When Eddie Jones announced his England squad, there was one major omission as co-captain Dylan Hartley was not included as he continues to struggle to recover from a knee injury. The Northampton hooker will miss the first two game at least and Owen Farrell was due to take the reigns as sole captain.
However, last weekend Farrell missed Saracens’ final group game in the European Champions Cup to undergo minor surgery on a thumb tendon. The surgery was minor and Farrell believes that he will be back in action for the Six Nations opener against Ireland, but the fly-half is still a doubt. If Jones is without both of his leaders, he will have to rely on others in the squad stepping up. England are buoyant with the return of brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola to the squad, as well Joe Launchbury, Jonathan Joseph and Ellis Genge.
In last year’s tournament, England finished a disappointing fifth while Ireland won the Grand Slam, the triple Crown and moved up to second in the world rankings. In November, Ireland beat New Zealand 16-9 and cemented themselves as the team to watch heading into the World Cup year. Jones admitted he is not worried for the first match and believes the pressure is all on Ireland.
Jones told the Guardian: “Ireland have got to carry the weight of the pressure. I am not too worried about Ireland to be honest. All we can do is prepare as best we can. What people think, whether we are underdogs or favourites, doesn’t affect us.”
Gatland looking forward to last Six Nations with Wales
After over ten years at the helm, Warren Gatland will take charge of Wales in his final Six Nations tournament. His team finished second in the table last year with wins over Scotland, Italy and France but Wales will be hoping they can make more of an impact over Ireland and England. Wales have been building up their squad, after losing some senior players to retirement and last year’s tournament saw Gatland blending youth with experience.
Competition for places is important and the development that the squad has had over the past couple of years has ensured that there’s no complacency amongst the senior ranks. Gatland sees the tournament as a key part of his preparation leading up to the 2019 World Cup, especially as Wales are in the favourable half of the draw.
Gatland told BBC Wales: “I think it’s going to be a very tight Six Nations. We feel like if we can have a good Six Nations then the World Cup camps and the build-up towards the end of the season looking that way that the draw could potentially pan out in the world cup.
“Everyone is talking about Ireland but they are probably going to get New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-finals. For us the other side of the draw looks a lot more favourable and so we’re pretty excited about what’s coming ahead. It’s about one step at a time, having a good Six Nations and preparing well for the World Cup and then having a real crack at that.”
Last year Ireland won five out of five matches to secure the Grand Slam and Triple Crown during the 2018 Six Nations. It was a tournament that saw the side climb up to second in the world rankings and lay down a marker over their fellow northern hemisphere sides. It was also a breakout competition for Jacob Stockdale who scored seven tries, the most tries in the Six Nations by a player, and he was named 2018 Six Nations Player of the Championship.
Later on that year, Ireland beat New Zealand on their home soil with Stockdale scoring the try that secured the victory. Another pivotal player for Ireland is Johnny Sexton but the Leinster fly-half has not played since the end of December because of a knee injury. Yet Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt believes Sexton should be fit for the opening match against England.
Ireland have the chance to overtake New Zealand at the top of the world rankings during the Six Nations. However, Schmidt is playing down expectation that Ireland are favourites for this year’s tournament.
Schmidt told BBC Sport: “I don’t think we are clear favourites. The psyche is one of enormous respect. You know if you don’t get things right, England can get a long way away from you. They are a team back on an upwards swing, and they will be driven to rebound well from last year’s Six Nations.”
The opening weekend of the Six Nations sees France host Wales on Friday 1st February at 20.00 (GMT), while on Saturday 2nd February Italy travel to Scotland at 14.15 and Ireland host England at 16.45.
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