This year's Six Nations hardly needs a subplot.

Ireland, the hunted, must learn to cope with expectations attached to the world's best.

Wales are unbeaten in their last nine tests.


England, with the bruising Vunipola brothers back, are a different beast and Eddie 'grenade' Jones will keep dropping verbal bombs.

Scotland and France could surprise, particularly at home.

Italy are, well, Italy; the afterthought until they mount a credible challenge.

The World Cup adds another dimension; a psychological edge and the quirk of how much to show or hold back.

There will be inevitable concern, too, with every injury cause for endless worry, eight months out from Japan.

The inescapable theme, though, is the three leading contenders – Ireland, England and Wales – enter this tournament with, in all likelihood, coaches entering their final Six Nations.

Jones is the possible exception having signed a two-year extension last season – the RFU doing its best at the time to keep a lid on mounting pressure to axe the excitable Australian amid a horror tournament where England finished fifth, their worst placing since 1987.

Jones has since turned the curve yet, regardless of results, few expect him to continue after the World Cup. What successor wants such a controlling personality perched over their shoulder through some peculiar transition phase?


"No-one is thinking 'this is going to be his last game what are we going to do special for him'," Jones said at London's Hurlingham Club, stage for the tournament launch. "You're talking about the most highly motivated professional players in Europe playing for their countries. They don't need special things to want to be better.

"There's a sign out there that says this is rugby's greatest tournament. If I came here four years ago I wouldn't have said that but having been involved in it there is nothing like this tournament. The intensity; the contest, how much it means to people."

England coach Eddie Jones. Photo / Photosport
England coach Eddie Jones. Photo / Photosport

The curtain call, in this event at least, for Jones, Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland signposts significant, imminent movement with many other test posts.

Steve Hansen, Michael Cheika and Rassie Erasmus, just to name a few, are also due to finish this year.

A new era nears. Next year, test rugby's coaching landscape will be unrecognisable.

Despite best efforts to deflect this notion, Jones and Gatland will be keen to enhance legacies.

Pleasantries the pair shared over dinner prior to the launch will soon be forgotten. Given Jones' spying revelations, don't expect the Welsh union to again choose the wine and pick up the bill in Cardiff come week three.

Schmidt, with his earnest, selfless nature, is a different character altogether.

His indelible mark is already stamped on every level of the Irish game.

From eighth to second in the world rankings, a run which includes three Six Nations titles in five years, and yet in many respects, his challenge now begins.

Ireland are the prized scalp and, with that, comes a new baseline.

Their superhuman efforts that rattled the All Blacks in Dublin last November is now the expected level Ireland must reach every week.

Not everyone is convinced they can hit those heights.

A knowledgeable Englishman opined in conversation recently that Ireland are best with a chip on their shoulder.

The theory went that was now gone, following last year's unrivalled run, and they will therefore struggle to maintain 2018 standards.

I disagreed, on the basis of Schmidt's proven consistency, but there is no denying the dynamic has altered and Ireland must confront a new pressure.

For what it is worth my view is Cardiff, on what promises to be a gripping final day, holds more danger for Ireland – Schmidt having never won a Six Nations game there – than the heavyweight opening weekend when they welcome England to Aviva Stadium.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo / Photosport
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo / Photosport

Gatland, as he prepares to bow out from his well-grooved Welsh throne, exudes confidence. Wales sit third in the world yet claim to be under the radar. Even without the influential Taulupe Faletau, they seem well placed after their first unbeaten November. A period of rotation in selected tests has gleaned more depth than ever in Gatland's decade-long term.

From this position of comfort, Gatland is bullish enough to predict that, should Wales defeat France in Paris this weekend, they will go on to take the crown for a fourth time in his reign.

"I think we've got a great chance of winning the Six Nations if we win that opening game," Gatland said after announcing his squad. "That first game is going to be our toughest. We feel like we're in as good a position as anybody. The whole thing about Six Nations is momentum. If you can win your first couple of games, you have a great chance."

On that basis alone Scotland cannot be discounted. Any backline featuring Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell's attacking threats demand respect. The presence of Dave Rennie's Glasgow, and Edinburgh, in the European quarterfinals gives reason for hope. And with two weeks at Murrayfield to start, Gregor Townsend's men could shake the cage, though their away record (7/48) is horrid.

France will be hoping to be much more Toulouse than the deeply troubled Toulon but, even then, inconsistency of selection is mirrored by form and their home lost to Fiji in November does not evoke positivity. Winning at Twickenham and Dublin also seems unlikely.

On the whole, though, this Six Nations should be as competitive as any.

The subliminal subplot of the three-man coaching showdown for a fond European farewell adds that little bit extra to this World Cup prelim.

Opening weekend:

France v Wales, Stade de France (Paris), Saturday, February 2, 9am (NZT)

Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield (Edinburgh), Sunday, February 3, 3.15am (NZT)

Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium (Dublin), Sunday, February 3, 5.45am (NZT)