The 2018 Six Nations gets underway in what looks set to be the most openly contested tournament for a while!

Posted: February 2, 2018 in Six Nations 2018
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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!

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