One of the great rugby highlights of the year gets underway on Friday. Last year’s Six Nations was an absolute thriller and this year looks set to be even more of a roller coaster. With less than nine months to go before the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations will tell us much about what we might expect in terms of how the global showdown may play out in Japan come September. There are favourites, dark horses, underdogs and a million and one questions to be answered over the next eight weeks.
Ireland have been labelled the favourites this year, and it is hard to dispute that on the basis of form. However, back to back Grand Slams could well be too much to ask for, based on the quality of the opposition this year. One thing Ireland does seem to have more of than anyone else though is depth, and in a tournament which inevitably takes such a heavy toll injury wise on your player base, Ireland looks in very rude health in this department. Superbly coached, well-drilled and perhaps the most cohesive team heading into the tournament, Ireland will be very hard to beat, especially if like last year they keep building momentum as the tournament progresses.
Wales are clearly the team most likely to give Ireland a run for their money this year. Coming off a nine match winning streak, and blessed with some exceptional young talent that seems to have bedded very well into the national side, Wales can certainly field a very strong match day 23. The question remains however, as to how much depth there still is as the tournament wears on and injuries start to take their toll. Many are billing Wales’ final match with Ireland in Cardiff on the last Saturday of the tournament as the Championship decider, however, if Wales’ stocks have been depleted by injury by that stage Ireland are likely to have more seasoned reserves to draw on. If Wales can keep the injuries down, then there is no question that they like Ireland are going to be one of the hardest teams to beat this year especially at home.
England seem to have recovered from the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations and saw them finish fifth. After a successful November campaign which saw them take Australian and South African scalps and run New Zealand to within a point, England are clearly on the mend. How far they have come remains to be seen, and there are no easy games for them this year, especially as they have to play the two teams most likely to be in the running for top honors, Ireland and Wales on the road.
Scotland continue to look threatening, and their club form in Europe this year has been quite spectacular. With Murrayfield now a fortress for the Scots, they have been blessed with a fixture list that sees them with the advantage of getting to play Wales and Ireland at home, but two difficult trips to Twickenham and Paris will also need to be dealt with. On their day Scotland can potentially beat anyone, but a lack of depth once the injury list starts taking its toll and a lack of big game temperament away from home, means that Scotland will still be wearing the underdog shirt more often than not.
France continue their hot and cold form, but as always one cannot simply judge them on form as this tournament always seems to bring out something special in them, even if they fail to replicate it for the rest of the year. “Le Crunch” match with England regained its notoriety last year, and they managed to give Wales a torrid time in Cardiff as well as coming agonizingly close to scuppering Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions at the very outset of last year’s tournament. While it may be a well-worn cliché – to write the French off simply based on form alone would be suicidal. Always difficult to beat in Paris, and more than capable of producing an upset away from home, France are unlikely to be contenders for the trophy but are likely to spoil a few of the other teams’ parties along the way.
Lastly it looks like Italy will once more be bringing up the rear this year. While there have been some promising developments at club level, most notably Treviso, Italy are still a long way from where they need to be to really make a dent in the competition. Nevertheless they are a team who plays with their hearts on their sleeves and as such are always entertaining to watch. Although plagued by lapses of concentration, they at least did seem to find the ability to last the full eighty minutes last year, and came close to tripping Scotland up on the final day of the tournament. It’s hard to see them having anything other than the wooden spoon to hold again this year, but their endeavour and commitment will continue to make them worthy competitors. We’re struggling to see where that one elusive win might be on offer this year, but for their sake we sincerely hope they can pull off a much-needed upset.
So now the preamble is out of the way, let’s get into the details, as we raise five talking points for each match that we’ve been mulling over during the last week.
France vs Wales – Friday, February 1st – Paris
France proved they were difficult to beat at home in the Championship opener when they hosted eventual Grand Slam winners Ireland last year. Furthermore the last time they met Wales in Cardiff there was only one point in it favoring the Welsh. After a November campaign that showed promise but ultimately did little to inspire, after their shock defeat to Fiji, France have everything to prove. However as we have mentioned earlier this tournament invariably brings out the X-factor in France, and Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled a side that could pack some nasty surprises.
Wales arrive in Paris feeling confident after nine straight wins. They are clearly challengers to Ireland’s throne and will want to make the boldest of statements in Paris on Friday that such ambitions are completely justified. Possessing a bruising set of forwards, a smart and quick thinking half back duo and some highly skilled backs, Wales definitely arrive as the complete package, while there are considerably more question marks surrounding the French team they will face.
One player does not make a front row, no matter how good they are
As regular readers know we have the utmost respect for French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, so much so that he made our team of 2018. However, despite his superhuman efforts, we feel he is the only strong link in an otherwise weak French front row. We are just not convinced by the scrummaging technique of his colleagues Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio in particular. The Welsh unit leaves us with no such concerns and despite Guirado’s best efforts we feel that France are going to get pushed around here on Friday. France will hope that Guirado can go the full eighty minutes and French sensation Demba Bamba get on early enough to make an impact, provided he is not overwhelmed by the occasion of his first Six Nations. How well the veteran and the youngster team up, if they are allowed to do so, could change the course of how the front row battles shape up, especially once Wales call in their bench.
One of the best contests of the afternoon – Vahaamahina vs Wyn-Jones
In the second rows there should be plenty of fireworks between the Welsh veteran and France’s Vahaamahina. These two giants’ lineout battles should be worth the price of admission alone. The Welshman will excel at getting his teammates to get under France’s skin and disrupt the set pieces, while the Frenchman showed some exceptional poaching abilities in the air last year, as well as being highly destructive in the loose. A fascinating battle of contrasting styles, and whoever gets the upper hand here is likely to give us an idea of the balance of power in the match.
The back row battle should be one of the weekend’s closest with France’s Arthur Iturria potentially grabbing the headlines
We must say we really like the look of both back rows. Wales field one of our favourite workhorses in the shape of the indomitable Justin Tipuric. If you’ve read our musings in the past you know we cannot rate the tireless Welshman highly enough. Meanwhile it’s great to see Josh Navidi back in a Welsh jersey after missing the November Internationals. Ross Moriarity completes a fearsome Welsh back row that should cause havoc for French defenses. Having said that though, we are really looking forward to seeing French flanker Arthur Iturria in action as we think he is likely to be one of the standout players of the tournament. He was one of the few French players to really catch the eye in the November Internationals. Wenceslas Lauret also impressed throughout the year, and veteran Louis Picamoles is back to his best. In short, this is a French unit that is more than capable of absorbing Welsh horsepower and dish out its own fair share of heartache.
Warren Gatland’s leap of faith
There is no question that Welsh youngster Tomos Williams will have everything to prove as he gets the starting nod over the much more experienced Gareth Davies at scrum half. In such a key match that is likely to set the tone for the rest of Wales Six Nations campaign, one has to admire Coach Warren Gatland’s faith in the youngster, especially given that he and his fly half partner Gareth Anscombe are up against a highly experienced French unit in the shape of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. However, it would appear that Gatland is banking on a fairly frantic first 50 minutes which will suit Williams playing style more, and then bring in the big guns Davies and Biggar to settle the nerves and the match for the final quarter as France are likely to start throwing caution to the wind, especially in conditions that are expected to be wet and slippery.
Meanwhile Jacques Brunel does the same with Romain Ntamack
As a Test debut it doesn’t get much bigger than this, but the Toulouse centre has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately at Club level and it was only a matter of time before he got his first Test cap. As a baptism of fire his opposite number is Welshman Jonathan Davies who is simply one of the world’s best. If Ntamack comes out of this in a positive light then there will be no better testimony of his skill and the role he is likely to play in the build up to France’s World Cup campaign. He will have the advantage of being partnered with the exceptional Wesley Fofana, and if it works this combination could really catch Wales napping – unlikely with Davies in the mix but definitely one of the most interesting contests on the park on Friday.
This should be an excellent match and a fitting start to what promises to be a riveting Championship. France at home will be difficult with their supporters expecting and demanding a significantly more dynamic French team than the one on display in November. An intensely physical contest in which Wales should just have the edge especially in the front row, but expect plenty of surprises from France especially if they can find space for their backs to go to work in. Ultimately Wales’ form of late just looks too convincing allied to a tried and trusted group of players. Consequently France to keep Wales on their toes for the full eighty, but Wales to edge it by 6!
Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, February 2nd – Murrayfield
While it may not have the aura around it that the encounters in Paris and Dublin this weekend have, this still should be an exciting game especially if Scotland really put on the afterburners. Italy have some pace as well, though the loss of last year’s sensation, fullback Matteo Minozzi, to injury is a bitter blow for the Azurri. Italy have lost their last 17 Six Nations games so whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances this year. However, let’s not forget they pushed Scotland hard in Rome last year and almost caused a notable upset. Nevertheless Scotland’s speed merchants in the backs and a bruising forward pack coupled to home advantage make it hard to see anything other than a convincing win for Scotland.
While we may not follow Italian club rugby closely we have to confess to not seeing too many familiar faces
Sure there are some of the usual suspects there such as Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Michele Campagnaro, but the rest have had us scrambling to YouTube to catch up on who’s who in Italian rugby these days, especially when it comes to the bench. What we have seen has given us some cause for optimism, but we still can’t imagine it troubling a Scottish side bursting with talent, even if some of it is still a bit raw.
Laidlaw vs Price for Scotland
We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at seeing Greg Laidlaw starting for Ali Price in a match that should be a relatively straightforward exercise for Scotland. Laidlaw has more than enough experience and perhaps would have been better kept in reserve for Scotland’s first big encounter with Ireland next weekend. The only thing we can think of is the fact that the last time Italy won a Six Nations match it was at Murrayfield. Consequently it must be Coach Gregor Townsend trying to deal with “opening night nerves” and not leaving anything to chance by putting in the experienced Laidlaw to ensure that Scotland keeps the scoreboard constantly ticking over in the first 60 minutes to put Italy out of reach, and avoid any potential banana skins.
In Sergio Parisse’s last year who will take the mantle from Italy’s most legendary player
The great man will not see another World Cup, and Italy really need to use this year to find a suitable understudy and a similar talisman for the team. While it may be premature, his back row partner Sebastien Negri shows many of the qualities of his great mentor. Expect to see the flanker at the heart of everything that Italy does well this year. Negri was one of the few genuine standouts for Italy in last year’s Six Nations and expect him to make even more of a statement this year. The Captaincy may ultimately pass to Campagnaro, but Negri is a very worthy understudy in the making.
Blair Kinghorn to really make the headlines for Scotland this year
Just look at what the energetic winger is doing at Edinburgh and you’ll see why we can’t wait to see him in action this year. When allied to a superb Scottish back line boasting the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, Kinghorn could really set pitches alight over the next few weeks.
Scotland will really hope the injury gods are kind to them in their Six Nations opener
We really like the look of the match day 23 going out against Italy on Saturday, but have to confess to be just a tad worried for the Scots as to how much depth there is in the tank for the remainder of the tournament. While a Scottish win on Saturday is not really in doubt, one could argue that a conservative win that avoided putting bodies at risk would be preferable to a high scoring match of reckless abandon, despite the spectacle this would provide for the Murrayfield faithful. Of the match day 23 running out on Saturday there is not much depth beyond it if the body count starts racking up in this opener, with every contest thereafter being that much more physical and demanding.
We really don’t mean to be down on Italy, and would love to see them get a win, but sadly we just don’t see it happening on Saturday. This is a Scottish side with just far too much proven explosive talent, especially in the backs up against a relatively unknown Italian commodity. With Sergio Parisse in the mix, expect Italy to be no pushover, but Scotland to eventually open up the floodgates in the final quarter, albeit with an eye to the injury risk and walk away comfortable winners. Because of that though don’t expect a huge scoreline, but Scotland to take it by 13 points!
Ireland vs England – Saturday, February 2nd – Dublin
While the contest in France has a great deal of interest, there is no denying that this is the BIG one of this weekend. Perhaps England’s biggest grudge match at the moment, getting one over Ireland on Saturday, especially in Dublin would really set the tone for where England are headed in this Championship. Having said that however, England know they are up against it. Ireland are on a roll unprecedented in Irish rugby history, and it just seems to go from strength to strength. Since the last World Cup they have beaten New Zealand twice, won a Grand Slam and seem to have reinvented the definitions of organization and depth. Add to that the fact that England have only won in Dublin twice in nine trips to the Irish capital since 2003, and England would seem to have the bigger job on their hands. However, they also ran New Zealand exceptionally close in November, and in general had a superb month as long as you don’t mention that first half against Japan. The stage is set for one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries to resume and expect no prisoners to be taken by both sides.
Rory Best vs Sean Cronin – the great internal debate
As the Irish Captain looks set to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup, 2019 will tell us much about the speed of ascendancy into the number 2 jersey of Sean Cronin. While few, ourselves included, would doubt the value that Best brings to the squad as a whole and his leadership, there is no denying that Cronin has had to wait in the wings for a very long time, and his statistics this year for Leinster are simply off the charts. Like Jacob Stockdale in the backs for Ireland, Cronin can almost be guaranteed to score a try in every match at club level. His work rate is legendary and his lineout throwing is often more accurate than Best’s. How Coach Joe Schmidt uses the pair of them in a match of such stature is likely to tell us much as to how their respective roles will play out this year.
England finally have a back row that works – for the most part
It’s been England’s bug bear for so long now it’s almost become a bit of a bad joke – especially given the player resources England have at their disposal. However, the November Internationals saw the nucleus of a unit that worked with Mark Wilson proving to be one of the finds of the year. This year Billy Vunipola returns and while we wish him all the best, we are not holding our breath as to the likelihood of him seeing out the tournament injury-free even though he appears to be back to his phenomenal best at club level. The loss of Sam Underhill for the entire tournament due to injury is a huge loss. Nevertheless for this match England’s back row offering looks solid with Vunipola, Wilson and a player we think has a massive future ahead of him for England, Tom Curry.
Talking of back rows, it’s a make or break year for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien
Everyone knows the value of the great man to Ireland, however injury has not been kind to him, and much like England’s Billy Vunipola, whether or not the Irish flanker will make it through the tournament unscathed is a big question mark. With Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy providing exceptionally healthy and robust competition for his jersey, O’Brien really needs to make this Six Nations his. However, Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of the injury risk in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, and as a result Josh van der Flier gets the nod over O’Brien as a starter for this match. The number seven jersey is likely to be Ireland’s revolving door in terms of selection this tournament, and it will be fascinating to see who emerges the clear owner come March 16th.
Owen Farrell – asset or liability?
Last November saw the England fly half be classed as hero and villain in the same breath by rugby supporters around the globe, including a fair number of English supporters. Some see him as a liability, and despite his genius on the field, ability with the boot and skill at game management, we tend to fall more into the liability camp when talking about the Farrell question. His committment to his team and overall ability is not in question, but we do not feel the Captaincy role is one that he is suited for. Furthermore, we have noticed that his defensive positioning is often out of kilter at critical junctures in matches, forcing him into last-ditch desperate tackles and we all know how that went in November. His decision-making also leaves a great deal to be desired at times and on numerous occasions he has turned down easy points on offer, electing to kick to the corner against teams England are struggling to establish any kind of dominance over. Add to that a slightly impetuous nature, short fuse and challenging relationship with officials, and perhaps it is better to keep him out of the Captaincy role. His value to the team is not up for debate as that is a given. It is more a question of in what role and how to best use him. Something England have yet to nail down and which perhaps this Six Nations will finally provide in time for the World Cup.
The Robbie Henshaw experiment
Yes we know he used to play fullback for Connacht, but we were still surprised to see him get the nod over Rob Kearney for such a crucial game. Even more so considering that Henshaw has not played at fullback for Ireland and instead plies his trade in the centre channels when wearing the green jersey. Will England target him with the high balls that Kearney is traditionally so comfortable under? Or is Schmidt banking on Henshaw’s physicality to break down the attacks from the English back line? The contest between him and England’s Elliot Daly will be one of the most fascinating of the afternoon. Daly is a proven commodity and possesses an exceptionally handy boot, and between him and wingers Jack Nowell and Jonny May they should be able to provide Henshaw with plenty of work. Ireland have Jordan Larmour on the bench as solid cover, but his defensive skills still need some work. In the aerial battles on Saturday, we have a feeling that England may just get the better of Ireland, so how Ireland adapt their game to ensure that doesn’t happen will be something to watch for.
Either way this will be an exceptionally fitting end to what should be a great opening weekend of Six Nations rugby. This should be a much better English side than the one Ireland faced at Twickenham last March. Two powerful packs go head to head, complemented by some back lines that can put on a show. It should be a thriller and one that it is likely to keep us on the edge of our seats. However, when it’s all said and done, we have to side with the form and history books. England are once more on the rise, but Ireland have already put in the hard graft in getting their structures and organisation right. Ireland have a better understanding of the game they want to play while England are still putting the finishing touches on theirs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of upsetting the odds, but we can’t help feeling is too much of a tall order on opening night. Consequently in a hard-fought match, Ireland to handle the basics better and walk away the winners by four points!
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