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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

No place like home for sides hoping to hit the heights

France have the flair and firepower to increase try tally

Virimi Vakatawa returns on the wing for France
1 of 1

One of the statistical quirks flagged up by World Rugby’s number-crunchers in their annual analysis of the Six Nations was that apart from matches involving Italy there was just one way win in the 2017 tournament.

That came in round two when England beat Wales – thanks to a try five minutes from time – and road wins appear to be becoming harder and harder to gain.

There were two away successes in 2016 once games in Italy are disregarded, and three in the two years before that, but the standard in the tournament seems to have risen in that time and all the teams that used to comprise the former Five Nations are highly competitive.

Scotland’s improvement is an important factor as their history on the road in the Six Nations is nothing short of woeful.

Every team has played 45 away matches since the tournament was expanded to include Italy in 2000 and away records for the four nations who have won the championship are remarkably similar.
England lead the way with 25 victories, France have 24, Ireland 23 and Wales 20. But the Scots have racked up just six, in 18 years. They face trips to Wales, Ireland and Italy this year.

Italy have only two home matches this term and face successive trips to Ireland, France and Wales in the middle of the tournament, and a buy of home teams’ supremacy over the course of the tournament at 96 could prove a worthwhile play.

Sporting Index have pushed their winning distances line (aggregate winning margin of all 15 matches) up three points to 235-245 after the market made up at 260 last year.

That figure was swelled by two landslide wins – Ireland’s 63-10 demolition of Italy and England’s 61-21 home success of Scotland.

But only five of the 15 matches were settled by a single-figure margin and there doesn’t appear to be any real edge in this market.

France have posted desperately poor try tallies in the last in recent years, reaching double figures in just one of the last six years.

Their overall performance in the tournament has declined in the years since they reached the World Cup final in 2011 but a lot of that must go down to the conservative gameplan of Philippe Saint-Andre, who was at the helm from 2011 to 2015, and there are signs that new man at the top Jacques Brunel will allow the players more leeway.

It would be wonderful to see Les Bleus return to their swashbuckling style of days gone by, but while that might be too much to hope for they certainly have the flair and firepower to get a few more scores.

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England
Coach Eddie Jones
Coach’s Six Nations record P10 W9 L1 

After a stream of bad news England coach Eddie Jones finally got a lift this week with the news that Chris Robshaw (back), Mike Brown (shoulder) and Jack Nowell (ankle) could all be fit for Sunday’s opener against Italy.

It was a small ray of hope after two first-choice number eights Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes were ruled out, while prop Joe Marler is suspended for the first two games leaving England short of depth in the front and back rows.

France
Coach Jacques Brunel
Coach’s Six Nations record (with Italy) P25 W4 L21
Incoming coach Jacques Brunel has named a young squad – 17 of the 32 chosen are under 25 and there are six uncapped players – and notable absentees include Louis Picamoles and Francois Trinh-Duc, while scrum-half Baptiste Serin was not initially included and was called up when Morgan Parra was ruled out of their opening clash.

Mathieu Jalibert is among the fly-halves, a position that no France coach has ever settled on, and Brunel knows the 19-year-old well from coaching him at Bordeaux.

Ireland
Coach Joe Schmidt
Coach’s Six Nations record P20 W13 L6 D1
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has not missed an opportunity this year to give youngsters a taste of Test-match rugby and the upshot is that he has a host of exciting youngsters rubbing shoulders with the more seasoned stars in his Six Nations squad.

Full-back Jordan Larmour, 20, is the only uncapped player but he has made 14 appearances for Leinster this season and never looked out of his depth, scoring six tries.

Italy
Coach Conor O’Shea
Coach’s Six Nations record P5 W0 L5
Flanker Alessandro Zanni is recalled to the squad and his presence will be a huge boost to a squad lacking experience beyond the standout names of Leonardo Ghiraldini and Sergio Parisse, who is on course to become the first player to lose 100 Test matches.

The really bad news for the Azzurri is in the backline, where key men Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, and Angelo Esposito are all injured, a huge blow for a team who struggle for tries.

Scotland
Coach Gregor Townsend
Coach’s Six Nations record P0
The ubiquitous injury crisis has hit Scotland in the front row, where props Zander Fagerson and WP Nel are among six notable absentees. The uncapped Murray McCallum is on the bench against Wales.

Greig Laidlaw is fit after missing the autumn series but Ali Price starts at scrum-half in their opener.

Wales
Coach Warren Gatland
Coach’s Six Nations record P40 W28 D1 L11
If you haven’t realised there’s a tournament-wide injury blight, just look at who Wales are missing – almost an entire team.

Half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, wingers George North and Liam Williams, back-row trio Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Tauluoe Faletau are all out. There is some serious young talent in reserve, but they face a tough test.


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Scotland’s improvement is an important factor as their history on the road in the Six Nations is nothing short of woeful
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