The Six Nations is warming up and this weekend all eyes will be on Paris, Cardiff and Rome as the tournament unfolds. Here are six players expected to make a big impression
By David Marsh
Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales)
Wales’ forwards coach Robin McBryde recently described 95-cap veteran Alun Wyn Jones as the totemic Welsh equivalent of Ireland’s Paul O’Connell – a more than fair comparison given Jones’ commitment in a Welsh shirt over the years. And not that the modest lock would ever boast about it, but he became Wales’ most capped second-row ever during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, surpassing Gareth Llewellyn’s haul of 92 caps.
Jones, 30, was his consistent self last weekend, making 16 tackles in a bruising encounter with Ireland last week as Wales drew with Joe Schmidt’s side, but the Osprey faces the double threat of the Gray brothers, who together won 58 line-outs last year.
Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Scotland continued their miserable try scoring record against England at Murrayfield on Saturday, having not crossed the whitewash against England at home since 2004. However it is not creativity Scotland struggle with. Finn Russell, Mark Bennett, and Tommy Seymour can all offer some zip in the Scottish back-line. Scotland’s problem is putting end product to their attacks, especially against Six Nations competition.
Stuart Hogg‘s try against Wales at Murrayfield last year showed that Stuart Hogg is capable of finishing half-chances. A quick Scottish turnover from past the half-way line saw Hogg streak down the left wing and dot the ball down under the posts. The 23-year-old has a point to prove after seeing red early on in this fixture two years ago, and could only watch from the sidelines as the Scots were dismantled by an unforgiving Welsh team, losing 51-3. Typically, Hogg was Scotland’s main threat last week against England, carrying the ball 101 metres and beating five defenders, and his ballerina-like footwork could cause Wales all sorts of problems this weekend.
Billy Vunipola (England)
The England No 8 put in one of the most eye-catching performances of the opening weekend with a man of the match display in England’s victory at Murrayfield. Billy Vunipola led from the front for the English last weekend. He made a total of 51 metres with ball in hand in a tireless effort in heavy traffic. He also contributed in defence, making a total of nine tackles.
The former Wasps player has also played a major role in a Saracens team that have dominated the European Champions Cup this season. He took part in five of Saracen’s six pool matches and scored three tries, one of which – in the victory against Ulster at home – sealed Saracens qualification to the quarter-finals. However, this weekend Vunipola will get the opportunity to test himself against 115-time cap Italian icon Sergio Parisse, a stern test for the 23-year-old.
Carlo Canna (Italy)
Carlo Canna made his Six Nations debut on Saturday at the Stade de France, and marked it by racking up 13 points. He dotted down for a second-half try when his out-stretched arms caught a pass from Edoardo Gori and he dived over from close range. Canna converted his own try, and dispatched a penalty and a drop goal in what was almost a historic first ever victory for the Azzurri in Paris.
The leggy 23-year-old was on the end of some fulsome praise from England coach Eddie Jones this week, with the Australian comparing him to Stephen Larkham. “Compliments are nice, but Jones’ tactics could actually be to try to increase the pressure on me ahead of Sunday,” straight-batted Canna. Despite the promising performance, Canna will need to brush up on his kicking game this week after missing two attempts at goal against France.
Virimi Vakatawa (France)
Having become a star on the Sevens circuit, Virimi Vakatawa was parachuted in by new French coach Guy Noves ain an attempt to re-install some va va voom in French rugby. The Fijian-born Vakatwa duly delivered, dotting down for the first try of this year’s Six Nations when he found himself with the ball on the left flank and displayed some clever footwork to evade a tackle from Leonardo Sarto and put France ahead.
And it wasn’t long before Vakatwa had become the darling of the French crowd, with excitement ringing around the Stade de France whenever the winger got the ball in his hands. Ireland’s Dave Kearney has cited the shutting down of the French flyer as key to Irish hopes of achieving back-to-back Six Nations victories in Paris on Saturday.”You know that he’s got a real threat from the fact he’s thrived in Sevens,” said Kearney, who starts for Ireland on Saturday.
“Give someone like that space and they’ll cause you trouble.”
Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
Ireland’s vice captain, and the man they call the ‘Tullow Tank’ is back in Irish colours this weekend after recovering from a hamstring injury. Tommy O’Donnell makes way in the starting XV for O’Brien after filling in for the first round of fixtures, despite the Munster man putting in a notable shift for the Irish against Wales.
British & Irish Lion O’Brien is an experience breakdown specialist, forcing two turnovers in his last appearance against France in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He could be a target for some French retribution after his punch on lock Pascal Pape in the very same match saw him banned for the quarter-final. O’Brien’s ball-carrying can be devastating. He scored two tries in Ireland’s 40-10 victory over Scotland during the final day of last year’s Six Nations; a victory that gave the men in green their second successive Six Nations title.