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.
Josh Navidi will adopt a “bigger they are, harder they fall” approach when the Wales’ forwards face a juggernaut French pack in Friday’s Six Nations opener.
Les Bleus will field an eight with a combined weight of just over 150 stones, spearheaded by prop Uini Atonio (22st 7lbs) and lock Paul Willemse (21st 3lbs).
And Wales know they cannot budge an inch during what could be a right old rumble at Stade de France.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Wales flanker Navidi said.
“It is the same when we play regional rugby – we know they are going to be big and physical and the back-line will have a lot of flair.
“You just know what is coming – a lot of drives and stuff. We know how big they are and we have to try and match them physically.
“I played (for Cardiff Blues) against Montpellier, probably four years ago. They had one of the biggest packs I have played against. You have to try and match them, getting off the line and getting in their faces.
“You cannot let them come to you and give them a rolling start. We know we need to move their pack around the field, and I hope we can do that by moving the ball and tiring them out.”
Navidi, 28, was a stand-out Wales player last season, delivering one high-class display after another.
But he has not featured in the Test arena since Wales beat France last March, missing his country’s autumn series clean sweep this term because of injury.
Navidi teams up with Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty in the Wales back-row, having a pivotal role to play as Warren Gatland’s men chase a 10th successive victory against all opponents.
Dragons number eight Moriarty has not played since mid-December after being sidelined with concussion, but he will bring abrasiveness and considerable physicality to a contest that will be no place for the faint-hearted.
“He is a physical character,” Navidi added. “His ball-carrying and defence work show how physical he is. I like that part of his game.
“He is nitty-gritty, and what he does, he does well. To not play for six weeks and come into a game like this one is quite impressive.
“He is a world-class player, and I am sure when Friday comes he is ready to go. The six weeks out will not make a difference to him.”
And Navidi has also backed Blues colleague – scrum-half Tomos Williams – to thrive when he features for the first time in a Six Nations game.
Williams, who made his Test debut last summer, has been preferred to the more experienced Scarlets number nine Gareth Davies as the only back division change following Wales’ victory over South Africa 10 weeks ago.
“Tomos is a livewire, a threat off the base (of the scrum) as well,” Navidi said.
“He has got flair and is quite aggressive for a scrum-half. It is good when your nine is a bit fiery. He can tie in extra defenders.”
Wales have beaten France on six of the countries’ last seven meetings, including two victories in Paris, which augers well for a campaign that many observers feel will be a three-way title battle between Wales, Ireland and England.
Eddie Jones insists Ireland must shoulder the burden of being the best team in the world when England visit Dublin on Saturday and warned: “Praise can make you weak”.
The Six Nations rivals clash in an early title showdown that Joe Schmidt’s Grand Slam holders enter as favourites on the strength of a standout 2018 that included a home win over world champions New Zealand in November.
England have gambled by retaining Elliot Daly at full-back, overlooking the aerial expertise of Mike Brown despite the kicking threat posed by Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
Also present are Manu Tuilagi at inside centre and Jack Nowell on the left wing, the latter described by Jones as a “street-fighter” ideally suited to the ferocious welcome expected at the Aviva Stadium.
England’s head coach knows Ireland are viewed as emphatic favourites to make a triumphant start to the defence of their crown but refuses to cast his side as underdogs.
“It’s well documented that no-one thinks we can win but I can tell you everyone inside our camp believes we can win,” said Jones,
“It’s fun. You want to play the best in the world away from home and Ireland are the best in the world at the moment.
“Everyone is writing them up and they have got to carry that expectation round, so we’re excited about the prospect of playing there. Praise can make you weak.
“The boys are fit, they’re together. They’re serious, but they’ve got a smile on their face. They’re good to go and they want to make England proud.
“I never use the status of being underdogs, it’s never been one of the tricks of the trade because we never think we’re not better than the opposition.
“I’d hate to go into a game thinking we weren’t better than the opposition, that we need surprises or tricks to win the game.
“We don’t need that. We want Ireland to be at their absolute best, we want to be at our best and then for the best team to win.”
How England deal with the onslaught of high balls awaiting in Dublin depends on their faith in Daly, who was exposed at times during the autumn series.
“Elliot’s been our first choice since the South Africa tour and we’re confident he can do a great job. He gives us a great attacking game,” Jones said.
“Dropping a couple of balls is not an indication to me that he hasn’t done well because there are so many other factors involved.
“We’re much better at tracking back now to protect our catchers, which is a massive part of the game now.
“Elliot is a great catcher of the ball. He’s been doing a lot of work with (England high performance manager) Neil Craig, who’s from an Aussie Rules background.
“We’ve got every bit of confidence in him – and we’ve got confidence in our team supporting him well.”
Jones has resisted the urge to pick Nowell at openside flanker after stating previously that the Exeter wing would also prosper in the back row, but he has been given the freedom to put his jackling skills to good use.
Tuilagi has been selected at inside centre – where he has played little rugby – to make his first Six Nations start for six injury-blighted years after profiting from Ben Te’o’s side strain.
“Ben and Manu are similar players in that they’re gainline players. They’re big guys and we expected a lot of traffic down that channel,” Jones said.
“We need that type of player to play 12 for us this week. We prefer him to play 13, but that’s not the situation this week so he needs to play 12. Certainly we’ll use Manu to full advantage on first phase.”