They will compete in what could be the most hotly-contested championships in years, with each of the six sides offering a unique challenge.
Eddie Jones’ side look as competitive as ever, following a largely successful set of Autumn internationals at the end of last year. They recorded three wins from four, including a thrashing of Australia that demonstrated how dangerous they can be when things come together.
The only setback was a narrow 15-16 defeat to southern hemisphere giants New Zealand, from which England could still take a vast number of positives.
They will face a similarly monumental task when their 6 Nations campaign begins at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday at 16:45. England will face an Ireland side ranked number two in the world, who have not lost in the 6 Nations in Dublin since 2013. Joe Schmidt’s men have won their last 12 home games, beating every tier-one nation.
Jones selected his 36-man squad last week, and England fans will be pleased to hear that second-row Joe Launchbury and flanker Brad Shields were included despite injury scares just days before. Shields’ return is much-welcomed after fellow back-rowers Chris Robshaw and Sam Underhill were ruled out through injury.
The group travelled to Portugal last week for their training camp.
Another huge boost is that rampaging number 8 Billy Vunipola will be involved in international rugby for the first time since breaking his arm three times. The 26-year-old has scored twice in three games for Saracens since returning.
Centres Jonathan Joseph and Manu Tuilagi were included in the backs, offering much-needed variety in the 12 and 13 positions. Bath’s Joseph returns after just one appearance in an injury-hit 9 months, but is still joint top try-scorer for England under Jones.
Perhaps the only concern for Jones is whether relatively inexperienced hookers Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be able to fill the void left by co-captain Dylan Hartley. Hartley will miss at least the first couple of rounds with a knee injury.
Key man: Owen FarrellEmbed from Getty Images
Fortunately, successful surgery on his thumb will see him return in time for the England’s opening fixture, and the decision to omit Danny Cipriani from the squad emphasizes Eddie Jones’ confidence in the fly-halves fitness.
Farrell is quickly establishing himself as one of the best players in the world, and has been outstanding yet again for Saracens this season. If he plays at 10 at the expense of George Ford as expected, he will need to replicate the intelligence and kicking prowess that has left him at the top of the Premiership points-scorer standings.
With Farrell at his dazzling best, England
One to watch: Henry Slade
Centre Henry Slade made his England debut in 2015, but it wasn’t until the November tests last year that he established himself as a regular starter.
The 25-year-old started three of the four games England played at Twickenham, and his assured performances in a white shirt have left Eddie Jones with a difficult decision in the centres.
With previous favourite at 13 Jonathan Joseph returning, as well as Manu Tuilagi, Jones will have a choice of silky footwork, raw power, or defensive expertise.Embed from Getty Images
Exeter Chiefs star Slade said: “Every time I’ve played for England, I’ve felt more comfortable and confident on each occasion. I feel like I played better as the autumn went on and, hopefully, I can continue in that vein going into the Six Nations.”
Should Slade get the nod in Ireland, he has every chance of building on his classy performances in the Autumn, and could be a key part of England’s title challenge.
Team to beat: Ireland
Although every game in the 6 Nations is colossal, few would disagree that England’s opening game will be the toughest. Ireland’s 16-9 victory over the All Blacks in November will have no doubt turned the heads of their 6 Nations rivals.
Lead by inspirational hooker Rory Best, they have arguably their strongest squad in years, and have every chance of back-to-back Grand Slam’s.
To get a sense of the challenge England face, it is important to consider this; Ireland were named Team of the Year at the World Rugby Awards in November; their squad includes World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton; they are managed by Coach of the Year Joe Schmidt.
Despite the arsenal of talent at Ireland’s disposal, England boss Eddie Jones was bullish about his side’s chances.
“Ireland have got to carry the weight of pressure,” said Jones.
“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.”
Should England leave Dublin with a victory on Saturday, there is every chance that their clash with Wales could be a Grand Slam decider.
But of course, as seen with England’s remarkably disappointing 5th place finish last year, no result is a foregone conclusion in the 6 Nations.
Dark horses: ScotlandEmbed from Getty Images
Scottish fans may be sick of their side being branded as a potential ‘surprise package’ before almost every 6 Nations, but 2019 may truly be the year they compete with the ‘big boys’.
Although they were beaten by Wales 21-10 in November, Gregor Townsend has assembled
This was highlighted earlier in the Autumn tests when they narrowly lost to South Africa, despite a tremendous effort.
Captain Greig Laidlaw picked out fly-half Finn Russell, who has been in scintillating form for Racing 92 this season, as Scotland’s key man ahead of the tournament.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast, the scrum-half said: “At times, we’re going to have to look to Finn for answers and he needs to be able to give them. I believe now he’s at that point to be able to do that.
“His skill-set is phenomenal, his passing game is wonderful and his kicking game is really good as well – sometimes people forget about that. He’s got good variety and is a good attacking weapon for us.
With a very winnable opener against Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday, followed by trip to an inconsistent French side the next week, Scotland have every chance to be in the top half of the table heading into round three. When England meet the Scots on March 16th in the final game of the 6 Nations, there could potentially be more to play for than just the Calcutta Cup.
British & Irish Lions issue Tour Update
The Lions Board confirmed its preference to SA Rugby on Monday evening, prior to follow-up meetings earlier today (Tuesday).
“After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the Board’s intended position is for the Tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021,” said Jason Leonard, chairman of The British & Irish Lions.
“We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust COVID-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted Tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan.”
Mark Alexander, president of the SA Rugby, said he would inform the Executive Council of the South African Rugby Union of the alignment.
“We appreciate the Lions’ faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour,” said Alexander.
“We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months.
“There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby, should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations. But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners.”
Alexander said the original tour schedule was subject to review because of those considerations. Should any changes be required they will be communicated as soon as possible.
Leonard added: “Every British and Irish player dreams of wearing the famous red jersey, and players from the southern hemisphere aspire to be part of a Lions series. We owe it to the current players vying for a place in both squads to ensure they can become part of Lions history.
“We are very much looking forward to taking on South Africa for what promises to be a highly-competitive Series against the reigning World Champions.”
Alexander thanked the Castle Lager Lions Series’ commercial partners as well as the British & Irish Lions and ticket holders for their patience during the extended period of uncertainty.
“As hosts and ‘owners’ of the Castle Lager Lions Series no one has been more affected or more challenged by the current circumstances than SA Rugby,” said Alexander. “However, with the support of our government and good planning we can navigate the pandemic to nonetheless create a most memorable event for players, fans and partners.”
It is not yet known whether international or cross-border travel for supporters will be possible into the country in July. Supporters who have purchased ticket-inclusive packages through Lions Rugby Travel will be notified directly via email with information on the options available.
The Lions remind supporters that all packages purchased through Lions Rugby Travel are protected by the Covid-19 guarantee*. Supporters who have booked packages with official sub agents should contact them directly. For the latest guidance on travelling to South Africa please visit the UK Foreign Office website: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/south-africa or the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs website: https://www.dfa.ie/travel/travel-advice/a-z-list-of-countries/south-africa/
At this time, it also remains unclear whether spectators will be permitted into stadia in July and August. SA Rugby and the Lions continue to work with relevant South African Government departments to ascertain the latest guidance on COVID-19 countermeasure planning for major sporting events and will communicate any updates as soon as it is possible to do so.
In the event that spectators are not permitted to gain access to the Test matches, Lions supporters who had successfully purchased Test match tickets via the Lions ticket ballot will be refunded.
The British & Irish Lions Test match against Japan at BT Murrayfield Stadium on Saturday 26 June 2021 for the Vodafone Lions 1888 Cup will continue as scheduled. However, a decision on crowd size will be made nearer the time of the event and in line with the latest UK Government guidance. For more information, including ticketing enquiries, please visit:
The British & Irish Lions have toured South Africa on 13 previous occasions, with the first Tour taking place in 1891. In that time, the Lions have won four Test series, lost eight with one drawn. Their overall record against the Springboks is played 46, won 17, lost 23 and drawn six.
Ireland make multiple changes for England
There are a number of changes to the team that started against Scotland last Sunday starting in the half-backs where Captain Johnny Sexton is joined in by Conor Murray.
Garry Ringrose is ruled out of the side through injury so Bundee Aki slots in at inside centre with Robbie Henshaw shifting to the No.13 jersey.
Jacob Stockdale returns to the team for the first time since the Autumn Nations Cup win over Scotland back in December and is named on the left wing with Keith Earls on and Hugo Keenan completing the back three.
In the front row Dave Kilcoyne starts at loosehead alongside Rob Herring at hooker and Tadhg Furlong at tighthead.
Tadhg Beirne moves into lock to partner Iain Henderson in the absence of the injured James Ryan.
Will Connors was ruled out yesterday with a knee injury in training so Josh van der Flier comes in at openside. CJ Stander moves to 6 for his final Ireland game in Aviva Stadium and Jack Conan is named at No.8.
Speaking this week about Stander, Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton commented,
“He’s done things for the right reason. His wife and daughter are back in South Africa at the moment. They’ve been there for a few months and they went back for the last lockdown as well.
“It takes its toll, doesn’t it? He’s just taken the decision based on family reasons and we respect him for that, but he’s a big loss to Munster and Irish Rugby.
“He’s been huge for both teams over the last five, six years. Very shocked, but we wish him well and we hope that his last game in green will be one to remember.”
The replacements are Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson Park, Billy Burns and Jordan Larmour.
The game is being televised by VIRGIN (ROI) and ITV (NI) and kicks off at 4.45pm on Saturday afternoon.
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Engalnd, 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, March 20, kick-off 4:45pm):
15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 10 caps
14. Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) 92 caps
13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 51 caps
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 30 caps
11. Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan) 33 caps
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 98 caps CAPTAIN
9. Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 88 caps
1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 42 caps
2. Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 20 caps
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) 48 caps
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 62 caps
5. Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 21 caps
6. CJ Stander (Munster/Shannon) 50 caps
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 30 caps
8. Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 19 caps
16. Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 10 caps
17. Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 108 caps
18. Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD) 36 caps
19. Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 2 caps
20. Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 74 caps
21. Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 9 caps
22. Billy Burns (Ulster) 6 caps
23. Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 28 caps
Wales name Grand Slam chasing team to face France
Wales are four from four in the Championship and top the table heading to Paris. Beard, who started the first three matches for Wales, comes back into the starting side alongside captain Alun Wyn Jones. Jones, who is the world test record holder with 156 international caps to his name (including nine British & Irish Lion appearances), will make his 148th Wales appearance on Saturday. His Wales caps alone are now equal to the second-highest capped player of all time, Richie McCaw.
Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis are named again in the front-row for Wales with Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau comprising the back-row.
Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar are named at half-back with Jonathan Davies and George North continuing their partnership in the midfield.
Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams make up the back-three.
“We are all looking forward to Saturday and to the finale of the Six Nations,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.
“We are four from four to date but know this weekend will be a great challenge against a very good French side, but we are looking forward to it.
“We know we need to step up from our previous performances and we want to end the tournament with a performance we know we are capable of.
“We have had great continuity in selection throughout the tournament and that is shown once again with the selection for Saturday.”
Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith and Leon Brown are named as the front-row replacements for Wales with Cory Hill and James Botham completing the forward contingent. Tomos Williams returns from injury to take his place on the bench alongside Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo.
WALES TEAM TO PLAY FRANCE (SATURDAY MARCH 22 KO 21.00 LOCAL, BBC & S4C)
1. Wyn Jones (34 Caps)
2. Ken Owens (81 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (56 Caps)
4. Adam Beard (24 Caps)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (147 Caps)
6. Josh Navidi (27 Caps)
7. Justin Tipuric (84 Caps)
8. Taulupe Faletau (85 Caps)
9. Gareth Davies (61 Caps)
10. Dan Biggar (91 Caps)
11. Josh Adams (31 Caps)
12. Jonathan Davies (87 Caps)
13. George North (101 Caps)
14. Louis Rees-Zammit (8 Caps)
15. Liam Williams (70 Caps)
16. Elliot Dee (36 Caps)
17. Nicky Smith (38 Caps)
18. Leon Brown (16 Caps)
19. Cory Hill (31 Caps)
20. James Botham (5 Caps)
21. Tomos Williams (21 Caps)
22. Callum Sheedy (8 Caps)
23. Uilisi Halaholo (3 Caps)