Monday 25 September 2017

Six Nations rankings: How each team rates following autumn internationals

Ben Youngs of England and (right) Ireland's Paddy Jackson and CJ Stander
Ben Youngs of England and (right) Ireland's Paddy Jackson and CJ Stander

Andrew Baldock, Nick Purewal and Andy Newport

After a busy month of autumn internationals, attention will quickly turn to this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.

European rugby's blue riband tournament kicks off in just under nine weeks' time, with England defending their title. Here is a looks at how the four home nations might fare, based on their autumn performances and results.

IRELAND

Autumn form: beat New Zealand 40-29, beat Canada 52-21, lost to New Zealand 21-9, beat Australia 27-24.

Points scored: 128.

Tries scored: 16.

STRENGTH: Joe Schmidt. Facile to highlight the boss maybe, but Ireland's biggest coup in 2016 remains retaining the services of their shrewd head coach. The taskmaster Kiwi very nearly headed home owing to family commitments, but opted instead to commit his future to Ireland until the end of World Cup 2019. The first-ever victory over New Zealand nestles neatly in the history books, but may never have happened without Schmidt's guidance. Now ensconced in his particular methods, Ireland benefit hugely from his relentless attention to detail.

WEAKNESS: Back-line balance. Ireland's growing strength in depth is hugely commendable, and the likes of Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery proved they can cope in the Test match arena this autumn. But, in admittedly splitting hairs, head coach Schmidt may have some back-line tinkering on his hands sooner rather than later.

Rob Kearney somehow summoned a vintage performance as Ireland toppled New Zealand in Chicago, but how would Ireland re-jig their back-line in the long term for life after the 30-year-old? Jared Payne would be the front-runner for the number 15 shirt, but then Schmidt remains loath to move his defensive captain from outside centre. Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose must surely become Ireland's long-term centre duo, so at some point Schmidt will have to bite the bullet on the full-back front.

STAR MAN: Robbie Henshaw. Cemented forever more in his nation's annals as the man to score the winning try in Ireland's first-ever win over the All Blacks. Henshaw kicked his career to another level with his bullish showing in the 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago. The 23-year-old was concussed early in the rematch in Dublin two weeks later, to play no further part in the autumn. But his contribution had already proved momentous.

1237190.jpg
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Dane Coles at Soldier Field. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SIX NATIONS PROSPECTS: Ireland won successive Six Nations titles under Schmidt in 2014 and 2015, with autumn form suggesting they will be right in the mix once more. England's March 18 visit to Dublin has title decider written all over it.

ENGLAND

Autumn form: beat South Africa 37-21, beat Fiji 58-15, beat Argentina 27-14, beat Australia 37-21.

Points scored: 159.

Tries scored: 19.

STRENGTH: Eddie Jones. England's Australian head coach has masterminded a dream 13 from 13 winning return this year, including a Six Nations Grand Slam, 3-0 Test series whitewash against Australia Down Under and a 100 per cent autumn series record. Vastly-experienced Jones has transformed England from their status as World Cup flops under Stuart Lancaster just over a year ago.

WEAKNESS: Very difficult to find one at present, given that England swept all before them in 2016. Even previous issues such as an unsettled midfield in terms of selection, and an occasional absence of strength in depth with regard to some positions have been wiped out by the mercurial Jones. It is clutching at straws, but in terms of the 2019 World Cup, have they peaked too soon? Time will tell.

STAR MAN: Injury could sideline him from the Six Nations campaign, but number eight Billy Vunipola once again proved his word-class status as a rampaging number eight whose destructive power rumbles through the heart of England's game.

billy.jpg
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Billy Vunipola of England is held by Juan Pablo Estelles during the Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England and Argentina at Twickenham Stadium on November 26, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

SIX NATIONS PROSPECTS: The defending champions will probably start as favourites, and it is difficult to see anyone halting their title march apart from Ireland, with the countries set for a final day showdown in Dublin.

WALES

Autumn form: lost to Australia 32-8, beat Argentina 24-20, beat Japan 33-30, beat South Africa 27-13.

Points scored: 92.

Tries scored: 8.

STRENGTH: Undoubtedly the collective experience available to interim head coach Rob Howley. Wales fielded a combined total of more than 800 caps when they took on South Africa in their autumn finale, and there is no doubt that Howley has a considerable collection at his disposal of individuals hugely-familiar with the Test rugby environment.

WEAKNESS: Inconsistency. When everything clicks, Wales are capable of mixing it with the very best. But too often in the autumn, they would follow excellence with errors. While three wins out of four were posted - Wales' best set of autumn results since 2002 - that statistic could not disguise frustratingly-mixed performances.

STAR MAN: Justin Tipuric. The Ospreys openside flanker has won more than 40 caps, but been a regular understudy in the number seven shirt to long-time Wales skipper Sam Warburton. So good was Tipuric in November, though, that few people would suggest he does not deserve to keep his place.

625951126.png
Justin Tipuric makes a break to score the second try for Wales during their victory over South Africa. Photo: Getty

SIX NATIONS PROSPECTS: Wales face three away games out of five, starting against Italy. Tournament heavyweights England and Ireland are both on the bill in Cardiff, and Wales have got it all to do in terms of making a mark on this season's tournament.

SCOTLAND

Autumn form: lost to Australia 23-22, beat Argentina 19-16, beat Georgia 43-16.

Points scored: 84.

Tries scored: 10.

STRENGTH: The squad's strength in depth. Emergence of youngsters like Zander Fagerson, Allan Dell, Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury and Huw Jones means head coach Vern Cotter has more options than at any time during his stint in charge of the Scots, which augers well going into the 2017 Six Nations campaign.

WEAKNESS: Composure. Not for the first time, the Scots managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when they took on Australia last month. Although they showed better game-management as they claimed a late win against Argentina a week later, questions remain over the Dark Blues' ability to cope with pressure situations against the world's top nations.

STAR MAN: Stuart Hogg. Has not been quite so prolific of late, but the Glasgow full-back demonstrated his class with a brace of tries in the demolition job on Georgia last time out. Expect a big Six Nations as he targets a British and Irish Lions slot next summer.

2016-11 (3325).jpg
15: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

SIX NATIONS PROSPECTS: Cotter's farewell campaign before the coaching reins are handed to Gregor Townsend could be shaped by Scotland's opening two games - Ireland at home and France in Paris. If they get off to a flying start, then the Scots might feature prominently as tournament dark horses.

Press Association

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport