The Six Nations is upon us once again, with the arguably the most stellar rugby competition outside the Rugby World Cup beginning in Paris on Friday with France welcoming Wales.
Ireland v England in Dublin is the standout fixture on opening weekend, while Scotland also welcome perennial whipping boys Italy to Murrayfield.
Some say it’s the most open tournament in years, with reigning champions Ireland, fresh off the back of their immense victory over New Zealand in the autumn, England and Wales in with a shout of glory, while Scotland will hope to continue their upswing in form.
There’s even more impetus on teams and players to perform this year as they tune up for the World Cup in Japan towards the end of the year.
There’s a thriving and knowledgeable expatriate rugby community here in the UAE, and we’ve scoured the Emirates to find you experts representing all six countries, putting four questions to them; who will win, who will finish bottom, who is the player to watch and who will score the most tries.
Here are their answers:
STEPHEN FERGUSON (IRELAND)
Dubai Exiles lock
Champions: Ireland. The form the four provinces have shown in Europe, and the fact they are the highest-tier nation in the competition, just says it all. Grand Slam in RWC year.
Wooden spoon: Italy. The other five nations are still miles ahead of them, but I hope they get a wee upset somewhere.
Player to watch: I said it last year and I’ll say it again, Jacob Stockdale. The man is frightening on the attack, a massive ball carrier with skill to back it up.
Top tryscorer: Stockdale. As above, but his finishing has been world class for the last year. Tip him to do some damage over the next 10 months.
BORIS FINCK (FRANCE)
Dubai Hurricanes scrum-half
Champions: Ireland. Having had a run of impressive wins during the autumn Tests including a win against the All Blacks, Ireland are going into the tournament with some good momentum I’d say. Their opening match versus England should be an interesting one, with both teams considered favourites to win.
Wooden spoon: Italy. Although Italy are improving from year to year and bagging wins v France and Scotland not so long ago, they are still trailing behind in some key aspects of the game.
Player to watch: Jacob Stockdale has been impressive both at club and international level recently and was also top tryscorer in the tournament last year, and should hopefully bring some brilliance again this year.
Romain Ntamack makes his debut for France this weekend, let’s see if he can live up to his father’s potential.
Top tryscorer: I hate to say it, but probably someone like Jonny May. Always seems to find himself crossing the white wash.
CRAIG NUTT (WALES)
Abu Dhabi Harlequins prop/player-coach
Champions: I think Wales might do it you know. I think they have a great chance even though they are massively under the radar at the moment. If you had to say though, Ireland are favorites again this time, they’re a great team. Anyone but England, really.
Wooden spoon: Italy. It will be again be the Azzurri, I’m sure. I don’t think they will win a game. They’re way behind the rest of the teams in the Six Nations.
Player to watch: Ken Owens. Playing really well in Wales at the moment and I’m sure he will have a massive Six Nations this year.
Top tryscorer: Going for Garry Ringrose. A fantastic player and Ireland will be scoring lots of points I’m sure.
HAMISH RUSSELL (SCOTLAND)
Jebel Ali Dragons team manager
Champions: Ireland: 2019 could just be their year. A Six Nation’s/World Cup double is not out of the question. Key players in key positions ensure they control and close out games against the toughest opponents.
Wooden spoon: Italy. I would love to say England but Italy it is, there is simply a lack of depth in quality players. 12 wooden spoons out of 18, not won a game since 2015, only won two top-flight internationals since 2015…need I go on?
Player to watch: Romain Ntamack. Interesting to see if Finn Russell, Maro Itoje, Tadgh Furlong etc. bring their club form into the tournament and apart from watching Owen Farrell’s tackling methods, French teenager Ntamack has some guile and is one to be watched.
Top tryscorer: Jonny May. Let’s keep the forwards out of this. It can come down to who scores the most tries against Italy. Jacob Stockdale will be there again, but Jonny May is the best opportunist finisher in the tournament.
LUCA MENE (ITALY)
Abu Dhabi Saracens winger
Champions: It’s going to be between England and Ireland, even though the other teams have also improved. I still see it as a two-team race. My final vote goes for Ireland, I’m expecting they can keep the level shown against the All Blacks.
Wooden spoon: Italy. I’m sorry to vote once again against my own country. I really hope I will get it wrong.
Player to watch: Sergio Parisse. This is probably going to be his last Six Nations. I’m sure he wants to finish with a high and he will be outstanding.
Top tryscorer: Stuart Hogg. Just an amazing player and I’m sure he’s going to have another amazing Six Nations.
MIKE WOLFF (ENGLAND)
Dubai Exiles chairman
Champions: Ireland. High on confidence (too high I hope), superbly coached, fixture list to their advantage, and squad depth to die for.
Wooden spoon: Italy. Just not moving forwards and haven’t been for years. Time for Georgia to join the 7 Nations?
Player to watch: Manu Tuilagi. If he can stay fit and bring his recent Leicester form to the party he will terrorise some defenses.
Top tryscorer: Jacob Stockdale or Jonny May. Different style of players, but game breakers in their own ways.
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