Yes it’s that glorious time of the year again, as the Northern Hemisphere’s showpiece tournament, the Six Nations, is about to get underway. In a World Cup year, this is probably going to be one of the most exciting and difficult to call Six Nations we’ve seen in a long time. So here’s the Lineout’s first attempt to offer up a few predictions on what looks set to be five glorious weeks of thrills, spills, twists and turns. So let’s start with the opening rounds this coming weekend.
Wales vs England
Friday, February 6th
Of all the teams in this year’s tournament, England are most likely the team facing the greatest pressure to perform. After last year’s roller coaster ride which saw more heartache than happiness for England this is a team desperate to prove to the world and its supporters that not only is it the finished product, but more importantly one that can string together a strong set of performances in tough matches and thus be considered a genuine contender to lift the Webb Ellis trophy at Twickenham this October. England’s dream to finish this year’s Six Nations would be a Grand Salm, but such is the quality of the opposition this year that as I said last week, I would consider a Grand Slam this year by any of the teams as HIGHLY unlikely.
Therefore England’s objective this year is to finish first at any cost. Their main rival this year for the silverware will be Ireland, but if things go the way of the Welsh in the tournament opener in Cardiff on Friday night then expect it to be a three horse race for first this year. As a result England must start their Championship this Friday in Wales with an epic performance. Unlike Ireland who have a relatively easy start to the tournament, England get thrown in at the deep end. Wales will be in a similar position to England having had a poor 2014, and only one significant win in the Autumn tests. Therefore expect these two sides to go at it hammer and tongs.
Unfortunately for England, without the presence of Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan in the forwards there is a good chance that Wales will be able to absorb much of England’s ferocious forward power for much of the game. With England still struggling to find the right combinations through 9-15, this is the area where Wales may in front of a home crowd get the edge over the English on Friday night. England most likely will use George Ford at fly half and if England coach Stuart Lancaster has any sense he will continue to develop Ford’s confidence and exceptional ability in all five of England’s 6 Nations matches this year. While Ford may lack Test match experience his composure under extreme pressure in England’s last match against Australia must have given every England supporter great hope for the future, especially given Owen Farrell’s rather erratic performance last year. However, despite this I can’t help feeling that the superb Welsh partnership of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar will give Wales the edge over their still slightly experimental English counterparts. Couple this with a proven Welsh back line and Leigh Halfpenny shoring up your last line of defence, and I think Cardiff may well be just beyond the reach of England on Friday night. However, either way I think we are in for a cracker of a match with England just being edged out by a Welsh team egged on by a fanatical home crowd.
Italy vs Ireland
Saturday, February 7th
Ireland, the other main contender for this year’s Six Nations’ silverware get a slightly more gentle start to their campaign in Rome. Despite, the absence of Johnny Sexton at fly half, Ian Madigan should serve as a more than capable understudy against an Italian side that although unlikely to cause any upsets will still make Ireland work hard, especially in the first 40 minutes spurred on by a very boisterous Roman crowd.
Ireland’s forward pack alone boasts enough quality to ensure that Italy will be comfortably contained. As evidenced against South Africa however this Italian side proved very effective at frustrating the Springboks especially for the first half. If the Italians can manage to do this again, expect a very close score line with relatively few points on the board, especially if both sides can keep their discipline.
In the second half, however I expect to see Ireland pull quickly away, leaving the Italians frustrated and giving away penalties. By the second half Madigan should have found his feet at fly half and how to work with the sensational Conor Murray. Between the two of them they should easily be able to unlock the Italian defences, as the Irish forwards bulldoze through their exhausted Italian counterparts, leaving Ireland’s back line to work its magic.
So a fairly slow and gritty start to this one as Ireland find their groove and work some new combinations, while Italy attempt to make a bold statement of intent. Ultimately, though the second half should open up dramatically for Ireland, leaving them sitting atop a healthy score line which will prove invaluable once the Championship starts to come down to points differences later on.
France vs Scotland
Saturday, February 7th
Call me bold but I think this is where the upset of the weekend awaits. Despite having to start their campaign away from home, this is a Scottish side very fired up for this one and carrying some real form from the November Internationals. The French on the other hand are a team full of promise but lacking consistency and amongst their newer stars there is also a lack of big Test match experience. So yes I’m putting my money on Scotland for this one.
What Scotland have this year which they have lacked in the past is the ability to score tries and what’s more tries with a dash of flair. Back in November, Greg Laidlaw showed some impressive tactical skills both at the breakdown and with the boot, which allowed an increasingly impressive Scottish back line to work some real magic at the end of 2014, the games against Tonga and Argentina were excellent examples of this. Add to this the wrecking ball partnership of the Gray brothers, and French coach Philippe Saint-Andre must be feeling more than a little nervous about France’s Six Nations curtain raiser.
What France do have however is probably one of the best emerging fly halves not just in Europe, but in International Rugby in general in the form of the superb Camille Lopez. Add to this the potentially lethal partnership of new talent Teddy Thomas and Scott Spedding and France are still a smoking gun not to be underestimated. In addition, with the legendary figure of Thierry Dusatoir leading the troops in an emotionally charged Stade de France desperate for a rallying point and something to cheer about in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings -this match already has the makings of a classic.
However, I still can’t help feeling that as difficult as the task is ahead of Scotland on Saturday, it is a settled Scottish side brimming with confidence in their newfound abilities who will triumph over an exceptionally talented and emotionally charged French team but one which is still unsure of themselves and how to effectively work together. It will be close and there will no doubt be some spectacular tries, but Scotland in my opinion should emerge the victors.
So on that note, an exceptionally exciting weekend should lie in store for rugby fans. Let’s hope we’re not disappointed and this weekend sets the tone for what should be one of the best Six Nations for years to come!