2019 is set to be an incredible year for international rugby, with eyes already looking towards the World Cup in September. The 2018 Autumn Internationals were an especially interesting preview as we got to see the World Cup squads take shape, new tactics being tested, and young players blooded in preparation for Japan 2019. But northern hemisphere teams have a lot to consider before then, with the Six Nations allowing a closer examination of each home nation's World Cup hopefuls.
While New Zealand continue to lead the way, it's notable that three of the four top-ranked nations in the world are from the home nations. Traditionally, England is the only team that consistently breaks the Southern stranglehold – but Ireland, Wales and Scotland are all finding a consistency that suggests the tide is turning. With recent form fresh in the memory and the initial squad announcements made, this is where the home nations are leading into the Six Nations, and beyond.
Ireland demand attention
World Rugby's Team of the Year, Ireland continued their excellent 2018 form with an outstanding Autumn series, defeating the All Blacks for the second time in as many years. While the All Blacks will remain favourites for the sport's biggest prize this autumn, Ireland's 16-9 victory has made the world sit up and take notice.
A dominating Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018 means that they will fear no opponents in the spring and, should it come to it, will be confident that they can win a third time against New Zealand in the autumn. Because of this ferocious form, it is no surprise that Ireland are widely expected to retain the Six Nations for the second time this decade.
Jonathan Sexton's knee injury aside, Ireland have been able to name a full-strength squad for the Six Nations. The combination of experienced heads and young players breaking through mean the Irish back row, in particular, is flooded with talent.
Wales continue to improve
Warren Gatland will be hoping that his final year in charge of the Welsh national team will be a success, but the level of their achievement will likely depend on injuries. Taulupe Faletau's broken arm is likely to rule him out entirely, but Leigh Halfpenny has been named in the squad in the hope that he will be back for the first time since November. While the front row looks fit, the back row will be without Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Shingler among others.
Wales had an excellent clean sweep during the 2018 Autumn Internationals, defeating both Australia and South Africa, and yet there are still two home nations that are ahead of them in terms of Six Nations betting.
Still, their squad looks increasingly good with every game. A second place Six Nations finish in 2018 suggests that there is much more to come from this exciting team.
England work to find their form
A woeful Six Nations saw Eddie Jones' men lose three games in a row to finish fifth. Following this with an unimpressive Summer Series certainly got fans concerned, but notable performances against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the Autumn Internationals were a stark reminder of England's quality.
That will immediately be put to the test on February 2nd when they open their campaign against Ireland in Dublin. A significant injury list sees England without Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley and Sam Underhill among others. But Jones has decided against leaning too heavily on youth, with just four uncapped players called up to the squad to complement the established core.
England may not be able to catch Ireland, but a strong Six Nations would demonstrate that England's form has turned a corner and is heading in the right direction in time for the World Cup.
Scotland lean on potential
While the third-placed finish and a victory over England sounds respectable, the manner of defeats against Wales and Ireland will see Scotland keen to improve this time around. Current form is mixed, with Scotland winning as expected against Fiji and Argentina, but losing to Wales and South Africa during the Autumn.
With a string of injuries including David Denton, Richie Gray, and John Barclay, head-coach Gregor Townsend has elected to put his trust in the future by naming nine uncapped players who have all impressed domestically.
The hope is that the hunger of young talent will help to continue building a deep pool of Scottish talent for years to come. While nobody expects this Scottish team to become Six Nations champions, playing on such a big stage could result in some breakout performances for their young players.
We have an incredible 2019 to look forward to
Just a year ago, England were expected to secure back-to-back Six Nations titles, but after a surprising poor string of performances, Ireland have stepped forward as the team to beat, both in the Six Nations and worldwide. In fact, if results go their way, Ireland could even secure enough ranking points to catch New Zealand and head to Japan in September as the number one ranked team in the world.
Of course, Wales and Scotland will be working hard to stop that happening and keep ahead of England in the final standings – one to cap the end of an era, the other to mark the start of a new chapter.