This year’s highly anticipated Six Nations Championship looks set to offer a much closer competition than last year. The addition of a bonus point system and the fact that all six competing nations have improved dramatically since last year’s tournament, is likely to mean that last year’s Grand Slam winners England are in for a potentially rough ride this year as they seek to defend their title. While England still remain favourites to lift the trophy, potential banana skins lie in wait in the form of all the Home Nations and France. Ireland are clear challengers to England’s supremacy and as a result a Grand Slam this year is highly unlikely for any team. France and Scotland are exciting dark horses, and Scotland in particular possesses enough X-factor especially in their backs to ruin anyone’s party. Wales have enough talent to be a serious threat to any team especially at home, however, it remains to be seen how much interim Coach Rob Howley can really get out of his charges, as the November Internationals raised more questions than answers in that regard. Lastly Italy start their first Six Nations under new Coach Conor O’Shea but know they still have an uphill battle despite a historic win over a poor Springbok side in November. Either way we should see a tournament that provides a real roller coaster of a ride and one of the best Championships in many a year and one which should rival the thrills and spills of the 2014 edition!
Scotland vs Ireland
Saturday, February 4th
The first of two mouth-watering fixtures in what promises to be an exceptionally entertaining and at times closely fought Championship sees Scotland take on Ireland at home in Murrayfield. Scotland looked very good indeed during their recent November Test series despite yet another heartbreaking loss to Australia. Ireland were also impressive during November, after a disappointing Six Nations earlier in the year, with the historic win over New Zealand in Chicago being one of the highlights of the 2016 season. Scotland’s back line has exceptional pace and firepower, while Ireland possess a powerful forward pack that has some devastating ball carrying abilities in the loose. Both these teams provide plenty of excitement and Saturday’s encounter should be one of the highlights of the 2017 Championship.
As mentioned above Ireland bring a daunting forward challenge to this contest and one which Scotland will be hard pressed to contain for a full eighty minutes. The battle of the front rows will be key, but we feel that here Ireland are just packing far too much power and experience compared to Scotland’s spirited offering. Ireland’s front three of veteran prop Jack McGrath, who is playing some of his best rugby at the moment and was one of the Irish giant slayers in Chicago, should get the better of his Scottish opposite Zander Ferguson. That being said we have been very impressed with Ferguson and expect him to give McGrath a run for his money. Ireland’s other prop Tadh Furlong was outstanding in Ireland’s Autumn series and is going to give his opposite number Scotland’s Allan Dell a torrid time in the scrums. Captain and Hooker Rory Best’s 100+ cap experience should see him get the better of Scotland’s feisty, but relatively inexperienced by comparison, Fraser Brown. In the second rows, despite Ireland’s talent in the shape of Devin Toner and Ian Henderson, Scotland’s Gray brothers are in our opinion, the more dangerous offering. Jonny Gray has been phenomenal this year for Glasgow and Scotland and his older brother Richie is a tried and tested commodity. These two are going to highly destructive in attack and a powerhouse in defence so should give Scotland the edge here. In the back rows the pendulum should swing firmly back in Ireland’s favor. With flankers C J Stander and Sean O’Brien Ireland has destruction written all over the park, with outstanding newcomer Josh van der Flier waiting on the bench to add to the mayhem. Scotland’s Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson are no slouches themselves but are unlikely to eclipse their Irish counterparts. At number eight Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is currently playing out of his skin and is likely to make life very hard for his talented Scottish counterpart Josh Strauss. It’s going to be very hard work up front, but despite a hearty Scottish challenge this is one area of the park we expect to see Ireland assert some real dominance.
One aspect of Saturday’s contest that we are really looking forward to is the battle of the fly halves. Ireland’s scrum half Conor Murray is one of the best in the world right now, and we feel he will be more than a match for the reliable but conservative Greg Laidlaw of Scotland, though once exciting newcomer Ali Price comes off the bench for Scotland we expect to see the tempo ratch up a few notches. At fly half, youngsters Paddy Jackson of Ireland and Finn Russell of Scotland have been consistently exciting to watch in the last twelve months. However, it is Finn Russell’s sheer X-factor versus Paddy Jackson’s physicality and accuracy which should set up a fascinating encounter. Having said that though we still feel that the Irish pair offer a slightly more cohesive and dynamic unit.
It’s that Scottish set of backs however, which will be ringing all of Ireland’s alarm bells on Saturday. Winger Tommy Seymour and fullback Stuart Hogg scored some of the best tries of last year’s tournament and new centre Huw Jones set the pitch on fire last November against Australia. Meanwhile Centre Alex Dunbar and winger Sean Maitland are dangerous attacking threats in their own right. The Irish centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and newcomer Gary Ringrose who so impressed in November, is an equal force to be reckoned with especially alongside winger Simon Zebo who possesses some real dazzle of his own if given the right opportunities. For us though the jury is still out on Irish winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney. Kearney seems to be rediscovering some of the form that made him one of Europe’s best a few years ago and he put in an impressive performance against the All Blacks in Chicago. The live wire for us is Earls. Brilliant on his day but also an occassional liability in terms of discipline, his performance on Saturday could go either way. Consequently by the slightest of margins we are just giving the contest between the backs to Scotland, but are really hoping to see plenty of fireworks from both sides here.
This should be a superb opener to one of the most highly anticipated Six Nations in a long time. Both teams pack plenty of punch with the ability to play an expansive running game at pace. We also feel that with names like prop Cian Healy, lock Ultan Dillane and Irish sensation of 2016, flanker Josh van der Flier, Ireland’s dominance up front once the respective benches get called up should be assured. It should be exceptionally close, and Scotland are more than capable of spoiling Ireland’s day especially at home, however we can’t help feeling that Ireland’s experience, composure under pressure and sheer forward power will see them emerge the winners by four points!
England vs France
Saturday, February 4th
One of the classic encounters of any Six Nations tournament, “le Crunch” match is always eagerly anticipated, and this year is no exception. France this time last year, emerging from the four-year nuclear winter of the Philippe Saint-Andre era, were still in a state of disarray under new Coach Guy Noves. However, by the time the November Internationals rolled around we were starting to see a very different French side and one which was able to give New Zealand a serious run for their money. England meanwhile need little if any introduction after their remarkable exploits of 2016. Starting the year as World Cup disasters and ending it unbeaten after a 14 match winning streak including a Six Nations Grand Slam was a remarkable achievement. Despite suffering some injury setbacks along the way, England still remain a veritable force and without doubt are the team to beat in the Northern Hemisphere. France will have few if any illusions about the enormity of the challenge of trying to break England’s winning streak at Fortress Twickenham, but this is a French side looking capable of some of the glory days of old. While it is still unlikely they’ll cause an upset on Saturday, France are likely to make England work exceptionally hard to avoid one.
Based on their exploits in 2016 and with, despite their current injury list, the resulting experience contained in England’s starting XV for Saturday, it is hard to not hand them the win outright, especially up front. The front row however should be an even contest. With both Captains going head to head in the shape of England hooker Dylan Hartley and his French counterpart Guilhem Guirado there is little if anything to choose between the two sides. It’s at the edges where the battle becomes more complex. English prop Dan Cole should get the better of impressive French youngster Cyril Baille but the collisions between England’s Joe Marler and France’s Uini Atonio could end up being a wild card. Atonio’s sheer bulk will be very difficult for Marler to contain. However both props have suffered from poor technique and discipline at times in the scrums to the point where they could simply cancel each other out leaving it to Cole to swing the balance in England’s favor. Once you get to the second row however, England’s dominance stands out by a country mile in the shape of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina is a rising star, but we feel his partner Yoaan Maestri’s form can be erratic at times. In the back rows, we actually feel that France possess a better overall unit, but the sheer all round ability of Maro Itoje across the park gives England a slight edge. His back row partners of Tom Wood and newcomer Nathan Hughes at Number Eight are no slackers but we actually feel that French flankers Damien Chouly and Kevin Gourdon allied to the exceptional Louis Picamoles as eighth man is a very powerful unit indeed, and were it not for the sheer presence of Itoje would probably get the better of England. However, with Itoje in the mix England should just be the masters of a very tight contest here.
In the half backs it should be England’s day once more, though we have to confess we really like the potential offered by French scrum half Baptiste Serin after his outstanding performance off the bench against New Zealand in November. However, despite their misfortunes at club level this year, England scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford still seem to work exceptionally well together in an England shirt. French fly half Camille Lopez can be spectacular when he is having a good day, but when he is off the boil France end up having a very long day in the trenches. Consequently it is the sheer reliability and consistency of the English pair that should allow the Men in White to dictate play here on Saturday.
It’s in the backs where once more we feel England should pull away from Les Bleus despite the Frenchmen having some serious gas of their own. The English centre pairing of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph is world-class and a tried and tested commodity. Allied to Ben Youngs and George Ford England possess a dangerous and highly effective strike axis. France’s offering of Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat provides plenty of potential X-factor but is not quite the settled unit that England’s is. Once again on the wings we can’t help feeling that when it comes to execution and composure under pressure England should once more have the advantage in Jonny May and Elliot Daly. France’s Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci possess some blistering pace with the former being almost impossible to bring down at speed, but their ball skills are just not quite up to the speed at which they try to play the game at times. The battle between England’s Mike Brown and France’s Scott Spedding at fullback should be an entertaining contrast of styles. Brown’s ability to be all over the park and getting under the opposition’s skin and rattling their nerves is renown. Meanwhile Spedding’s impressive physicality and monster boot make him a force to be reckoned with. It’s Brown’s sheer bulldog in your face tenacity however that is likely to be more effective in upsetting French composure and which should see England have the more effective back play especially on attack.
Both sides are packing impressive benches with a healthy sprinkling of new talent, although perhaps more so for England in this aspect. However, when England’s bench boasts names like flanker James Haskell, scrum half Danny Care and winger Jack Nowell you know it is in safe hands. Nevertheless the Test experience present on France’s bench is just that little bit more in the shape of the superb prop Rabah Slimani, flanker Loan Goujon, scrum half Maxime Machenaud and winger Yoann Huget. Still it is the ability of the English three to really make an impact when the chips are down that leads us to hand the battle of the benches to England.
This should be a good old scrap worthy of “le Crunch” matches of days gone by. However, we can’t help feeling that England at home go into this far more settled and composed than the French. England’s massive confidence boost that came from their unprecedented success in 2016, means that England should ultimately pull away from a French side still trying to find their rhythm – England by 12!
Italy vs Wales
Sunday, February 5th
In recent years, and especially if last year’s opening encounter with France was anything to go by, Italy’s first game of the Championship is often their best. They are fortunate in starting their campaign this year against Wales at home in Rome. However, that is about as far as their good fortune goes as we have to confess to being slightly puzzled by new Coach Conor O’Shea’s starting lineup for this match. While the bench is impressive we can’t help feeling that Italy may simply pay too dearly in the opening exchanges for it to ultimately have much of an impact on Italy’s fortunes which could be in serious trouble come the final quarter. Wales are struggling with demons of their own, particularly under interim Coach Rob Howley and a November Test series where Wales appeared to have to work far harder than they should have given the talent they have at their disposal. However, there are some real giants of the Northern Hemisphere game in this Welsh squad and even at home Italy are going to have to pull out all the stops to just simply keep them in check, let alone remain in reasonable sight of the scoreline.
There is nothing wrong per se with Italy’s front row, but we just can’t see it matching up to Wales especially in the shape of Hooker Ken Owens and prop Samson Lee. From there Italy’s woes look set to continue unless we are very much mistaken as the second row contests shape up. The Italian second row and lineout will boast the presence of Marco Fuser who we like, but when you are up against the likely Captain of the Lions tour to New Zealand later this year, Welshman Alun-Wyn Jones, it will be a tall order for Italy and we must confess to being surprised at Joshua Forno starting on the bench for the Azurri. The same confusion applies to the decision of having Italian flanker Francesco Minto out of the starting XV. We may be mistaken but we simply don’t see Italy’s starting flankers Maxime Mbanda and Braam Steyn being a match for the likes of Wales’s Sam Warburton and, in our opinion, one of Wales’s best players Justin Tipuric. Regular Italian service resumes at number eight with one of European rugby’s most inspirational players Captain Sergio Parisse. However, Ross Moriarty for Wales was one of the few real standout players for Wales in the Autumn Tests so a battle royale awaits here. Consequently on paper, barring any surprises Wales should have overwhelming authority in the forward battles in Rome on Sunday.
Once you progress to the half backs Welsh dominance should continue. While they may not have had the best Autumn series, Wales’ Dan Biggar at fly half and scrum halves Rhys Webb and Gareth Davies provide considerably bigger guns in terms of game management than Italy’s Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna. The Italian pair show some real promise for the future but for now it is still much more a work in progress than the Welsh offering.
In the backs Wales are simply streets ahead of Italy and we cannot for the life of us understand exceptional Italian centre Michele Campagnaro, who has taken the English premiership by storm this season, starting on the bench. A Welsh back line boasting the talents of wingers George North and Liam Williams is to be feared and Italy’s raw recruits are going to battle to contain these two. Add the wrecking ball centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams and it is going to be a long day at the office for Italy on Sunday. With seasoned veteran Leigh Halfpenny shoring up the Welsh defences at half back and offering his exceptional boot when needed, Italy’s troubles would seem complete. We have to confess to not knowing too much about Italy’s backline offering apart from left winger Giovanbattista Venditti who can be impressive and the centre pairing of Luke McLean and Tomaso Benvenuti. Venditti and Benvenuti can offer some solid attacking prowess but it’s just not of the same power and intensity as the Welsh. As for McLean we can’t help feeling that he is just a tad overrated and as already mentioned simply cannot understand him starting instead of Campagnaro. Add to this an overwhelmingly superior and experienced Welsh bench and sadly Italy may end up having more than just tough time keeping in touch of the score line.
Italy will come to this match with plenty of spirit and heart and hopefully make it an entertaining contest. However, the sheer prowess and proven abilities of this Welsh squad, despite their recent trials and tribulations, should see the Welsh start their Six Nations with an emphatic 18 point win!