The 2016 Six Nations promises to be as entertaining and rivalrous as ever. England and France have undergone coaching staff overhauls, which has ultimately led to squad changes and the appointment of new captains.
For Rory Best, Guilhem Guirado, and Dylan Hartley (interestingly all hookers), the opportunity to lead out their nations in this prestigious tournament will come with pride and scrutiny too.
With France, Italy and England reeling from poor World Cups, and Scotland seeking to consolidate their progress made over the last year, this tournament will not disappoint.
For the following players, the 2016 Six Nations is massive. Could one of these 20 be the Player of the Tournament?!…
1 Joe Launchbury (England)
The Wasps’ man may have been embarrassed to have been given the man of the match award in England’s crushing Rugby World Cup defeat to Australia, but the highly rated back-rower has been magnificent since, especially in the Champions Cup. The 24-year-old, who was tipped to captain England, still has to in reality prove himself at Test level but will likely knock the ball out of the park and become a stalwart in the national side. His tackling, his ability to win the lineout and intensity at the breakdown will give Eddie Jones the sort of relentless second-row the red rose army have needed for years.
2 Finn Russell (Scotland)
There is something about Russell that makes him a fine player to watch. The 23-year-old was at the centre of Scotland’s vibrancy and swagger at the Rugby World Cup with his all-around kicking, ability to ghost past defenders and willingness to work hard at the breakdown making him vital to Vern Cotter’s plans during the Six Nations. When he is strutting, the Dark Blues can do anything.
3 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Our personal choice to lead the Lions in 2017, Wyn Jones has been outstanding for Ospreys since returning to domestic duty following the Rugby World Cup. With his constant hard work, pinpoint passing and technical know-how at the set-piece he is a cornerstone of the Wales team. The term world-class is labelled on players far too much, but with Jones, it seems appropriate.
4 Dan Biggar (Wales)
The fly-half was somewhat chuckled at during the Rugby World Cup for his kicking style, but the laughs didn’t last long as he stole all the headlines with his accurate goalkicking and ability to control Wales’ overall game.
5 Edoardo Gori (Italy)
The 47-time capped scrum half is a bit of a maverick and can always excite fans with his range of passing. The Treviso man, who is now an experienced hand in the Azzurri team, is key to the way Italy try to play the game.
6 Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
Ireland fly-half Sexton is raring to go for the Six Nations after recovering from his latest concussion scare. There had been some calls for the number 10 to retire but with him back, fit and ready he could potentially be the man who delivers Ireland a third successive Six Nations title.
7 Rabah Slimani (France)
Slimani, who has established himself as a regular since making his debut in 2013, it’s an exciting new era where he has an opportunity to help France re-establish themselves as one of the top sides in Europe. Following the retirements of a few major players, it’s time for the prop to stand up and lead Les Bleus from the front.
8 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Powerful centre Henshaw started all of Ireland’s matches in last year’s victorious Six Nations, scoring a memorable try against England along the way. He’s a firm favourite of Joe Schmidt’s; dynamic in attack but robust defensively. Probably the northern hemisphere’s best complete centre.
9 Paul Hill (England)
Saints prop Hill looks set to win his first England cap on Saturday as he remains in the squad ahead of the clash with Scotland at Murrayfield. This caps a rapid rise to prominence as the forward did not get a run in the Saints side until Kieran Brookes sustained a knee injury in the December 18 draw with Racing 92.
10 Camille Chat (France)
Chat is uncapped and just 20-years-old, but his performances for Racing 92 this season have certainly caught the eye of France’s new head coach Guy Noves. Playing a key role for a side who have waltzed through their Champions Cup pool and sit top of the Top 14 will no doubt have helped his cause.
11 Jonathan Danty (Italy)
A stocky, human wrecking-ball of a centre, Danty was the Top 14’s Young Player of the Year last season, but he’s far from one-dimensional. His power and ability to make yards are matched by his skills with ball in hand.
12 Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Jonny Gray has already blossomed into a world-class player and, if he continues his relentless progress, many are tipping him to challenge for a starting Test place when the Lions tour New Zealand next summer.
13 Sergio Parisse (Italy)
This Italian No. 8 is the genuine colossus of European rugby. His leadership, flair and ability to get over the gainline will be key to Italy as they attempt to finish off the bottom of the Six Nations for a second consecutive year following their fifth place finish in 2015.
14 Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
Captain, scrum-half, goal-kicker, decision-maker, Laidlaw is the fulcrum for Scotland, and it is crucial he stays fit and plays well. The Gloucester man had an outstanding World Cup where he grew as a player and captain. If he is on top of his game, we will see the best of Scotland as they look to emulate the form that almost saw them reach the semi-final back in the Autumn.
15 Dylan Hartley (England)
Dylan Hartley’s feisty character could be ideal for the role of England captain, though there are drawbacks. It’s probably one way or the other with him; hero or zero. We will just have to sit back and see.
16 Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
Ireland is in need of a talismanic figure to rally around after the retirements of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. O’Brien at his best is that man, making this a massive tournament for the Lions flanker.
17 George North (Wales)
North scored a hat-trick against Italy amid the final-day pandemonium last year and has already won two Six Nations titles despite still only being 23. The man mountain of a winger has already amassed 55 caps for his country and a further three for the British and Irish Lions. After a disappointing Rugby World Cup, it is now his time to shine.
18 Owen Farrell (England)
The Farrell/Ford debate is as clear as they come. Jones is not an either-or man, neither one nor t’other. He’ll happily take both with the Saracens man, being the most robust of the two, moving into the midfield. Both are quality players, but you feel this tournament is bigger for Farrell as the natural number 10 strives to show he should continue to be an England regular.
19 Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Scotland fans will be hoping the fullback can get back to his best and drive Vern Cotter’s men to the Six Nations improvement the country so badly craves. Hogg suffered a form dip with Glasgow immediately after the World Cup but has been steadily getting back to his electric best, and we hope his displays that throughout this year’s tournament.
20 Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Faletau, who is the son of former Tongan international Kili, brings the ruthless power of his father but sprinkles in unmatchable skill at times. Often the somewhat unsung hero of Welsh sides in recent years it could be now his time to grab the headlines.