It’s been an enthralling Six Nations so far, and after the first two rounds the Tournament still looks wide open, even though England and Ireland are the only remaining contenders for a Grand Slam. However, Wales are still definitely in the mix for the Championship. Scotland also look set to make life difficult for England and Ireland, while France are more than capable of causing an upset in Paris when they take on England.

The same optimistic picture cannot be painted for Canada after three rounds of the Americas Rugby Championship. A loss to Uruguay which ultimately saw them lose yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, was made worse by the fact that they then lost to the United States who they now have not beaten since 2013. There was a bright light in Round 3 which saw Canada pull off a comprehensive win against Brazil. However, it is clearly going to be another rough year for Canadian rugby with the chance of missing the World Cup for the first time in the tournament’s history becoming a real possibility.

So here’s a snapshot of some of the things that stood out for us in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations and Canada’s performance in the Americas Rugby Championship so far.

Six Nations

Ireland

While it would seem England are still the side to beat, Ireland find themselves at the top of the Six Nations table on a slender points difference. England and Ireland have both had their easiest match of the tournament so far against Italy. Ireland were more successful in the points grab that such matches are traditionally viewed as, even if a woeful lapse in concentration in the second half saw Italy rack up three tries.

Against France, Ireland had plenty of possession but failed to really turn it into points, other than from the boot of fly half Johnny Sexton. They seemed incapable of breaking an impressive French defence despite repeated assaults. In fairness to them, the final three minutes of the match and 41 phases of Irish possession was a remarkable display of big match composure to snatch what seemed like an improbable win. Johnny Sexton really showed his pedigree with that remarkable drop goal and why he is rightly considered one of the best in the world.

Ireland look good make no mistake, but seem to suffer from serious lapses of concentration in the second half, something which their final three opponents will be keen to pounce on. Ireland have their three toughest matches of the tournament up next. Firstly at home to Wales and Scotland and then they head to Fortress Twickenham to take on England in what many are predicting to be the tournament decider. However, to get past an impressive looking Welsh side and a Scottish team that seems to have settled back into their groove, Ireland will need 160 minutes of the kind of composure and execution they showed in the final three minutes of the French match. If they are able to do this then the showdown with England will become the Tournament and Grand Slam decider it is being billed as, but it is going to be a big ask.

England

England looked good against Italy in their opening match, though they will be disappointed with not getting more points out of the proceedings. However, much like Ireland against France, they were lucky to get the win over a Welsh side that dominated the final 30 minutes of a tough match. England do not look invincible and the fact that their final match against their main rivals Ireland is at fortress Twickenham will be of little comfort. They have looked impressive at times but as we saw in the Welsh game, against stiff opposition they can be pressured into making mistakes.

England have a tough assignment in Murrayfield against a revitalized Scottish team, followed by a trip to Paris against a French side that is clearly building up to one really big performance in this tournament. Make no mistake, we still feel England are the team to beat. However, the aura of invincibility that has surrounded them up to now has lost some of its lustre. Add continued injuries into the mix and question marks will get raised about how far England can really go this year, in much the same way as the same questions are being asked of Ireland.

The Welsh game will have been a valuable wake up call for Coach Eddie Jones and his charges, and we expect to see England ramp up their performance for a grand finale on March 17th against Ireland, but there will certainly be no givens in the weeks leading up to it.

Wales

If Wales had abandoned the kicking game that gifted the game to England in the first 50 minutes of the match at Twickenham, we would be looking at a very different pecking order in the table. That Welsh performance in the final half hour was a phenomenal comeback, raising the question of what would that scoreline have been like if they had played that way for a full eighty minutes, as they clearly had England on the ropes. Furthermore, the Welsh demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side in the tournament’s opening fixture was a revelation in itself. Wales may be struggling with injuries but there is no shortage of world-class talent in the squad, with a back row depth in the forwards that is quite frightening and some pace and skill in the backs to take your breath away.

Their opening match against Scotland was ruthless and clinical. Their next match against England displayed a tactical naiveté that after watching the Scotland game we were rather puzzled by to say the least. We were convinced that after the first half some serious words would have been doled out in the changing room about the inefficiency of the Welsh kicking game. Consequently imagine our surprise to see Wales doing exactly the same thing for the first ten minutes of the second half, before having a Eureka moment on the fifty minute mark. Once that happened Wales became a different side and could have clearly won that match had they played like that in the first fifty minutes of the game.

Despite the loss to England, Wales are clearly in this to win it. A tough away fixture in Dublin awaits them next, but after that they have the luxury of Italy and France at home. If they upset Ireland in Dublin, then although a Grand Slam is out of the question they will clearly fancy their chances at lifting the trophy on March 17th. They have pace out wide and a fearsome forward pack, with a defence that for the most part looks solid. Cut out the reliance on a kicking game that is clearly not working for them and Wales are very much the dark horse in this year’s tournament.

Scotland

Scotland were clearly devastated by their crushing loss to Wales in the opening round of the tournament. They were a shadow of the side that put 53 points on Australia in November. We like most people were shocked at how Scotland simply didn’t show up in Cardiff as they clearly are a better side than that with talent to burn. Consequently their comprehensive dismantling of France a week later was much more to the type of form we are coming to expect from them.

Like we say we can’t really find any excuses other than opening night nerves for the disaster in Cardiff. Some argue that Scotland are simply not that good on the road, but then let’s recall that historic defeat of the Wallabies in Sydney last June. This is an excellent Scottish side, even with the injury problems they are faced with, and as we saw in the French game, a serious threat to anyone who makes the mistake of taking them lightly.

Their only real stumbling blocks to a strong finish in this tournament is the trip to Dublin at the beginning of March and their date with England next Saturday. However, they will fancy their chances against England in front of a very vocal Murrayfield crowd. If that goes well there is no question they will be up for the challenge of their away fixture against the Irish, and a relatively soft final encounter against Italy in Rome. While we have trouble seeing Scotland finishing top of the table, a strong second or third place finish is definitely on the cards. If they do beat England next Saturday though they could essentially turn this tournament on its head, so keep a close eye to next week’s Calcutta Cup fixture.

France

While France may be winless after two rounds, considering that many had written them off before the tournament, there is a lot to cheer about if you’re a French supporter. The heartbreaking loss to Ireland at the final whistle was a tough pill to swallow, but France could take a great deal of heart from a superb performance both on attack and in some truly heroic defence. Ireland could simply not find a way through the blue wall and it required 41 phases of possession before a remarkable drop goal attempt from Ireland would rob France of an historic win at the final whistle.

France went to give Scotland a stern test at Murrayfield, and the first half showed some brilliant attacking flair from les Bleus. The game then resorted to a tactical battle via the boot in the second half, and here Scotland played the smarter game, as well as putting France under pressure to the point where their discipline started to crack badly.

However, despite languishing at fifth on the table, France are clearly once more on the rise. They have a solid forward pack and some exceptional flair and pace in their backs all allied to a water tight defence. They do seem to be struggling to find the right half back mix, but this is much more like a French side of old. In our opinion there is one really big game in this French side still to come in this tournament, that could well upset the tournament pecking order. We feel it might just be in Paris when they take on England, especially if England get a serious fright from the Scots next Saturday. France are definitely the wild card this year make no mistake, and it is great to see them brandishing it once more.

Italy

Italy like France may be struggling to get some traction so far in this tournament, but they have certainly showed some promise at times. Furthermore, they have arguably had their two toughest games at the start of the tournament against the two favorites England and Ireland, and as a result it may be unfair to judge them too harshly at this stage in the competition. They can take heart from the fact that they can score tries, and did so against the two best teams in the tournament. If they can work on their defence which is clearly a real Achilles heel for them along with continued problems in terms of discipline, then they could come to the end of the tournament with a sense of real progress.

Italy’s opening encounter with England in Rome, showed a much improved Italian performance after a poor November Test window. It was still a respectable scoreline at halftime with Italy only trailing 17-10 against the second best team in the world. Italy’s defence fell apart in the second half, but they had shown some real attacking flair with some outstanding new talent in the backs, and an aggressive and effective back row.

In their second match against Ireland, some of the shine came off that opening performance but they still managed to score three superb tries, despite being clearly overwhelmed by Ireland at times. If Scotland fail to rise to the challenge of England and Ireland, then Italy will surely fancy their chances against them in Rome at the end of the tournament. Italy’s immediate concern though will be trying to test the depth of the French renaissance in Paris next Friday. This has traditionally always been a scrappy encounter between the two sides, and if France have run out of steam after a bright start and Italy have fixed their defensive issues then the scope for a possible upset is clearly there. It’s still hard to see Italy being anything other than the traditional holders of the wooden spoon this year, but there is clearly some real improvement going on and Coach Conor O’Shea should feel pleased with the progress being made.

Canada and the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC)

Put your hands up if like us you breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the third round and Canada’s emphatic win over Brazil. It was a result that Canada simply had to get. While it may not have much impact on Canada’s overall fortunes in the tournament, the fact that a torrid run of form has finally been broken is at least a point from which Canada can attempt to start the long and painful process of rebuilding a credible 15 a side game once more.

Canada got off to a shaky start at home to Uruguay which also served as a World Cup qualifier. While they played with plenty of intensity, the execution simply wasn’t there and as a result much of their play looked frantic and poorly structured despite them dominating the possession. Uruguay on the other hand, made much better use of the possession they had. In fairness to Canada as a result of having to fit two World Cup qualifying matches with Uruguay into the ARC schedule this year, the travel plans of the Canadian squad have been ridiculous to say the least over a six-week period. They went from their opening match straight to Uruguay, then back to the US and then up to Canada for this weekend’s match against Brazil. No sooner had they untied their boot laces from this weekend’s match, then they find themselves preparing to head off to Argentina for their match this coming Saturday, followed by their final match in Chile a week later. How you fit training into all of this and cope with the effects of long distance travel is slightly beyond us.

As a result of a hectic travel schedule it was no surprise that Canada came unstuck in their second match against the USA in Sacramento, California, especially after not managing to qualify for the World Cup after losing both their matches with the Uruguayans. Add to this a constant turnover in terms of squad personnel as new Coach Kingsley Jones seeks to get an understanding of his player base, and it is no wonder that there is little in terms of consistency regarding Canada’s performances at the moment. While we understand the constraints Jones is up against we also are concerned that with two matches to go, there is still alarmingly little consistency in selection outside of Hooker and the half back positions. In the second match against Uruguay which Canada narrowly lost by one point, we were really impressed with centre Ben LeSage and have been frustrated to not see him playing a greater role in the squad.

Furthermore, while we understand the fact that Canada doesn’t have a huge player base, we are not sure that this contant flux of sevens players in and out of the 15 a side structure at the moment is constructive in terms of fixing Canada’s long term problems. In many ways this smacks of desperation for results as opposed to a well thought out strategy for long term growth and development of the larger game in Canada.

Canada need to find the core of a 23 man squad they can really start to develop between now and November, if they are to stand any chance of getting through a tough repechage tournament for their final shot at qualifying for next year’s World Cup. With only two matches left in the ARC and three June internationals we fear that time is running out to build a settled squad before the crucial November round of qualifying matches. On their present form and without a consistent selection policy, while the win over Brazil will do much to restore some confidence and pride to a battered jersey, realistically Canada is unlikely to finish better than a strong fourth in this year’s Americas Rugby Championship. Saturday’s victory over Brazil was a much-needed shot in the arm, but it is still a long and rocky road ahead of Canada to start the hard climb up the world rankings once more.

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Here’s their excellent review of Round 2’s action. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

This year’s Six Nations got off to a rip-roaring start, with the opening match between Wales and Scotland turning the form book on its head. Most of us simply did not see the turbocharged version of Wales coming, and neither did Scotland. It was a fantastic Welsh performance which completely negated Scotland’s much vaunted attacking prowess. Scotland sadly were just not allowed into the match, and Wales all of a sudden look a team with a purpose and plenty of attacking threats of their own coupled to a rock solid defense.

Next up it was Ireland’s turn to take on France in rain-soaked Paris. Ireland were clearly nervous, but much to everyone’s surprise the French turned up and their defence seemed impenetrable. To make Ireland’s problems worse France would score the only try of the match, despite Ireland dominating possession. The final three minutes of the match produced one of the most memorable Six Nations finishes in a long time. Ireland displayed extraordinary skill and calm as they managed to hang onto the ball for a staggering 41 phases before popping the ball back to Johnny Sexton for a 42 metre drop goal. The agony on French Captain Guilhem Guirado’s face as the match was snatched from France in the dying seconds while Irish players collapsed on each other in joyful celebration said it all.

On Sunday, England took on Italy in the Roman sunshine. Although many had expected England to run rings around the Azurri, many were heartened by a bold and exciting Italian performance, with Italy very much in contention for the first sixty minutes. The sea change in the quality of Italian play since the November Internationals was easy to see and must have heartened their supporters no end. England did ultimately run away with the match in the final quarter but they left Rome knowing that they had been tested, and consequently it is unlikely that Italy’s other opponents for the rest of the tournament will take them lightly. England on the other hand put in a dominant and powerful performance, with one of their newer caps, Sam Simmonds at number eight, really standing out.

With some mouth-watering matchups this weekend, let’s get straight into our look at the head to heads taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, February 10th
Dublin

Ireland return home to Dublin for three matches after a nervy but ultimately successful start to their campaign in Paris last weekend. Ireland will be concerned that despite concerted pressure on the French defences they were unable to cross the whitewash. They will be heartened by that incredible display of composure and control in the final three minutes, but there is no doubt they will not want to leave the rest of their games to the last minute like that. Italy will take enormous confidence from the positive rugby they played last weekend against tournament favourites England. Away from home, against an Irish side clearly needing to make a statement, it will be a tough ask of young but promising Italian team.

Front rows

There will be some great battles here on Saturday, but ultimately Ireland’s experience and strength should see them win the day here. We were hugely impressed with Italy’s Simone Pietro Ferrari on the Tighthead side of the scrum last weekend and the contest between him and Ireland’s exceptional Jack McGrath will be well worth the price of admission. The rest of Italy’s scrum will be competitive but the experience of Captain Rory Best and Tighthead Tadgh Furlong should see Ireland maintain overall control. With Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Cian Healy on bench duty, Ireland’s overall superiority should be complete, though expect a solid shift from Andrea Lovotti once he makes an appearance for the Azurri.

Second rows

This match sees the return of Ireland’s Devin Toner to the second row, alongside Ian Henderson. While Italy’s contribution in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd put in some good work last weekend, it is unlikely they will be able to match the Irish pair for the full eighty minutes. So once again provided Hooker Rory Best can find his mark at lineout time, Ireland should own this part of the game.

Back rows

It’s here we’re expecting the biggest fireworks on Saturday. Ireland are packing what should be the dominant trio, but as we saw last weekend in Rome, Italy can really stand up and be counted here. We thought flanker Sebastian Negri had a superb game for Italy last weekend, and expect more of the same this Saturday. At number eight Sergio Parisse appears to be back to his best, and Braam Steyn is also a ferocious competitor. Italy will give Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan a run for their money in Dublin. We are delighted to see Dan Leavy get another start as he was one of the standout performers for Ireland last weekend. Furthermore, having impressed for Leinster all season we are very happy to see Jack Conan get a start. Despite Italy’s firepower here, and the relative youth of Ireland’s contingent, the Irish trio are likely to be the more clinical of the two sides. Add to the mix, CJ Stander waiting on the bench for Ireland, and there are few who would doubt Ireland’s dominance here.

Halfbacks

Watch the last three minutes of Ireland’s match against France last weekend and, despite Italy’s pair putting in a good effort against England, it is hard to see anything other than complete dominance by Ireland here. After last weekend’s heroics Johnny Sexton’s ability to keep a calm head under enormous pressure is clearly the stuff of legends. To have the confidence in your own ability to attempt a long-range drop goal like that is a testament to what a remarkable player Sexton is. His partner at scrum half, Conor Murray, is also a master of being able to maintain composure under the most extreme pressure. Our only hope in this match is that Sexton’s replacement, Joey Carberry, will be brought on relatively early in the match for two reasons. Firstly to keep Sexton clear of potential injury, but secondly and more important in our view to give Carberry some much-needed big game time in the 10 jersey. We saw what he could do in Chicago two years ago and what he regularly produces at Leinster. Ireland really need to give Carberry as much exposure as possible between now and the World Cup.

Italy’s Marcello Violi and Tommaso Allan played well for Italy last weekend, but we just can’t really seeing them getting the measure of Sexton and Murray, with Carberry and Marmion waiting on the bench to do more damage.

Centres

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki provided plenty of powerful ball carrying last weekend in Paris as well as shutting down countless French attacks. Although the Henshaw/Aki partnership seems to favor a more direct style up the middle as opposed to the weaving and darting of the Henshaw/Ringrose pairing, there is no denying the potency of the threat they pose. In addition Aki’s ability to stop runners dead in their tracks will come in useful against Italy’s powerful pair of Tommasos, Castello and Boni. Castello is one of Italy’s most exciting new talents and we liked much of what we saw from Boni last weekend. However, Ireland’s unit should be the more effective of the two and as a result Ireland should be comfortably in charge here.

Back line

Once again there were two revelations from Italy here last weekend in the form of winger Tommaso Benvenuti and fullback Matteo Minozzi. Minozzi in particular ran some fantastic lines on Sunday in Rome, and we are looking forward to seeing him in action again this weekend. In short, with Mattia Bellini on the opposite wing, it’s a good Italian back line and the Irish defences will need to be on their guard, especially as Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale was found wanting in defence at times last Saturday in Paris.

However, Ireland once again are packing the higher pedigree in the shape of winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney. These two highly experienced Test veterans for Ireland should ensure that they are able to be the dominant side in this part of the park on Saturday. Earls ability to find and make space and Kearney’s exceptional abilities under the high ball, will keep Italy guessing all afternoon. One of the talking points of the weekend will be how well Jordan Larmour will respond to his first callup in an Irish jersey off the bench, having set the Pro14 and European Champions Cup alight.

Verdict

In Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections for this match, it is clear that Ireland are approaching Italy with the utmost caution, and after the close shave they had in Paris last weekend, nothing is being left to chance. In a tournament that may well come down to points differences, Ireland will not be satisfied with anything less than four tries and a bonus point. They have the personnel to do it, especially in front of a home crowd and although Italy will make them work for it, it is hard for us to imagine anything other than an emphatic Irish win. Consequently, Ireland to be more effective than they were last weekend in Paris in breaking down Italian defences and to take the match by 24 points!

Wales vs England
Saturday, February 10th
Twickenham

While there are plenty of entertaining fixtures this weekend there is no doubt that this is the BIG one. After Wales’ complete demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side last weekend, there should be plenty of drama on offer at Twickenham this Saturday. With both sides knowing that a potential Grand Slam will be on for only one of these two sides after the final whistle, this should be a match of the highest intensity.

Front rows

This will be one of the most fiercely contested battles on Saturday afternoon. The Scarlets front three for Wales of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee were rock solid last week against Scotland, and we expect them to be just as good against a much stronger English trio. England’s Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola and Dylan Hartley have been a very reliable platform for England, with the two props in particular turning out consistently strong performances. We actually think the Welsh unit could have the edge here, simply based on their familiarity of playing together at club level, and something which translates well to Test level. Very close but it is the sheer power of Mako Vunipola for England which we think will ultimately tip a very tight contest ever so slightly in favor of the Men in White.

Second Rows

Another titanic struggle awaits here, but one which England should ultimately get the better of. Cory Hill had a superb game for Wales last weekend, but taking on the English partnership of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje is a very daunting prospect, even when you are supported by Captain Remarkable for Wales, Alun-Wyn Jones. The English pair though should provide more spark in attack, and their ball carrying abilities and skill at mastering the art of the turnover are second to none. England to have the clear edge here despite some ferocious Welsh opposition, especially with George Kruis waiting on the bench for England.

Back Rows

This is where we think the battle swings ever so slightly in favor of Wales. Flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi were immense last weekend against Scotland as well as during the November Internationals, with no slouch in the shape of Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench. Add Ross Moriarty into the mix at number eight and this is a very potent and gritty Welsh back row. Navidi and Shingler’s ability to break the gain line coupled to their absolute nuisance factor at the breakdown will mean that England will have their work cut out containing these three.

England still field a phenomenal unit, with relative newcomer Sam Simmonds really stepping up to the plate in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola. For us Simmonds is England’s find of the season. An absolute tiger in attack and defence we think he will get the better of his feisty opposite Welsh number Moriarty, especially at Twickenham. On the flanks Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes need no introduction, and bring a vast body of Test experience. However, we still think Lawes is ultimately more comfortable in the second row. Despite the experience of these two English veterans, we just think the Welsh pair are likely to be more explosive and unpredictable. Close battle to be sure but one in which we think Wales may get the upper hand.

Half Backs

Despite the slightly unsavory nature of English Coach Eddie Jones’ attacks in the press on Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell during the course of the week, it is ultimately mind games and we doubt that the Welsh youngster has risen to it. Patchell had a fantastic game against Scotland and showed a wisdom in terms of controlling the game well beyond his years and experience. Consequently, we expect more of the same despite the fact that it is a much bigger challenge. Scrum half Gareth Davies as many know is actually our Welsh scrum half of choice despite Rhys Webb being considered Wales’ finest. Consequently, if Patchell can keep his cool as he is likely to be targeted all afternoon, then Wales should be able to run a tight game here.

Having said that though, we still feel that England have the edge here, despite the X-factor we saw from Patchell last weekend. Danny Care at scrum half and George Ford at fly half need no introduction, and in a game like this Care’s inclusion in the starting XV may well prove decisive. Care is a great sniping runner, and his speed of delivery could be just what England need on Saturday. George Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre has proven to be a lethal combination for England, and we expect Sunday to be no different. It will really come down to which side establishes the most dominance by the time the replacements come on for the two scrum halves, as we actually think Wales may pack more surprises in the shape of Aled Davies than England’s Richard Wigglesworth.  Despite some fierce competition here we can’t help feeling that England will ultimately exercise greater control over proceedings here.

Centres

Wales’ centre partnership of Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes were lethal last weekend and devastatingly effective at shredding Scottish defences. England’s Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph will have to bring all of their considerable Test experience to bear to contain these two. It’s that experience that we feel will ensure that England get the better of the two Welsh firecrackers. With Ben Te’o on the bench for England, the Men in White should be able to wrestle the game away from Wales here in the last quarter once the control needed has been established by Joseph and Farrell.

Back lines

Welsh youth and exuberance meets English bedrock in this part of the field on Saturday. This is not to say that Wales is without its own calm head in the shape of fullback Leigh Halfpenny. However, the sheer speed and pace of the two Welsh youngsters last Saturday was a joy to watch. England’s Jonny May is now an established part of England’s back line and boasts a remarkable turn of pace coupled to an increasingly smart and accomplished game. Meanwhile on the opposite wing Anthony Watson showed off some blistering pace and strength in attack and defence against Italy. Add to the mix, the in your face attitude of Mike Brown at fullback for England, and this English trio is likely to cause Welsh defences all kinds of problem as well as Brown likely getting under the skin of the Welsh youngsters.

There were question marks around Welsh winger Steff Evans defensive capabilities during the November Internationals, but that has clearly been worked on but we still feel that it is going to be sorely tested against a very experienced and dangerous English offering. Evans is going to have to step his game up and then some to contain his opposite number Watson. Furthermore we just feel that away from home Welsh winger Josh Adams despite his obvious talents is just still too green to contain the likes of England’s Jonny May. In the fullback battle we prefer the calm head and more measured response of Wales’ Halfpenny in contrast to Brown’s bulldog approach to the game, and let’s not forget the value of the Welshman’s kicking game. However, overall we just feel that the experience of the two English wingers will see that in terms of the backs it’s going to be England’s day.

Verdict

This should be one of the best games of the whole tournament, especially if Wales bring the kind of shift they put in against Scotland last weekend. If they do, the game should swing back and forth in a thrilling contest. However, it’s home advantage and England’s greater levels of experience at this level that should see the Men in White through a nail biting encounter. England to once more demonstrate their proven finishing abilities in a very close game, and the Men in White to seal the deal at the death by four points!

Scotland vs France
Sunday, February 11th
Murrayfield

Scotland no doubt limped into Murrayfield earlier this week after the comprehensive hiding they were given by Wales last Saturday. However, a week is a long time in Test rugby. Sure the hype surrounding Scotland got put into perspective in no uncertain terms, but it still doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a very good Scottish team that is blessed with some remarkable talent. The likelihood of this Scottish team not turning up, in front of a delirious home crowd is in our opinion rather remote. Scotland may struggle on the road, but Murrayfield has definitely become a happy hunting ground for them this past year. Furthermore, we just don’t believe that Scotland can be as bad as they were last weekend. Lessons will have been learnt and some hard work done on the training pitch this week.

France travel to Scotland suffering from scars of their own both mental and physical. To have victory snatched from them at the death is hard for any team to take, especially when you’d been written off heading into it. Their performance against Ireland in difficult conditions took everyone, including Ireland, completely by surprise. Their defence was the stuff of legends and they were able to wrong foot the Irish defences to the point they were the only side to cross the whitewash. The question remains though – is this yet another false French dawn? We certainly hope not as the Six Nations without a strong French challenge just isn’t the same. A fascinating contest awaits for two sides with everything to prove.

Front Rows

Scotland got pushed around up front in Cardiff last weekend, and we can’t see much changing here on Sunday on Murrayfield. The French front row last weekend against Ireland were superb and Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado put in an inspirational performance. Consequently the French trio of Rabah Slimani, Guirado and Jefferson Poirot should use this experience to get the better of a relatively untried Scottish front row in the shape of Stuart McInally, Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan. Reid is no stranger to Test Rugby but his two partners are still finding their feet at this level. As a result despite feisty challenge from the Scots we expect France to win the day here.

Second Rows

Scotland’s second row just didn’t fire last weekend, but we expect it to do better on home soil, and feel that Grant Gilchrist is likely to make more of an impact than Ben Toolis. The French second row of Arthur Iturria and particularly Sebastien Vahaamahina caused Ireland all kind of problems last weekend, Vahaamahina in particular. However, despite his clear role as France’s enforcer, Vahaamahina fell foul of the referee’s whistle on numerous occasions last Saturday in Paris. Expect Scotland to push the French second rower here, and Gilchrist and Jonny Gray should be more effective in getting under the French pair’s skin while at the same time maintaining the upper hand from a disciplinary standpoint. A tight contest but one where Scotland on home ground should have the edge.

Back Rows

France are without the services of Kevin Gourdon here who had such an influence on proceedings last weekend in Paris against Ireland. As a result we hand this to Scotland fair and square. Even though they were rather flat last weekend in Cardiff, this is a world-class Scottish back row in the shape of flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson. We just can’t see them failing to turn up two weeks in a row. One of Scotland’s weak links last weekend was their number eight Cornell du Preez, but in Ryan Wilson this week we feel they have a far stronger contender. Consequently, the Scottish back row this weekend should reestablish the authority over loose play and the breakdown that characterised so many of their performances in November. France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara will be competitive but it will be a tall order for them to better a Scottish back row of this caliber at home and with a point to prove, even with Louis Picamoles on the bench for France.

Half Backs

We are still scratching our heads a bit on this one in terms of Scottish selections here. We would have thought that Ali Price’s remarkable speed and elusiveness would have ensured that he got the starting berth at scrum half, as opposed to the much more conservative Greig Laidlaw. However, in a game Scotland simply cannot afford to lose, we are assuming that Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend is opting for the reliability and leadership factor Laidlaw brings to the squad, with the X-factor of Price coming on in the final quarter once dominance has been established.  France rely on two veteran players and that is perhaps what has shaped Townsend’s decision-making. Lionel Beauxis and Maxime Machenaud are no strangers to Test rugby, though Beauxis hasn’t played at Test level in almost six years. Scotland should establish control over proceedings here, but will have to be on their guard once the bench gets called into play, and here France may have the edge in Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau. Caution will definitely be the better part of valor here especially in the dying stages of the game. Scotland to have the upper hand for much of the match but France to push them hard in the final quarter.

Centres

Scotland at home should come out on top here, as they have an excellent centre pairing in Huw Jones and Peter Horne, though we felt the latter had an off game at times when he came off the bench last weekend. Chris Harris was simply put in the shade last weekend by Wales and hence he finds himself on the bench this weekend, but in front of the Murrayfield faithful he should have much more traction than he did last weekend when he does come on.

France however pack some serious firepower in the shape of Remi Lamerat and La Rochelle sensation Geoffrey Doumayrou. In our opinion if these two click then they are likely to prove more of a strike threat, however it is Huw Jones blinding pace and ability to spot gaps for the Scots, especially at his preferred position of outside centre that makes us think Scotland are likely to have the edge here.

Back lines

So this week we are not going to fall into the trap we did last week by getting carried away by the supposed prowess of Scotland’s back line. Sure it is definitely there, but as was shown in Cardiff it can be contained. France showed in Teddy Thomas they have a player who can be a game changer, and his fellow winger Virimi Vakatawa is a proven strike threat. Add to that the fact that France’s back line put in a very solid defensive effort and Scotland despite their obvious prowess here will need to use their full bag of tricks if they are to score tries.

This week Scotland have Sean Maitland on the wing and we were surprised to not see him get a start in Cardiff. Alongside Tommy Seymour this is a fearsome attacking unit and Thomas and Vakatawa will have to be at their defensive best for France, especially as Seymour is unlikely to be as flat as he was in Cardiff. Geoffrey Palis gave a good account of himself against Ireland for France at fullback. However, trying to contain the flying form of Stuart Hogg at home and with a point to prove is probably too much of an ask for the young Frenchman. Scotland’s renowned pace and prowess in this part of the park should live up to its justified reputation at France’s expense here on Sunday.

Verdict

Very much a do or die match for both sides so expect them to throw everything at it. Scotland simply can’t be as lifeless and inept as they were last weekend. France on the other hand will want to prove that French rugby has returned with a vengeance to the Test arena, so expect the sparks to fly on a day where the weather should favor a fast and free-flowing game from both sides. It will be close and plenty of drama should be on offer. Nevertheless, home advantage should give Scotland the slightest edge here and take the contest by four points, in a game that is likely to hang in the balance till the final five minutes!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

Yes it’s finally here! While it perhaps has been one of the most hyped Six Nations in a while, we feel it is well-founded. There are two clear front-runners in England and Ireland. Add into the mix two dark horses in the shape of Wales and Scotland, with Scotland in particular being touted as the side to make life exceptionally difficult for England and Ireland. Lastly, things surely can’t get any worse for France and Italy and as a result there will be at least one big game from one of them somewhere in the tournament.

While a Grand Slam is unlikely for any side, there should be fireworks and drama aplenty and a thrilling five weekends are in prospect. The opening set of fixtures sees Scotland travel to Wales in what should be a fast flowing game, especially if the roof is closed at the Principality Stadium to deal with the expected inclement weather. Ireland travel to Paris which traditionally has been an unhappy hunting ground for them despite the dramatic drops in quality of French sides in recent years. Finally England take on Italy in Rome on the Sunday, and while it should be an easy match to predict remember the drama that unfolded when the two sides met at Twickenham last year.

In short, there are no givens this weekend and we can’t wait for it to begin. So without any further ado, let’s get into the head to heads of some mouth-watering match-ups.

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, February 3rd
Cardiff

Both sides may be reeling from injuries, but there is still a sizable talent pool available to both teams that will make any matches featuring these two competitors worth watching. Scotland’s losses in the forwards are more than made up for in a remarkable set of backs. Where Wales has suffered injuries in some of their star quality backs, there is some genuine talent in the forwards that is going to make Saturday’s opening battle of the 2018 Six Nations a worthy curtain raiser for the tournament. Scotland in particular, despite their injury concerns, remain very much an outside title contender. A rip-roaring start to their campaign in Cardiff will do their confidence no end of good as preparation for their two tough encounters home and away, against tournament favorites England and Ireland respectively. Wales on the other hand have drawn the short straw in terms of fixtures and will need this home advantage start to really build some momentum ahead of a tough campaign on the road.

So let’s have a look at the match-ups on Saturday.

Front row

Scotland’s front row concerns, as a result of injuries, have been well publicized in the lead up to the tournament. Consequently it’s hard to see anything other than Welsh dominance here. While that may be the overall trend on Saturday, it is unlikely all to be the way of the Welsh.

Scotland will still be able to field a strong challenge, especially in the shape of Hooker Stuart McInally who has been consistently impressive in the PRO 14 with Edinburgh, but also put in a very good showing for Scotland during the November Internationals this year. We also like the look of Scotland’s Gordon Reid at loosehead prop. Reid is a strong competitor and the match up between him and Wales’ Samson Lee should provide plenty of sparks, even if Lee is the more practised technician.

However, overall Wales should have the clear edge here as they field a more balanced and experienced front row than the Scottish offering. Another exciting contest awaits off the bench in the shape of props Tomas Francis for Wales and James Bhatti for Scotland, with Bhatti in particular a name we think we are going to be hearing a lot of in years to come.

Second row

Much talk has been made of the absence of Richie Gray for Scotland, but to be honest we can’t say we really are overly concerned. His replacement Ben Toolis made a strong impression on us in November, and we fully expect to see more of the same during the course of the Six Nations. His partner, Jonny Gray, is without doubt one of Scotland’s best players and as a result Scotland are packing a fearsome unit. To be fair to both sides we think this is a completely even contest.

The Welsh offering of legendary lock and Captain Alun-Wyn Jones and Cory Hill is one to be reckoned with. Jones’ indestructibility, often for a full eighty minutes, as he leads his charges from the front has been well documented, while Hill has impressed and even got a surprise call up to the Lions this summer in New Zealand. Impossible to call here and both sides to be highly competitive in an even contest.

Back row

This is where Scotland starts to pull ahead ever so slightly, especially in the flanker department. John Barclay and Hamish Watson are absolutely world-class and were rightly two of the major talking points of the November Internationals. Barclay is a smart and feisty competitor while Watson is a complete wrecking ball even if he isn’t the biggest openside flanker out there.

However, Wales are not without their threats, though for the life of us given who they are up against, we are still scratching our heads over the incomparable Justin Tipuric starting the match on the bench with Aaron Shingler taking his starting spot. Nevertheless, Josh Navidi at openside flanker was one of our most promising Welsh players of 2017, even though at the age of 27 he is not exactly a stranger to the Welsh camp. A ferocious competitor possessing remarkable strength and an admirable burst of speed, expect Navidi to cause Scotland all kinds of problems on Saturday. Ross Moriarty at number 8 for Wales is also an impressive operator though we feel his form of late has dipped somewhat, and he can be liable to disciplinary lapses.

Meanwhile Scotland have Cornell du Preez who, provided he can remain injury free, is a force to be reckoned with and is frequently Man of the Match for Edinburgh. Some real power and threat will come from the benches for both sides in the shape of Justin Tipuric for Wales and Scottish number 8 Ryan Wilson. However, given the sheer composure, work rate and skill set of Scotland’s Barclay and Watson, we expect to see the Men from North of Hadrian’s wall dominate this aspect of the match on Saturday.

Half backs

Scotland continues to edge ahead here as they have one of the best units in this year’s Six Nations in the shape of scrum half Ali Price and fly half Finn Russell. Watch the footage of the November Internationals and Scotland’s performances against New Zealand and Australia, and you will see exactly what we mean. Finn Russell’s vision and unpredictability is becoming the stuff of legends, and Price’s frenetic but surprisingly accurate energy make for a lethal partnership. Also let’s not forget that we have Captain Reliable in the shape of Greg Laidlaw waiting on the bench for Scotland.

Wales have some real talent in the shape of scrum half of Gareth Davies who we actually rate higher than the injured Rhys Webb and he will be evenly matched against Scotland’s Price. However, Russell’s sheer genius is likely to eclipse Wales’ Rhys Patchell at fly half. Patchell is a promising prospect for Wales but is still very much a work in progress, compared to the proven commodity that Russell has already become. Scotland to comfortably run proceedings here on Saturday.

Centres

This is the strongest part of Wales challenge in the backs. Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes are skilled footballers, with Parkes in particular having some real strength and an eye for space. Parkes made everyone sit up and take notice against South Africa in Wales’ last Test of 2017 as the New Zealand born centre scored two fine tries. Williams can also turn in an electric turn of pace and the Welsh pair will likely test Scottish defences all afternoon.

However, Scotland’s Huw Jones has made such an impact on the kind of open running game Scotland wants to play, that he will pose one of the biggest threats on the park all afternoon. It’s his partner Craig Harris, who perhaps does not match up to the caliber of the Welsh challenge and as a result we feel that this is the one area where Wales can really try to establish some dominance in back play.

Back line

Plain and simple, this is Scotland’s contest hands down. Wingers Byron McGuigan and Tommy Seymour were absolutely outstanding in the November Internationals. To make things worse for Wales here, there is a certain individual by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback. One of the most dangerous and gifted backs in Test Rugby right now, Hogg is an absolute pleasure to watch and has X-factor written all over the front and back of his jersey. McGuigan was sensational on the wing against Australia in November and Tommy Seymour has been a consistent performer, and some of his linkages with Hogg have been sublime – just check the recent European Champions match between Glasgow and Exeter Chiefs for proof. Bring Sean Maitland off the bench and Scotland loses nothing in the strength of their attack.

Wales pack some enormous experience in the shape of fullback Leigh Halfpenny, whose return from France to ply his trade again in Wales has seen a real resurgence in his form. Add to that his prodigious point scoring abilities with the boot and Wales has few if any worries in this department. However, it is out on the wings where Wales look inexperienced, and despite his significant promise, we found Steff Evans to be too much of a defensive liability in the November Internationals. His partner Josh Adams is clearly a star in the making but a Test debut in the Six Nations is a pretty tall order, especially when trying to contain the likes of Scotland’s Byron McGuigan. In short, Wales will be brave here but ultimately outclassed.

Verdict

This should be a great contest, especially if the roof is closed in Cardiff due to the expected inclement weather, and a fitting opener to what should be a fantastic edition of the much-loved tournament. However, despite home advantage for Wales and some of the injuries plaguing Scotland’s selections up front, we still can’t help feel that it is ultimately going to be the Scots who have a better start to their campaign on Saturday. After November, Scotland’s tails are definitely up and they know they have the ability and cohesion to do some real damage over the course of the next seven weeks. With a back line and half back partnership that has the skill sets to make even the mighty All Blacks think twice, Scotland may just prove too much for a Welsh side battling their own injury woes and lacking the collective identity of their opponents on Saturday. Consequently we’re giving what should be a close match to Scotland by four!

France vs Ireland
Saturday, February 3rd
Paris

Although Ireland have traditionally struggled with success in Paris, we can’t help feeling that on Saturday it will be the French who have infinitely more to prove than their Irish visitors. A new Coach a mere two weeks before the start of the tournament, injury/fatigue problems right across their player base and a side which in all reality battles to produce more than 20 minutes of quality rugby in any given match of late have all made for a challenging start to France’s Six Nations campaign this year. However, after the opening few bars of “La Marseillaise” in Paris anything could still happen and consequently Irish Coach Joe Schmidt appears to have picked a strong side to cope with any eventuality no matter how unlikely. The sheer unpredictability of this match make it one which we think we know the result but like most will be crowded around our TV screens in nervous anticipation, especially when you consider that Ireland often get off to a shaky start in the tournament.

Front row

It’s not a bad French row, but by the same token it’s an outstanding Irish unit that they are up against on Saturday. France have a great Captain and Hooker in the shape of Guilhem Guirado, and despite his form perhaps not being stellar at club level, when he pulls on the blue jersey a menacing transformation tends to take place. His work rate is outstanding and he is one of the best leaders from the front in terms of galvanizing the rest of his teammates. At tighthead prop, Rabah Slimani is one of France’s most reliable weapons and consequently there is some real solidity and experience to France’s front row. However, for us the weak link in the chain is on the loosehead with Jefferson Poirot. Simply far too inconsistent for our liking and we ultimately feel that France is going to get bossed around here, especially with Poirot having to face up against probably the best tighthead in the game right now, Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong.

We can’t find any faults in the Irish selection, and as already mentioned the inclusion of Furlong alone is enough to have any opposition scrum Coach waking up in a cold sweat. Captain and Hooker Rory Best was on song for Ireland in the November Internationals, though questions remain around the consistency and accuracy of his lineout throwing. At loosehead prop the irrepressible Cian Healy is going to provide a battle royale with France’s Rabah Slimani. Healy has made a blinding return to form this year and seems to have got a hold of his disciplinary lapses of days gone by. This will be Ireland’s show to run on Saturday, especially when you look at the quality of Ireland’s bench in this department against the relatively untried and untested French offerings. There will be absolutely no drop in quality when Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin come on for Ireland.

Second row

We were delighted to see Ireland’s Jack Ryan get the nod here over the experienced Devin Toner in one of the starting lock positions. This is said in no disrespect to Toner, who is a fine player in his own right and is playing some of his best rugby at the moment. However, it is matches such as these where exciting new talent really needs to come to the fore with an eye to Japan. Ryan has been outstanding this season at Leinster and it is great to see the youngster get a start in such a crucial and weighty encounter. Add Ulster’s Ian Henderson as his partner and once again it should be a comfortable afternoon for Ireland in this department, with Devin Toner waiting in the wings to come off the bench.

It’s once more a solid French offering here, and we rate Sebastien Vahaamahina very highly with his partner Arthur Iturria showing plenty of promise. However, it just doesn’t have the same degree of spark and reliability that Ireland’s does, especially once the bench comes into play.

Back row

Once again France has some strength here, but the problem is they are up against an absolute powerhouse Irish back row. No matter which way you cut it, we have trouble seeing France being competitive here. Ireland’s contingent is the stuff of legends in the shape of flanker Peter O’Mahony and number eight CJ Stander, with these two turning in some phenomenal performances at Munster this season. Add Josh van der Flier at openside flanker and you have one of Irish rugby’s most promising young talents. To be honest we are happy to see the Leinster openside getting a start in place of the much vaunted but injured Sean O’Brien. We feel that van der Flier may well end up having a bigger role to play in Ireland’s World Cup campaign and consequently the more exposure he gets for Ireland in this Six Nations the better.

France have one of their best players in our opinion by a country mile in the shape of Kevin Gourdon at number eight. This is a very exciting player and expect to see him causing all kinds of havoc among the Irish defences on Saturday. However, from there the quality drops slightly in terms of the comparison with the Irish offering. As a result it’s a French back row that is going to struggle to get much traction on Saturday against a rampant Irish challenge. Flankers Yacouba Camara and Wencelas Lauret pack plenty of power but are not nearly as effective in the kind of all out scrap that the Irish unit is so effective at, especially in the loose.

Half backs

France have some experience in the shape of scrum half Maxime Machenaud, but together with the uncapped Matthieu Jalibert at fly half they are up against one of the best, if not the best, half back partnerships in Test Rugby – Ireland’s Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. The Irish pair boast a combined game management skill set that is second to none, and as a result we just can’t see France being even remotely competitive here. For France’s sake we hope to be proved wrong but somehow doubt it.

Centres

Apart from France’s Remi Lamerat, we just can’t see much to really trouble Ireland here. Lamerat on his day can be an exceptional centre, but by the same token can often disappear from matches. As a result, much like the French team, we are left wondering which version will show up in Paris on Saturday. His partner Henry Chavancy has put in some solid performances with Racing 92 this season, but overall France’s offering here lacks the power and pace of their Irish opponents.

Ireland by comparison have a unit that made the world sit up and take notice in the November Test against South Africa. Robbie Henshaw is now a standard selection at centre for Irish Coach Joe Schmidt, and when paired with debutant Bundee Aki against the Springboks in November, the two were devastatingly effective. The intensely physical Aki coupled to Henshaw’s vision and pace, make for a fearsome unit and one which should effectively run rings around the French all afternoon.

Back line

It’s France’s back line which rings the alarm bells for us. There is no shortage of talent there in the shape of wingers Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, both of whom are no strangers to the try line. However, defensively they remain a big concern for us and we have seen little in the last year to change our opinion. Add in an unproven fullback at Test level in the shape of Geoffrey Palis, and against a very slick Irish unit packing plenty of Test experience, we can’t help feeling it is going to be a very long day at the office for France here on Saturday.

While Irish winger Jacob Stockdale may not be packing much in the way of the experience we just talked about, his blistering pace as seen in the Test against the Springboks is something which is going to cause French defenses endless headaches. There are concerns around Stockdale’s defensive abilities, but you can be sure Coach Joe Schmidt took this into account when making his selection. A lot of work no doubt has been done in the training camps leading up to the tournament. Meanwhile Rob Kearney at fullback seems to have rediscovered the form that made him European player of the year a couple of seasons ago. Keith Earls has also once more stamped his authority on the right wing position and provided he can keep his discipline is likely to be one of Ireland’s most potent strike threats on Saturday afternoon.

Verdict

It’s France in France so ultimately there are always question marks as to what actually may transpire on the pitch Saturday afternoon. However, we just can’t help feeling that it is such an Irish master class taking to the field, that French Coach Jacques Brunel’s slightly cobbled together side is going to be hard pressed to turn the form books upside down. Consequently we’re handing this one to Ireland by 13 points, albeit nervously!

Italy vs England
Sunday, February 4th
Rome

It is unlikely that England will get caught off guard by Italian tactics to the extent they were at Twickenham in last year’s edition of the tournament. As a result as the opening shot in the Championship for both sides should have a distinctly English flavor despite proceedings taking place in Rome. Italy will want to make a statement that improvement from last year’s poor showing is definitely on the cards. However, to have to do it against tournament favorites in your opening match is a tall order even with home advantage. England meanwhile will want to come out of the blocks at full throttle and lay down the marker to the other teams that they will be the side to beat over the next five weekends. Despite the possible predictability of the result a fascinating contest still awaits.

Front row

England should be completely dominant here as they are fielding an exceptionally experienced and competent front row in the shape of props Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole, with Hooker Dylan Hartley as usual taking the role of Captain. Make no mistake it is a solid Italian front row and packs some serious experience with Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. Props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari have impressed this year in the PRO 14 so there will be a challenge here make no mistake. However, we just can’t seeing it overcoming the combined experience and technical proficiency of the English trio. With Jamie George waiting on the bench for England should Dylan Hartley’s lineout throws start going astray, then English dominance here should be assured.

Second row

England’s stranglehold on the forward aspects of this match continues in the lock department. Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury need absolutely no introduction, and are fearsome competitors who should be prime and effective targets in the lineouts. Italy’s Alessandro Zanni will ensure that England doesn’t have it all their way, but the English duo are such accomplished practitioners of their trade it is hard to see Italy having much say in proceedings here on Sunday in Rome. And yes there is a certain Englishman on the bench by the name of George Kruis who is likely to add insult to injury here.

Back row

While the Italian flankers, Sebastian Negri and Renato Giammorioli have had a fair amount of say in the Italian resurgence at PRO 14 level, it is still a huge step up to Test Rugby especially when you see the English trio they are going to be up against, even with the mentorship of the legendary Sergio Parisse at number eight.

England field Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw, who together boast a wealth of Test experience. Although Lawes usually plays at lock, his versatility has been demonstrated on countless occasions coupled to an intense physicality. His partner Chris Robshaw’s experience has no equal in the England camp, and at present is playing some of his best rugby without the burden of the Captaincy. It’s at number eight where we are expecting some real fireworks in the shape of Sam Simmonds. Although Simmonds traditionally plays at openside flanker for his side Exeter Chiefs, we rate him as one of England’s most lethal new prospects heading into the buildup to the World Cup. An absolutely ferocious and committed competitor we are expecting very big things from the 23 year old as the Six Nations unfolds.

Consequently given the calibre of what they are up against it is going to be very hard for Italy to gain any real traction here, even with Captain Fantastic Sergio Parisse rallying the troops at number 8. Italy will make a brave stab at being competitive but expect to see England running the show here on Sunday.

Half backs

We have to confess to being surprised that Carlo Canna is not in the starting fly half berth for Italy. However, though not perhaps of the same vintage as England’s offering, there is some real promise here. Tommaso Alan has impressed with Benetton Treviso this year and we have thought highly of the Italian fly half for a few years now. With Canna set to come off the bench as a replacement, Italy have some real depth in this position. The same can be said of the scrum half position, with us also being surprised at Marcello Violi getting the starting nod over Eduardo Gori. Once again though there is some real consistency here once the bench in the shape of Gori gets called in to play. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea clearly sees some genuine spark and promise in Violi and if his gamble doesn’t pay off then the tried and trusted figure of Gori will no doubt restore order.

Despite some positives here for Italy, it will still be hard for them to match the pedigree of the English opposition in the shape of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford. While the pair’s fortunes at club level with Leicester have dipped dramatically this year, there is still little question about their Test pedigree. Under Coach Eddie Jones tutelage these two have shone, and with Danny Care waiting on the bench for Youngs, this is a very solid platform for England. Expect these three to establish complete dominance for England in terms of game management on Sunday.

Centres

An exciting contest awaits here between Italy’s Tommaso Castello and England’s Ben Te’o. We think the English player will ultimately get the better of the match up but expect plenty of sparks in this part of the field, as Castello is one of Italy’s most promising new players.

However, the fact that Owen Farrell is occupying the inside centre berth means Italy’s fate is essentially sealed on Sunday. Still one of the world’s best, and forming one of the most lethal attacking axes in Test Rugby with his half back partners Youngs and Ford, expect to see Farrell almost effortlessly controlling the ebb and flow of play. With Jonathan Joseph on the bench for England, it could be a very long afternoon here for Italy. In addition, expect a very healthy tally of points from Farrell’s boot when required.

Back line

Lastly, England’s back line packs the pace and skill of wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson shored up by Mike Brown’s resolute graft at fullback. While Brown may have a temper that can potentially sound alarm bells when it comes to discipline, there is no question about his commitment to the cause and a work rate that is second to none. However, it’s the speed and elusiveness of May and Watson that is likely to cause the Italian defences no end of headaches on Sunday. Just trying to keep the two Englishmen in check for 80 minutes is likely to leave Italy with very little room to create attacks of their own. England also have the luxury of Jack Nowell on the bench, and the Italian defence coaches must be in a cold sweat even before proceedings get underway on Sunday.

Italy’s offering of Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini on the wings with Matteo Minozzi at fullback just doesn’t match up to what England is likely to throw at the Azurri in Rome. Even if these three are able to break through initial English resistance, the defensive capabilities of the English three are solid enough to shut down any potential threat here.

Verdict

Italy will be competitive make no mistake, but as a curtain raiser for their Six Nations campaign this is a pretty tall order. Consequently, this game may go horribly sideways for them leaving them to put it behind them and focus on more realistic targets later in the tournament. Nevertheless, expect plenty of vocal support in Rome and they may end up giving England food for thought, especially if England get off to a slow start as they did in their opening game of the November Internationals against Argentina. Still we can’t really see any major surprises taking place in Rome on Sunday. Consequently England should be comfortable winners by at least 15 points!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams. We also look at Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017. We also choose a player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 7 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how New Zealand fared.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was not the New Zealand we have been accustomed to seeing over the last few years, and as a result some may be surprised at us marking them so high. Nevertheless, the results still speak for themselves – 15 Tests, one loss, one draw and 13 wins. While they may have looked shaky at times and far from their ruthless best, they still ended the year as the team everyone still wants to and needs to beat. Although some of those wins may have been close, there is no getting away from the fact that the All Blacks are still the best in the world at closing out big games. They remain the ultimate 80 minute team and as a result it is going to take a very special team to beat them with any degree of consistency. New Zealand also managed, more than any other team in International Rugby in 2017, to determine what kind of depth they had in their talent pools to the point where they can consistently field two world-class match day 23 man squads. Something most Coaches can only dream of!

New Zealand got their year off to a flying start with a warmup match against Samoa prior to the much-anticipated Lions Tour in June. Samoa had no answers to a completely clinical performance from New Zealand that saw them pick up from where they left off in 2016.

The Lions Tour was eagerly anticipated by rugby fans around the globe, ourselves included. While some may question the validity of Lions Tours in an increasingly professional age, there is no doubt that they remain a huge draw as one of the sports most intense spectacles. With French rugby very much in disarray these days, Lions Tours are very much a case of the best in the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere’s big 3.

New Zealand started the series well with an emphatic win in the opening Test. In the second Test a red card against Sonny Bill Williams for some reckless and dangerous play, saw the All Blacks have to play with 14 men for the last hour of an intensely physical battle. The Lions played their man advantage well and despite some superb play by New Zealand, the All Blacks would record their first loss on home soil since 2009. As a result it was all to play for in the third and final Test. We’ll probably be still debating the result of the last Test which for many ended in an unsatisfying draw, which also meant the series was drawn between the two sides. However, what a Test match it was! New Zealand would be the only side to get across the whitewash, but some heroic defence by New Zealand would be just enough to keep a Lions side away from the try line despite some intense pressure from the Northern Hemisphere tourists. It was a thrilling contest but one which also showed that as good as New Zealand are the rest of the world is starting to catch up fast.

The Rugby Championship saw New Zealand really experiment with new players and combinations. Consequently, while they may not have looked as polished as we are accustomed they still managed to finish the Championship unbeaten. In the opening match against Australia, they blew the Wallabies away 40-6 by half time. However, they appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half which allowed the Wallabies to come blazing back into contention. The next Test in Dunedin, saw the Wallabies come charging out of the blocks and catch New Zealand completely off guard. The All Blacks were clearly rattled and struggling to find their rhythm against a Wallaby team growing in confidence. Once more though it was those final twenty minutes where New Zealand once more showed how good they are at turning the tide in their favor. With Australia leading by one point and two minutes to go, New Zealand struck the killer blow and stole a win that had looked far from certain.

Their next two matches at home to Argentina and South Africa, saw them get a comfortable win against the Pumas and a record victory against their greatest traditional rivals the Springboks. Their initial difficulties in asserting any kind of control over proceedings as seen in the second Test against the Wallabies were repeated in the game against the Pumas. Argentina got the better of the All Blacks in the first half and found themselves 16-15 ahead at half time. New Zealand looked out of sorts in the opening exchanges and made a host of uncharacteristic errors. Again though they settled into their groove in the second half, and once they hit their stride left the Pumas behind as mere spectators in the match for the final twenty minutes. In doing so, they put some spectacular new talent on show that served to demonstrate how much depth there really is in New Zealand as they start to look towards the World Cup in Japan in 2019.

It was the match against South Africa, where the New Zealand we are all used to seeing showed itself once more. The All Blacks destroyed the Springboks in a clinical display for a full eighty minutes. While it was a poor performance from South Africa, the ruthlessness with which New Zealand took the Springboks apart was breathtaking. South Africa were simply allowed no purchase whatsoever on the game, and as the final whistle blew the Springboks found themselves on the wrong end of a 57-0 scoreline.

New Zealand then headed out on a road trip that would see them away from home for almost two months. They travelled first to Australia to finish the last of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches. Although they had won the Cup, they seemed unprepared for the ferocity of the Australian challenge in Brisbane. Australia were the more aggressive of the two sides and their defence was outstanding. Despite a concerted onslaught by New Zealand, as we have come to expect from them in the final twenty minutes, the All Blacks just couldn’t get the extra points needed to snatch victory at the death.

They arrived in Europe and at times looked weary. In their first proper Test against France there were moments where they looked less than polished despite ultimately recording a comfortable win by 38-18. Once again though the French caught them napping in the first twenty minutes of the second half, and it was only some stellar defence from the Men in Black that put the brakes on a rampant French challenge. It was the Test against Scotland where they perhaps got their biggest scare of the year. In short, Scotland were the better side especially in the second half and it was some last gasp defence in the dying minute of the match that saw New Zealand deny Scotland a historic win. New Zealand’s last effort of the year against Wales, saw them looking tired but not overly troubled by a courageous Welsh challenge. In the end it was a comfortable win for the All Blacks to end a year in which they had tested the depth of their resources. Coach Steve Hansen and Kiwi supporters were clearly pleased with the results of their research.

It had been a roller coaster ride for New Zealand in 2017 with some very close shaves at times, but overall they came out of the whole process looking in fine mettle despite the disappointing result of the Lions series. There is depth across the park in most positions and their individual skill levels remain off the charts. Add to that some outstanding new talent that seems to have bedded nicely into the side in 2017, and it has clearly been a productive year for the All Blacks.

However, structurally New Zealand are clearly not as tight as they have been in seasons gone by. Furthermore, opposition sides are catching up to them at a rate of knots as we draw closer to the World Cup in Japan in 2019. Questions also remain about depth in the fly half position. There seems to be no clearly defined understudy to the current holder of the number ten jersey Beauden Barrett for New Zealand. This has been compounded recently by the most likely candidate Lima Sopoaga leaving New Zealand to play in England and thus making him ineligible for the World Cup. With Aaron Cruden also departed to France and faced with the same restrictions, Coach Steve Hansen’s conundrum over this position is no clearer. Given that this is such a key position in New Zealand’s overall game plan the lack of clarity here must be a concern. Even if there is a plan brewing, there is alarmingly little time to finesse it with just over 18 months to the World Cup.

In conclusion, they are still the side who everyone else will measure themselves against, but there are some vulnerabilities that will need to be addressed during the course of 2018 as New Zealand fine tune their player base for the World Cup.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – September 17th – Albany – New Zealand 57/South Africa.

South Africa may have been poor, but they were still riding the wave of confidence that five wins on the trot will give a Test side. New Zealand’s brutal dismantling of that confidence was incredible to watch. It was a complete performance that left Springbok rugby as a whole in tatters. It is this kind of clinical ruthlessness that still makes New Zealand so difficult to beat especially if they build up a healthy lead in the first quarter. Playing catchup rugby against the All Blacks is never going to work. When, as in this match, New Zealand completely deny the opposition any kind of traction in the game whatsoever then it is breathtaking to watch. If New Zealand address some of the concerns they exposed during the course of 2017 expect more scorelines like this in 2018!

Player of the year – Beauden Barrett

His goal kicking may have been erratic on occasion this year, and at times he didn’t quite have the polish of his 2016 season, but there is no denying that Barrett had an enormous say in New Zealand’s impressive win rate in 2017. On more than one occasion it was his vision and skill set that would dig the All Blacks out of a tight corner. Even with some of his mistakes this year, he is still arguably the best fly half in Test rugby. His ability to remain calm under pressure and create something out of nothing is second to none. Expect more of the same in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Rieko Ioane

New Zealand’s find of the year in 2017! From his debut in the first Lions Test, the winger lit up the pitch and continued to do so for the rest of the year. As a result he made the once phenomenal Julian Savea fade into relative obscurity. Blessed with some dazzling feet and deceptively strong and difficult to bring down, Ioane is going to be causing opposition defences nightmares in 2018!

We end this report card with highlights from New Zealand’s epic 57-0 drubbing of the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. South Africa may have been poor but New Zealand’s sheer technical competence and skill level was a sight to behold. We expect to see more rather than less of this kind of performance in 2018, as the experimentation New Zealand underwent in 2018 translates into a more finished product. The rest of the world has been warned!

To be continued in July – up next Italy!

 

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 6 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how Australia fared.

Australia – 6/10

Not the easiest year for Australia with some real lows at times, but also one in which the side showed some genuine character and made some solid progress from 2016 , a year which the Wallabies like the Springboks would for the most part want to forget. While both sides were clearly in transition this year, Australia by the end of it has had a lot more success in developing a clear idea of where they are going and how to get there. The situation was not helped by the chaos surrounding the state of domestic rugby in Australia, but despite this the team managed to rise above the distraction and achieve some memorable results, most importantly their first win against the All Blacks since 2015, and in doing so ended a seven match losing streak against New Zealand. Unfortunately their season started on a low with a loss to Scotland at home, and the misery of this defeat was compounded when they were annihilated by the Scots at Murrayfield in their last Test of the year. However, in between there had been some moments where this Wallaby side showed some real character in adversity as well as the nucleus of an exciting team that can start to focus on the challenge of the World Cup in eighteen months time. In short, while Coach Michael Cheika and his charges have plenty of work to do between now and September 2019, this past year demonstrated that he is fortunate in having a fairly solid foundation to work with.

Australia’s season got off to a rough start as they looked out of shape and relatively unprepared for what lay ahead of them in a three match series at home in June which saw them get wins over Fiji and Italy, but lose to Scotland at home for the first time in history. In their opening match against Fiji they looked sluggish particularly in the second half and struggled to contain a Fijian side growing in confidence. Next up was the historic defeat to Scotland who simply outplayed them physically and mentally in a close match. Australia redeemed themselves against Italy, but once more at times struggled to contain the Italians in an error strewn performance. The Wallabies reflected on their opening rounds of 2017 with more than just a little concern as they headed into the Rugby Championship. Their defense was a shambles and poor discipline and execution seemed to continue to haunt them as a hangover from 2016.

The Rugby Championship was up next and while Australia may not be overly pleased with the fact that they only won two matches and finished a distant second place well behind New Zealand and only a point ahead of South Africa, they can take heart from the fact that some real character was discovered in this Wallaby side during the course of the tournament. Furthermore, their skill set in defence and attack underwent a complete transformation since the June Tests, and Australia once more demonstrated that they are able to produce some of Test rugby’s most gifted and exciting backs in the vein of Wallaby sides of old. The opening match against New Zealand saw the Wallabies play probably the worst 40 minutes of rugby they have played in a long time as a rampant New Zealand side led 40-6 at half time. The second half however could have not been more different. Australia came back onto the pitch at full throttle and proceeded to run in three superb tries in the space of ten minutes. Their defence tightened up, and despite the final scoreline of 54-34 to New Zealand, Australia were clearly back and meant business.

The return fixture the following weekend against the All Blacks in Dunedin, was one of the Wallabies best performances all year. The Wallabies had essentially been written off leading up to the match, especially in Dunedin which is a notoriously difficult ground on which to claim an All Black scalp. They then proceeded to turn the form book on its head by dominating New Zealand and scoring three outstanding tries in the first 15 minutes. For the rest of a thrilling Test Match the lead alternated between the two Trans Tasman rivals in a ten try epic. Australia took the lead with four minutes left on the clock but New Zealand once more showed why they are still the best at closing out big games at the death. Australia were gutted but left the field knowing that they had made a statement to the rest of the world that the Wallabies were back as a world class side.

The rest of the Rugby Championship was a frustrating experience for the Wallabies as they would beat Argentina comfortably twice, but experience two frustrating draws against the Springboks. As a result although they finished second they will be disappointed by the fact that they were so far behind New Zealand on the points table.

It was the third and final Bledisloe Cup match before they headed to Europe for their end of year tour, that really showed how dramatically the Wallabies had managed to turn themselves around in the space of a mere three months. An extraordinary Test match unfolded that left all of us on the edge of our seats till the final whistle. It was a solid performance from Australia that kept the All Blacks at bay till the end. Once more there was some silky back play from the Wallabies that was reminiscent of the glory days of the Campese era. The Wallabies were well deserved winners in a very hard-fought match, and it was a much-needed confidence boost for a team that had struggled to rise above the ugly distractions affecting the domestic game all year.

Australia’s end of year tour however took a lot of the shine of what was looking like a promising rebuilding process. Nevertheless despite the disappointments there is no denying that Australia will have learnt a lot from the tour, and have found a squad that boasts some world-class talent once it starts to click consistently. They dispatched Japan comfortably, but were taken aback by a Welsh side that pressed them hard. Once more the Wallabies’ fitness levels looked suspect as fatigue set in and with it, annoying breakdowns in discipline. One of the most anticipated Tests of the year against England, saw the Wallabies start to crack. Although they played some superb rugby at times especially in the first half, they simply could not break the English defence. The sheer toll of throwing themselves repeatedly at England was clear to see as the English began to pull away and Australian defences struggled to keep up. England walked away comfortable winners 30-6.

Australia sought redemption and revenge against Scotland after their defeat in June, but sadly put in their worst performance of the year as the Scots simply ran rings around them in the second half. Out of gas and out of ideas, Australia limped out of Edinburgh and onto the plane home with much to think about.

The two losses to Scotland and the one to England were clearly the low points of a season that ultimately proved to be a mixed bag for Australia. However, despite that they played some of their best rugby for a long time against their traditional rivals New Zealand and in the process put some outstanding talent on show. Australia are blessed with some of the best backs in Test Rugby right now who are only going to get better. Add to that the fact that they once more have a competitive scrum and some exceptional forwards, then it is surely only a question of time before they are once again reckoned to be serious contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan in 2019. If Australia can continue to improve their discipline and find solutions to the questions lingering over their depth in the scrum and fly half positions, then this is clearly a very dangerous side once more on the rise. We very much doubt that we’ll be giving them such a low score when we revisit this process at the end of this year.

Match of the year – Australia vs New Zealand – October 21st – Brisbane – Australia 23/New Zealand 18. The match that finally broke the Wallabies seven match losing streak to New Zealand was a classic, and saw the Wallabies hang on to the very end to snatch a long overdue win. It was a tense match that showed both skill and character from a very composed Wallaby team and one which signaled a return to the type of performances we’re accustomed to seeing from Australia.

Player of the year – Reece Hodge. Given the displays by Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau this year for the Wallabies, you might be surprised to see us hand this recognition to Hodge. However, for us it was his overall value to Australia at key moments that makes us give him top honors. Ferocious in defence and lethal in open space with ball in hand, the Australian utility back was a real asset to the Wallabies in 2017. His ability to boot the ball between the posts from some incredible distances, saved Australia’s bacon on more than one occasion in a year where their regular kicker Bernard Foley was off target with alarming regularity.

Player to watch in 2018 – Marika Koroibete. The Rugby League convert turned heads from the first time he pulled on a Wallaby jersey this year. While there were some questions around his defensive abilities we are fairly confident these will be sorted as the 2018 season unfolds. However, it was his pace, strength and speed with ball in hand that made us sit up and take notice in every match he played for the Wallabies last year. We expect to see Koroiboite as one of Test Rugby’s leading try scorers in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from the Wallabies best performance of 2018, the third and final Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane. If they play like this consistently in 2018, then come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time they will clearly be in it to win it!

To be continued – up next New Zealand!

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”.We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends. 

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 5 where we once more head South of the Equator and take a look at how South Africa fared.

South Africa – 4/10

While it may not have been quite as bad as 2016, it wasn’t really much of a year to get excited about for Springbok supporters as once again it highlighted that this is a team with more questions than answers. Inconsistent and at times completely bereft of any sort of game plan, were the two overriding impressions of South African rugby in 2017. While the players must also take some responsibility for this, once more the finger of accusation points at the coaching setup and its inherent weaknesses, coupled to a glaring lack of cohesion and synergy between Coaches and players. There were some high points this year that gave us a tantalizing glimpse of what this team could be, but they were simply too few and far between to leave anyone with much confidence in the Springboks being able to pose a serious threat in a World Cup a mere eighteen months away. Much needs to change and there is alarmingly little time left on the clock in which to do it.

On paper it doesn’t look that bad, 6 wins out of 13 matches, including two draws and five losses. So why the doom and gloom you ask? It’s the nature of those losses that really got alarm bells ringing, especially the record losses to New Zealand and Ireland. Furthermore in both of the draws against Australia during the Rugby Championship, South Africa could and should have won as well as the truly epic second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town.

South Africa started their 2017 campaign well, in a three Test series against a visiting French team. The euphoria that surrounded their clean sweep of the series against France, has to be tempered by the fact that French touring sides of the last six years or more have always been of notoriously poor quality. Nevertheless, for the first time since the last World Cup the Springboks played with intent and purpose and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. Several players really stood out and despite the deficiencies of a weak and clearly dispirited French side, the Springboks looked like a team reborn, leaving their supporters with a new-found sense of optimism. There was plenty of pride and passion in the jersey and unlike 2016 it was a team that looked like it had finally figured out what kind of rugby it wanted to play.

Next up it was the Rugby Championship and even though the Springboks then followed their success against France with a further two wins against Argentina in the opening two rounds, the Pumas themselves were also rarely gracing the front pages this year. Once more the Springboks new-found heroics had to be taken against the caliber of their opposition. This was made painfully obvious as South Africa headed out on the road to play New Zealand and Australia. South Africa have struggled on the road in recent years and this year has sadly proved no exception to the rule. Their opening away game against New Zealand was one of the worst Springbok performances many of us have had the misfortune of watching in the last 30 years. In an inept performance, in which to say that the Springboks looked clueless would be putting it politely, New Zealand subjected South Africa to their worst defeat in history as they were blanked 57-0. South Africa then recovered themselves against Australia drawing with the Wallabies 23-23. However, lapses in concentration and discipline coupled to some poor execution and an aimless kicking game which seemed to focus on kicking away valuable possession for no visible gain at key moments, saw the Springboks lose a game they should have won.

On their return to South Africa for their final two home games of the Rugby Championship, South Africa found some redemption in the match against New Zealand. However, the opening fixture against Australia in Bloemfontein showed no improvement in the key areas which tripped them up in the first Test against the Wallabies two weeks previously, and once more a highly unsatisfying draw at 27-27 was the inconclusive result. It was the final match against New Zealand in Cape Town where the Springboks produced their best performance of the year, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular who singlehandedly personified the passion and legacy of the Springbok jersey in a superhuman effort. Given that the Springboks had essentially been written off prior to the match, it was a heroic effort from a team that seemed determined to turn things around and restore some much-needed pride to the Springbok name. South Africa may have lost by one point, but they had the All Blacks on the ropes for the full eighty minutes in what was for us one of the most epic Test matches of 2017.

South Africa then headed to Europe for their end of year tour in November. Buoyed by the performance against New Zealand in the final game of the Rugby Championship, their opening fixture against Ireland was one which many anticipated eagerly. Sadly though it wasn’t to be. Once more the Springboks took ten steps backwards and produced yet another inept and chaotic display of rugby which made them look clueless and sadly lacking in the basic skills needed at Test level. Ireland dominated the match from start to finish in a clinical display that saw South Africa suffer their worst ever defeat to the Men in Green by 38-3. Much like the 57-0 drubbing they received at the hands of the All Blacks a few months earlier, it was painful and embarrassing to watch if you were a Springbok supporter. They once more found some redemption in their match against France a week later, but it was a less than convincing display which in all honesty they were lucky to win by a mere one point at 18-17. Next up they took on a shambolic Italy in exceptionally poor conditions, and the scoreline of 35-6 in favor of the Springboks didn’t really tell us much about whether or not much improvement had really been made by South Africa. Both the French and Italian games were torrid spectacles in which South Africa simply battered both teams into submission physically. Neither match showed much inventiveness from South Africa in attack, in stark contrast to the French who seemed to have plenty, and the glaring deficiencies of South Africa’s current crop of backs were there for all to see. If it hadn’t been for South Africa’s exceptional physical presence in the forwards there would have been little to write about. In their final match against a weakened Welsh side, South Africa laboured through to ultimately lose yet another game they could and should have won. In short Wales were poor but South Africa were worse. Most of the team looked as though they were simply fulfilling a contractual obligation and just wanted yet another humiliating season to end, so they could all get on the plane and go home and try to regroup for next year.

So the renaissance that was the French series at the beginning of the season, and which left so many of us hoping that South Africa were finally back with a vengeance has sadly ended up being yet another false dawn. South Africa did produce one truly epic Test match against the All Blacks in Cape Town but to be honest that is the only time we really felt that this was a team that had really turned a corner. However, a month later in Dublin we were once more were left speechless as South Africa put in a performance that was so far removed from the Cape Town spectacle that it was hard to believe that the same players had produced such heroics. South Africa really does have some truly world-class players from 1-8 but sadly that is where it stops. Names like Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi will continue to impress for South Africa and keep us glued to our TV screens, but their backs are beyond average and while their half back combinations may shine in Super Rugby they simply can’t seem to reproduce that success at Test level. The ongoing issues around Coaching seem no further ahead to the point that there seems such a blatantly obvious discord between players and coaches it is hard to see how any training or planning can actually take place. As a result the Springboks continue to appear confused as to their identity in terms of game plan and the type of rugby they want to play. Lastly, a poor track record away from home continues to haunt them allied to a desperate and aimless kicking game when their backs are against the wall. This only serves to put them under even greater pressure which causes the team dynamic to fall apart even more, and with it their discipline.

While 2017 may once more have painted a rather depressing picture of where this once proud rugby nation is at, we still prefer to remain optimistic. Hopefully there will be some much-needed change in 2018 at the Coaching level which will do much to fix many of the issues plaguing South African rugby at the moment. World Rugby without a strong Springbok side is a poorer playing field and we really hope that the glimpses we saw of this once fiercely competitive side in the second Test against the All Blacks this year will become the norm again for 2018. We accept that South Africa is perhaps cursed with a highly complex layer of politics overriding the natural development of the game and the national side, but there is still no denying that South Africa is still a global powerhouse of rugby talent and as such it is only a matter of time before it once more takes its rightful place at the highest level of International Test Rugby.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – October 7th – Cape Town – South Africa 24/New Zealand 25. As mentioned above this was South Africa’s best performance of the year by a country mile, and for us one of the top three Tests of 2017. It was a powerful and thrilling contest that had us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes. South Africa were simply superb and Hooker Malcolm Marx personified the legend of the Springbok jersey in a performance that was superhuman in nature. Simply outstanding and a match that has been kept for posterity on our PVRs. If South Africa could play like that every time they take to the field then we would be having a VERY different discussion about their chances come the World Cup in Japan in eighteen months time.

Player of the year – Malcolm Marx. While he may have had problems with consistency this year, when he did bring his A game, the Springbok hooker was probably the best number 2 on the planet in 2017. A ferocious competitor who proved exceptionally difficult to contain or bring down in any kind of space, while at the same time producing some of the most spectacular turnovers of 2018 for his team, Marx personified everything that South African rugby needed in terms of a renaissance. If coached properly we expect the Hooker to rapidly rise to the very top echelons of his trade in 2018. Marx is a truly exceptional player and expect him to once more be one of the key talking points in South African rugby in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Daniel du Preez. The versatile back rower impressed throughout 2017 every time he took to the field, much in the same way as did his older brother Jean-Luc. However, for us Daniel du Preez typifies the new look versatile and dynamic South African loose forward. Elusive, hard to bring down and possessing a phenomenal work rate, players like du Preez and Siya Kolisi are bringing so much imagination to the traditional smash and bash role of South African forwards. Expect to see du Preez get more spots in the starting XV in 2018 than as an impact player off the bench, a role he performed so admirably in 2017.

We end this report card on a positive note for South Africa with highlights from their best game of the year – the second Test against New Zealand in Cape Town. It was an epic performance and as we have said repeatedly throughout this piece one of the best Tests of the year. It had everything a great Test match should have, and considering that the Springboks played such a huge part in making it the spectacle it was, there is plenty of life left in the Springbok jersey yet. Down but definitely not out is our overall verdict on the Springboks for 2017 based on this performance. Here’s hoping for plenty more in 2018!

To be continued – up next Australia!

As always we start the New Year looking back over the past twelve months and handing out our verdict on the top ten teams, as well as Canada, and a first for this year the USA and Georgia. We try to figure out what they got out of the year on a score out of ten. We start off in the Americas looking at our own backyard, then move South of the Equator to the “Big Three”. We then journey back North in July to look at the Six Nations Competitors as the Northern Hemisphere season ends.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2018. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2017 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2018. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 4 where we take a look at how Georgia fared.

Georgia – 8/10

We have to admit that here at The Lineout, Georgia have become our favourite Tier 2 team. This is a side that just keeps getting better ever year and has to be one of the most committed and passionate units out there. Their development programme leading up to next year’s World Cup in Japan appears to be bearing plenty of fruit, and expect this outfit to be able to hold their own in a very tough pool next year, so much so that a quarter-final place is certainly a realistic ambition for them.

Georgia can feel exceptionally pleased with the results from their eleven matches this year. 8 wins and 3 losses, one of them by a mere 1 point is an impressive track record. Georgia got their 2017 campaign off to a solid start in the Rugby Europe Championship, though they will have been gutted to not win the tournament finishing a strong second as the result of their agonising 1 point loss to their main European rivals Romania. The match against Romania was their only real slip up as they simply dominated the rest of the opposition in no uncertain terms.

Brimming with confidence they headed to the Americas in June for a tough three match series against Canada, the USA and finally Argentina. The seriousness of the threat posed by Georgia was reflected in the fact that Argentina essentially fielded a full strength squad to contain the men from the Caucasus. Georgia completely outplayed Canada and then put in a gritty performance to seal a hard-fought win against the United States. They may have lost their final match against a strong Pumas outfit, but to their credit never looked like quitting and ultimately dominated the final quarter of the match scoring two fine tries, allowing them to leave the pitch with their heads held high despite the 45-29 scoreline in favor of the hosts.

November saw Georgia get two home Tests with a trip to Wales in between. Playing Canada once more, but this time in the highly exuberant and passionate atmosphere of Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, Georgia put in a performance that completely marginalised Canada. It was a glorious and skillful display of running rugby and highly physical and suffocating defence. Fullback Soso Matiashvili’s extraordinary try in the 68th minute was, for us, one of the best of the year by any team. Georgia just looked exceptionally well-drilled and polished and were a joy to watch. Georgia took that committment to Wales where they stood up well to the challenge they faced in Cardiff. While the match lacked much of the spectacle we have come to expect from them and was one of the year’s worst Test matches, this was not the fault of Georgia. At times Georgia had Wales on the ropes and one could argue that it was slightly cynical albeit legal tactics from Wales that saw the Welshman get an edgy win. Georgia ended the year on a high note as they returned to Tibilisi and held off a remarkable US comeback in the second half. However, they will surely be reviewing the tapes of that match to see how they let the USA so comprehensively back into the match after completely dominating them in the first half.

In short a remarkable team that is clearly well coached and highly motivated. Despite the presence of some remarkable individual talent, they play exceptionally well as a team and all of their matches this year reflected this quality. Discipline still remains an ongoing bugbear for a team as passionate as this, and in the heat of the moment it did trip them up a few times this year. However, compared to Georgian sides of old they have dramatically improved in this area. It is our hope that they continue to get the exposure they so clearly thrive on in 2018 and remain firm in our belief that they have the ability to spoil some of the big teams’ parties in 2019 in Japan. Consequently we will be watching them with a great deal of interest this year and strongly recommend you do the same!

Match of the Year – Georgia vs Canada – November 11th – Tbilisi – Georgia 54/Canada 22. While it may have been painful for us here in Canada to watch this match, we have to admit to thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of a Georgian team on fire as they completely outclassed the Canadians in front of a very vocal and rapturous home crowd. Georgia were outstanding right across the park and a joy to watch. It was this kind of performance that really showed what a classy outfit they have become. The calls for their inclusion in the Six Nations are only going to keep getting louder if they keep putting on displays like this.

Player of the year – Mikheil Nariashvili. He may not be the most graceful player out there but his work rate is off the charts. Tackling anything that moves he is ferocious in defence and five metres from the opposition line is a player teams find very difficult to pull down. The Georgian loosehead prop is a great scrummager and exceptionally dangerous in any pileup of Georgian bodies. Embodying all the best traits of Georgia’s very physical brand of rugby, Nariashvili will continue to be in the headlines for the Lelos, as they are known locally, in 2018.

Player to watch in 2018 – Soso Matiashvili. Yes we’ll admit that we are giving this distinction based primarily on that remarkable try the Georgian fullback scored against Canada in November. It was extraordinary and deserves to be recognised as such. More importantly though it recognises the fact that Georgia can now not only play a highly physical forwards based game, which has been their trademark for so many years, but now also possess some highly dangerous and silky backs to add even more fire to their attacking abilities. No longer is Georgia a one-dimensional team. Add to this a fairly reliable kicking boot and we’ll be looking to Matiashvili to continue to make his mark on this Georgian side in 2018.

We end this report card with highlights from their best game of the year in our opinion. As mentioned above their second match against Canada at home in Tbilisi was a fantastic display of Test rugby at the Canadians’ expense. Georgia weren’t just good they were amazing! It is this kind of display that will keep us glued to our screens every time they play in 2018.

To be continued – up next South Africa!