At 1.86m and weighing in at 92kg, last year's Sevens Player of the Year finalist will want to prove his worth on the big stage for his adopted country this season.
2016 Six Nations Record
Won v Italy (23-21) | Won v Ireland (10-9) | Lost v Wales (19-10) | Lost v Scotland (29-18) | Lost v England (21-31)
To Win Outright: 330/1
Despite joining Europe's premier rugby competition seventeen years ago, Italy have failed to push on (as Argentina have done in The Rugby Championship) and substantially improve their game. Having finished last eleven times during their involvement, Italy will be desperate not to make it twelve this time out. Their 20-18 win over the Springboks in November would have done wonders for the confidence in the side, but now it is up to coach Conor O'Shea to try to channel that win into creating a more positive and consistent bunch. Since taking over in March last year, O'Shea and his deputy Mike Catt have sought about changing the systems within Italian rugby and attempting to make them more professional and secure. However only time will tell, as many astute rugby brains (Nick Mallett and Jacques Brunel among them) have tried and failed to make meaningful strides to improve Italian rugby. Perhaps this year, after what happened in November against the Springboks, will finally see a legitimate improvement in the Azzurri's game.
The Stadio Olimpico in Rome is the venue for Italy's two opening encounters with the Dragons of Wales on 5th February and the Emerald Greens of Ireland on the 11th February. Thereafter, on the 26th of February, Italy will face the mighty English at Twickenham (whom they went down to by 9-40 last season), before travelling home to face France, the side that finished one place above them on last year's log, on the 11th March. Their final game (and potentially their last chance to avoid the wooden spoon) comes on March 18th at Murrayfield against Scotland.
Conor O'Shea has very much opted for the calmness of experienced campaigners, rather than the unpredictability of greenhorns this year. 2017 will mark captain Sergio Parisse's 14th championship for his adopted nation, and he will be surrounded by many old heads in prop Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini at hooker, scrumhalf Edoardo Gori and centre Luke McClean. After the retirement of talismanic prop Martin Castrogiovanni, Parisse will be relying upon his "old brigade" to set the right tone for Italy this campaign.
Federico Ruzza is the only uncapped player in the entire 32-man squad, just reward for the second-rower who has been producing such solid outings for the struggling Zebre this season. He, along with prop Dario Chistolini, are the only two additions to Italy's squad from last year's November internationals that saw them win just one of their three Tests. The most unsettling of Italy's November losses was their 17-19 defeat to Tonga, coming just seven days after claiming the massive scalp of the South Africans. O'Shea has highlighted the need for consistency when questioned in January, stating that his team needs to "put their bodies on the line each match for 80 minutes", instead of losing focus and conceding unnecessary points.
Italy boast a much improved (and experienced) backline this campaign. Tommaso Allan (son of former Scotland and South Africa hooker John) will continue to fight off the attentions of Marcello Violo for the starting flyhalf berth, while Giorgio Bronzini and Gori will provide the cover at scrumhalf. With defence coach Brendan Venter having committed to his role through to the next World Cup, this worrisome aspect of Italy's game will only see improvement.
After their win over the Springboks, O'Shea will be telling his side that the sky is the limit from here on in, despite the obvious lack of quality in the recent Bok side. It remains to be seen whether Italy have the firepower to avoid the wooden spoon. They will play with passion and pride as they always do, and this may even be able to see them to a win, but they will be up against it in their pursuit to avoid finishing rock-bottom again.
Player To Watch
Exeter centre Michele Campagnaro is a class player. Still only 23, the 25-capped playmaker has the ability to perform moments of inspiration in midfield, and 2017 could be the year that he really showcases his true talent. Having been in the Italian set-up for four years now, Campagnaro knows what it takes to perform at the highest level and having missed his side's famous win over Soith Africa last year, he will feel he has a point to prove in this campaign.
2016 Six Nations Record
Lost v France (23-21) | Lost v England (9-40) | Lost v Scotland (20-36) | Lost v Ireland (58-15) | Lost v Wales (67-14)
Final Verdict: England 8/10
Expect Eddie's boys to take home the title again this year. After their 100% record last year they will be riding high, and they have every reason to believe that they can achieve another Grand Slam and better the New Zealand Record of successive Test wins in this tournament. Ireland may run them close, but ultimately the Barmy Army will come out on top.