For the first time in a decade, tune in this February for the best in world rugby

 

                                

The Rugby World Cup semi-finals in September 2015 seem a long time ago. The four best teams in what is becoming an increasingly global game pitted their wits against one another in West London. Not one of the four had a cold Christmas. Not one of them had a gruelling domestic season ahead of them. Each one of them descended upon Twickenham to confirm what the rugby world knew had been happening for some time: the southern hemisphere had officially claimed ownership of the game.

Fast-forward sixteen months and the landscape looks rather different. The Argentinians are aging, South Africa have slipped to their lowest ever world ranking, Australia have been whitewashed in their own backyard, and the All Blacks are riddled with scandal, controversy, and even the occasional loss. By contrast, the northern hemisphere is on the move. It is fast becoming the place to be.

And never more so than over the next couple of months, as our showpiece event gets underway: The Six Nations. Set amidst a backdrop of increasing uncertainty over its future – with talk of moving the tournament to April, expansion to incorporate emerging countries or a promotion/relegation system never far from the press – this year is more intriguing than ever. And not least because of the healthy glow surrounding northern rugby at present.

Shaken to its core by the events of 2015, the north has abandoned the stoic reliance on functional, physical rugby that has characterised its game for over a decade, in favour of a quicker, offload-based – dare I say more southern – version. Undoubtedly it’s a work in progress for some, but for most the results are becoming apparent. 

Much has been made – and rightly so – of England’s year of Grand Slam dominance. Yet they will be up against some stiff, recently-revived competition in this year’s tournament. Ireland, with the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton in the engine room, are a destructive, attacking force to be reckoned with, as New Zealand and Australia found to their cost in the Autumn. The Scots have leapfrogged Argentina and are hot on the heels of the Springboks in the world rankings, thanks to their most exciting backline since the Hastings era, led by the effervescent Stuart Hogg. Wales appear to be finding their feet under the temporary stewardship of Rob Howley, and in Liam Williams and Ross Moriarty they appear to have unearthed the latest gems off the production line. For France too, things are looking up. Narrow defeats by the southern heavyweights of Australia and New Zealand reinjected some much needed joie de vivre into Les Bleus, with Louis Picamoles and 22-year-old scrum-half Baptiste Serin looking set to ignite this year’s tournament.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: it’s a Lions year. And not just that, it’s the All Blacks. If auditioning for the biggest tour of a British rugby player’s career doesn’t add some extra spice to this year’s Six Nations, then blow me down and call me Ma’a Nonu. 

Ed Capstick

 

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