Although the debates have raged North and South of the Equator as to which Hemisphere plays a better brand of rugby, there can be no denying that as one of the oldest and most prestigious rugby tournaments in the world, the Six Nations, kicks off this weekend the excitement is palpable. If last year’s epic tournament is anything to go by then the tedious, defensive slugfests of old are surely a thing of the past. The last weekend of last year’s tournament, provided many of us with one of the most frenetic action packed Saturdays of rugby that most of us can remember in a lifetime. In three matches that Saturday almost two hundred points were scored as rapturous fans screamed, wept and poured countless pints of beer on the floor in their excitement in pubs and bars across Europe and around the world for that matter. The Southern Hemisphere may ultimately still have the benchmark brand of rugby to beat but there is a genuine attempt taking place to shift Northern Hemisphere rugby into the high-octane zone. Whether your heart lies in the North or the South when it comes to rugby there is no denying that the sense of history, pride and passion on display in the Six Nations is hard to equal and for that reason alone it is a tournament that many of us cherish and eagerly look forward to every year. As much of the Northern Hemisphere seeks to rebuild after the shell shock of the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations is potentially one of the most open in years making it almost impossible to predict the outcome. Indeed, the only sure bet that the Lineout crystal ball gazers can come up with is that none of the six countries will pull off a Grand Slam this year.
A new look and highly anticipated England and France take to the field, while back to back champions Ireland seek to rebuild after the shock of their World Cup humiliation by Argentina. Ireland are also seeking to weld together a new look side without the talismanic figure of former Captain Paul O’Connell but one which boasts a genuine wealth of emerging talent. Wales and Scotland if anything appear to be the most settled of all the sides and their World Cup heroics must surely have given them confidence. Scotland in their heartbreaking loss to Australia have shown they have the talent, while Wales incredible grit and determination in the face of an injury list from hell showed us the depth and courage of their side. Perhaps Italy is the only side whose prospects are far from encouraging despite the leadership of their extraordinary Captain Sergio Parisse. With Parisse on the field Italy can be capable of miracles but with the management of Italian rugby in serious transition and already depleted resources in terms of injuries to a player base lacking in depth, Italy will struggle to avoid lifting the Wooden Spoon this year. Having said that though write Italy off at your peril and as mentioned with Parisse leading the troops especially at home an upset is always within the realms of possibility.
While it is almost impossible to predict who will walk away with the spoils this year, there are three things that we are fairly certain of at the Lineout. Firstly, no country will achieve a Grand Slam. Secondly, we are pretty confident that it will be Wales and England duking it out for top honors. Lastly, France, Ireland and Scotland will all be battling hard to establish themselves in the middle of the pack while Italy sadly are left to pick up the wooden spoon.
In short a tournament to be genuinely excited by as we watch all six countries start to lay the foundations for the next global showdown in Japan in 2019 and attempt to lay down a marker that on any given Saturday the Northern Hemisphere can start to produce the kind of expansive rugby that will make their Southern Hemisphere rivals sit up and take notice. There’s still a way to go in terms of catching up but the will has never been stronger. So without any further ado let’s have a look at how this glorious tournament will shape up on it’s opening Saturday, starting with France vs Italy.
Fixtures this weekend
France vs Italy
Saturday, February 6th
Put your hand up if you’re not expecting any surprises tomorrow in Paris – we’re certainly not. Of the three fixtures this weekend this is by far the easiest to call. Sure it’s a new look France under a new Coach, but it’s also a new look Italy under a fairly disinterested Coach making his way to the exit signs. As French clubs along with their English counterparts have dominated Club rugby in Europe this season while Italian clubs have failed to make any kind of impact whatsoever, France should emerge comfortable winners on Saturday.
This new look French side post the nightmare experience that was the World Cup a mere four months ago, boasts some exciting talent and on paper should be able to give any of the Six Nations competitors a serious run for their money. While there is a healthy dose of new faces, there are also many that are familiar, the key here is will new French Coach Guy Noves and former Toulouse boss be able to maintain a settled side with this mix of youth and experience and settle the combinations? His predecessor Phillipe Saint-Andre had no consistent selection policies whatsoever meaning that there was rarely any continuity whatsoever from one French outing to the next and France paid dearly for his constant tinkering. Italy meanwhile boast a host of new faces that show plenty of promise but the lack of experience may simply be too much of a mountain for them to climb this year, despite being led from the front by one of the best Number 8s and Captains in Test Rugby, the indomitable Sergio Parisse.
Up front France should have the clear edge over Italy. Eddy Ben Arous, Gulheim Guirado and Rabah Slimani need no introduction whatsoever, whereas their Italian counterparts are for all intents and purposes an unknown quantity at Test Level. France should easily push Italy around in the scrums and expect to see plenty of scrum penalties going the way of Les Bleus. France’s prowess in the front row should be also matched in the lineouts especially if Yoann Maestri really starts to fire. The battle of the backrows should be slightly more of an even contest however, as Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto are not exactly strangers to Test Rugby and with Sergio Parisse behind them they should be able to challenge French efforts here. Parisse is a well documented force of nature for Italy and can inspire his charges to produce miracles. However, his opposite number Louis Picamoles for France is also one of the most bruising loose forwards in International Rugby at the moment and was one of the very few players who made a difference for France at the World Cup. Meanwhile Damien Chouly should be more than a match for Zanni in the back row. As a result, on paper the forward battle is going to be unequivocally in France’s favour.
In the halfback pairings plenty of questions abound but from Italy’s point of view, I feel it is the right call to give Carlo Canna the fly half berth over Kelly Haimona despite Canna’s lack of experience. As readers of this blog know I have little if any faith in Haimona and if Italy is to build for 2019 then they need to start the process now. It is unlikely that they are going to challenge for any real honors in this Six Nations but their younger players have a golden opportunity to gain some valuable experience in one of the most unforgiving competitions in international rugby. As a result, I think it is a wise call and Canna may stumble on Saturday at times but he will surely grow in confidence as the tournament progresses. Eduardo Gori at scrum half for Italy is a promising player and works hard at trying to capitalise on any opportunities provided by his forwards. However, as in the forwards battle France should clearly have the edge here. Toulouse’s Sebastien Bezy at scrum half for France has been one of the few things to get excited about in Toulouse’s European campaign this season. Fast, elusive and a master of crisp offloads his exuberance will be exceptionally difficult for Italy to contain. Meanwhile Jules Plisson at fly half has shown plenty of promise despite his form being erratic at times. Despite his diminutive size Plisson does not shirk from the physical contact areas and when this young fly half is on form, as we have seen at Stade Francais on occasion this year, he adds some real excitement to any attack. His kicking may be less than accurate at times and it is here that France may struggle, but then Italy’s Canna has also shown problems with nerves in this area as well.
It’s in the backs just as with the forwards, however that France clearly has the edge over Italy. Guy Noves has taken a big risk with playing French Sevens superstar Virimi Vakatawa on the wing. It’s always a gamble to thrust a sevens player into the full fifteen a side game, but Vakatawa is such a force of nature that it is probably worth the risk. If he gels into the larger game, then he could be almost unstoppable and will cause defences endless nightmares. Gael Fickou and Jonathan Danty are proven center commodities provided they click for France and should easily have the edge over their Italian counterparts. Italy’s Leonardo Sarto on the wing is an impressive commodity and stood out in both Italy’s Six Nations and World Cup campaigns but I fear too much weight will be placed on his shoulders on Saturday as his team expects him to perform miracles. Lastly, in the fullbacks France fields the experienced and always exciting Maxime Medard up against Italian newcomer David Odiete. Odiete will learn a lot on Saturday but the Frenchman is likely to provide him with endless headaches.
In short, I doubt there will be any surprises on Saturday. Italy will take a much needed step on the road to life after Coach Jacques Brunel, while France should hopefully start their new life under Coach Guy Noves with a bang and plenty of flair. A comfortable win in the end for France with them taking the spoils by 20 points!
Scotland vs England
Saturday, February 6th
I have to confess to finding this to be the hardest game of all to call this weekend. Of all of them I think it will be the tightest and certainly the most enthralling of the three contests. If you only get to watch one this weekend, then this is probably the one to go for. Put aside all the hype surrounding this match and you still have a battle of epic proportions on your hands with both sides having everything to prove. Scotland will want to make a statement that their heartbreaking loss to eventual World Cup runners up Australia was no fluke. Meanwhile, England will need to show that their disastrous World Cup is well and truly behind them and that this is a side who will be able to go toe to toe with the world’s best day in day out till the next global showdown in Japan. Of the two, the pressure is probably more on England, but in front of a Murrayfield crowd desperate for the success they know Scotland should be capable of, Vern Cotter’s men will certainly be feeling the heat as well. As new England Coach Eddie Jones has his first outing in charge of England he will find himself under one of the most unforgiving microscopes in International Test rugby. His Captain Dylan Hartley will find himself under the same scrutiny, especially as his selection has raised more than a few eyebrows, even if many grudgingly agree that he lends an edge to the England squad that they have sorely missed over the last few years provided he can keep his emotions and thus discipline intact.
Scotland run out probably the most competent side they have fielded since the last time they tasted success in this tournament, almost twenty years ago in 1999. There is no question that this is an exceptionally exciting and competent Scottish side. While Scottish fortunes in European Club Rugby have been up and down so far this year, weld all these exceptionally talented individuals together into one team and under the expert guidance of Coach Vern Cotter and you suddenly find yourself up against a very formidable unit. Put all the hype aside and England are rightly describing Saturday’s contest as a baptism of fire for both Eddie Jones and his rebuilt England.
Up front it is going to be an epic battle and I have to confess to giving it to Scotland. Scotland’s W P Nel is an exceptional prop and while Scotland and England both have solid front rows, for me England’s Joe Marler is a real weak link, thus giving Scotland the edge. Quite frankly I think Nel is going to make Marler’s life a misery and as a result Scotland should gain dominance in the scrums with the boots of Laidlaw, Hogg and Russell making every penalty count. In the locks it should be a very even contest between Scotland’s Gray brothers and England’s Joe Launchbury and George Kruis. Johnny Gray is outstanding and consistent but his brother Ritchie can have moments of inconsistency. Therefore, I’m giving England the edge here. In the back row, I’m swinging the battle back in Scotland’s favor. John Barclay and John Hardie are superb talents and the latter is a devastating tackling machine. Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have plenty of experience but when it comes to the edge required at this level I think the Scottish pair has it in bucket loads. In terms of the contest between Scotland’s David Denton and England’s Billy Vunipola, the latter’s experience should see him get the better of the Scot in England’s favour. However, Denton was a revelation last year at the World Cup and expect more of the same in this tournament and as a result Vunipola will have to raise his game for the full eighty minutes.
The halfback contest should be fascinating. Scotland’s Finn Russell at fly half and Captain Greg Laidlaw at scrum half have quickly developed into a settled and effective unit. Indeed, Laidlaw’s composure under pressure is key to Scotland’s growing confidence. Russell’s youthful exuberance sometimes lets him down in terms of execution and his relative lack of experience can sometimes be a liability when the going gets tough. England’s George Ford at fly half was a revelation in last year’s Six Nations with the exception of the match against Ireland, but this form has clearly deserted him this season at Bath. He seems to play differently in an England shirt and it is hoped that Eddie Jones can bring out the best once more in this talented player. I must confess to being surprised at the selection of Danny Care at scrum half over Ford’s usual half back partner, Leicester’s Ben Youngs. Given Youngs’ form at Leicester this season and the fact that he and Ford work well together in an England shirt, with Ford’s lack of confidence at the moment, I was surprised to not see them paired together. As a result, if Finn and Laidlaw can keep their composure and outsmart their English counterparts I am giving the halfback contest to Scotland by the smallest of margins.
It’s in the backs where I actually feel Scotland has the edge, especially in front of a home crowd. If they can put aside the hype and not worry too much about living up to expectations and just go out there and focus on the task at hand, Scotland’s attacking threat is potentially lethal. England’s backs are equally as dangerous and if they were playing at Twickenham I would give them the edge. The big question here is given his outstanding form at Saracens, how much of an X-factor is Owen Farrell going to be at center, instead of his normal club position at fly half? I personally think he is more effective at fly half than center, but paired with Jonathan Joseph he could really make a difference. Scotland’s center offering of Mark Bennett and Matt Scott is an equally exciting prospect with Bennett being one of Europe’s form players at the moment. However, when it comes to the X-factor I think England might just have the edge here. However, out on the wings if they get good ball and the crowd behind them, then Scotland simply on home advantage if nothing else should get the edge in the shape of Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland. England’s Jack Nowell is an exceptionally gifted player and Anthony Watson can light up a pitch on any given day, but erratic form this season at club level so far from him, and the fact that they are playing away from Fortress Twickenham means that I am just giving the nod to Scotland on the wings. Lastly, at fullback an epic contest awaits between English bulldog Mike Brown and Scottish terrier Stuart Hogg. Hogg is devastating with ball in hand while Brown’s sheer tenacity and guts are a force to be reckoned with. If this match were being played at Twickenham I would give the battle of the fullbacks to Brown, but as it is being played in Murrayfield I am handing it to Hogg provided he can keep his wits about him. As gifted as Hogg is, his decision making has sometimes let him down and provided he keeps calm under pressure I expect him to light up the field for Scotland and make some of those scintillating breaks that have become his stock and trade.
For Scotland to win this match they will need to build up a commanding lead in the first three quarters to the point where England’s better quality bench will be forced into playing catch up rugby and all the mistakes that come with such pressure. The quality on the English bench in the shape of Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Alex Goode and Paul Hill speaks volumes about what this English side is capable of. If the match is close as the bench starts to get used expect to see England quietly pull ahead. Scotland packs some formidable figures in the shape of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir and Blair Cowan on their bench but it just doesn’t have the same weight and depth as England’s. That being said I am actually sticking my neck out and giving the game to Scotland by the smallest of margins. Scotland by 2 in a cliff-hanger right to the end! Expect the noise to be quite deafening at Murrayfield on Saturday and this should drive Scotland to a solid lead going into the second half. England will power their way back into the match and put the Scots under the most intense pressure and it is likely to look like England’s day as the crowd hangs on the referee’s final whistle. However, Murrayfield as the sixteenth man should just and I emphasise just see Scotland home by a whisker. Either way strap yourself in – we’re in for a cracker!
Ireland vs Wales
Sunday, February 7th
Six Nations champions for the last two years, Ireland are seemingly up against it this year while Wales along with England look to be the side to beat. Much to the probable ire of Irish supporters, and to be fair remember I’m one of them, I can’t help feeling that Wales must surely be the favourites on Sunday in Dublin. Ireland sadly look a shadow of the glory days of the last two years and without talismanic Captain Paul O’Connell they just don’t seem to have the drive and edge necessary. I say that with no disrespect to new Irish Captain Rory Best who I think is a superb choice and will provide Ireland with solid leadership especially as he grows into the role. Furthermore, the linchpin of much of Ireland’s success in the last two years, fly half Johnny Sexton, has not exactly looked his best this year. Injuries and more worryingly repeated concussions are seeming to take their toll on one of Ireland’s most gifted players as Sexton has struggled to find his rhythm on his return to Ireland after a stint with Racing Metro in France.
Wales on the other hand after a World Cup that saw some epic performances from the Men in Red, are on fire. Despite an injury list from hell, they showed perhaps the most grit and determination of any side in the World Cup as well showing the world that there is some serious depth to Welsh rugby. Coach Warren Gatland is as always a controversial figure, but whether or not you like the man you have to admit that he knows how to get the best out of his charges in most encounters. Dan Biggar is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most exciting fly halves and seemed to possess a GPS guided set of boots at the World Cup. His half back partner Gareth Davies at scrum half has rapidly established himself as a try scoring machine. In the forwards, lock partners Justin Tipuric and Captain Sam Warburton seemingly possess super-human qualities in attack and defence while the sight of lock Alun Wyn-Jones barrelling his way through defences has become the stock of YouTube tribute videos. This is a very complete and settled team boasting a healthy sprinkling of young and emerging talent. Without a doubt one of, if not THE team to beat in this Six Nations.
As a result, an Ireland in transition are going to have their work cut out for them on Sunday in Dublin despite the Aviva faithful being in full voice. Up front Ireland will be competitive but the Welsh front row should have the edge. The battle will be close but Ireland’s weak link could prove to be Nathan White. In the locks department there simply is no contest when you are up against someone like Wales’ Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris. The towering form of Ireland’s Devin Toner will pose a threat but his form has not been consistent in the last year, and the same can be said of his partner Mike McCarthy. So despite Rory Best’s efforts expect to see Wales dominate the lineouts. In the back row there is a slightly more interesting match up on offer. While once again I expect to see the Welsh have the advantage here in the shape of Tipuric and Warburton, Irish supporters must surely be taking heart in the possible development of a partnership of CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell in the back row for the long-term. I was very impressed with O’Donnell in last year’s Six Nations till he was ruled out with injury and he was sorely missed in Ireland’s World Cup campaign. Now eligible to play for Ireland, South African CJ Stander has been about the only thing to get excited about at Munster this season and the battle between him and Wales’ Warburton should be fascinating. However, on sheer experience and ability I am still giving the contest in this department to Wales. Lastly, at number eight, Jamie Heaslip is a quality player for Ireland but has failed to really stand out at Leinster so far this year. Wales’ Taulupe Faletau put in some superb performances for Wales in the World Cup and expect to see more of the same in the Six Nations and as a result he should get the better of his Irish counterpart.
In the halfbacks contest I feel that Wales actually have this signed, sealed and delivered. Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is not quite finding his rhythm whereas his Welsh counterpart is rapidly becoming a highly sought after commodity in International Rugby. Irish scrum-half Conor Murray is a quality player but has had a completely lacklustre season with Munster so far this year. Wales’ Gareth Davies on the other hand lit up the World Cup and I see no reason for him to stop doing so in the Six Nations. If the partnership of Sexton/Murray fires, then it can completely turn a game for Ireland but based on present evidence I can’t really see it happening and as result expect to see the Welshmen running this aspect of the game more effectively than Ireland.
In the backs, I must confess to being slightly perplexed by Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections. Jared Payne has looked really solid at fullback for Ulster this season, while Ulster center Stuart McCloskey has been one of the revelations of the European Champions Cup. Schmidt has chosen to play Payne at center and McCloskey doesn’t even get a spot on the bench. I am assuming that perhaps Schmidt knows something we don’t but I have my doubts. Furthermore, Simon Zebo has a dazzling set of skills on attack but traditionally has a weak defensive game and putting him as Ireland’s last line of defence over Payne is something I fail to understand and I can’t help feeling may cost Ireland on Sunday. On the wings both teams have quality and it should be a relatively even contest. Ireland’s Andrew Trimble has looked good at Ulster after a return from injury and Keith Earls put in a good performance for Ireland at the World Cup. However, despite Wales’ George North being relatively quiet at Northampton when cut loose he is still one of the world’s most exciting wingers. New Welsh cap Tom James has looked good with Cardiff Blues and as a result given North’s pedigree I am giving the nod to Wales on the wings. Wales center pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts is quality through and through boasting plenty of power and pace and should give Wales the clear advantage in center field. Ireland’s Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw seem to be Schmidt’s preferred choice at center, despite my reservations that the former should be at fullback. I still feel that Henshaw should be partnered with the absent McCloskey as the way forward in terms of a future for Ireland in the centers. Lastly at fullback, this could go either way. However, as much as I would have preferred to see Payne at fullback, I am actually giving Ireland the nod here. Gareth Anscombe hasn’t really impressed me in a Welsh shirt and despite his occasional defensive lapses, I am giving Ireland’s Simon Zebo the upper hand in the battle of the fullbacks. Zebo’s experience and remarkable skill and flair on attack is streets ahead of Anscombe’s and if he can keep his head in defense, Ireland should have the edge here.
In short a potentially exciting battle awaits. In many ways Ireland have everything to prove as the clear underdogs in front of a home crowd desperate to see the pain of the World Cup banished from memory. Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt and his opposite number and fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland are two of the most streetwise coaches in world rugby. Despite the poor results of Irish sides in the European Champions Cup this year, with the exception of Ulster, an Irish side welded together by Schmidt is always capable of having some tricks up its sleeve and Sunday should be no exception. It will be close at times but I can’t help feeling that a more settled and accomplished Welsh side will ultimately start to pull away in the last quarter. As a result, Wales to take this by 10! As a positive for Ireland though, it may give some players a real chance to shine while opening the doors to the likes of notable omissions like Stuart McCloskey for the rest of the tournament. It’s a tough start for Ireland’s rebuilding process and ultimately a test that they may not pass but in the process should learn plenty to the lay the foundations for the future. Ireland may be down but they are a long way from being out. Just as Australia has risen from the ashes in the space of a year I fully expect to see Ireland do the same. Therefore, whatever happens on Sunday for Ireland I doubt it will be considered the end of the world and expect to see plenty of glimmers of what they could look like in the future. As for Wales they are on a roll and England will no doubt be watching this game with just a hint of trepidation as they see what lies in store for them in a month’s time.