It’s here and for all intents and purposes it’s Christmas time for rugby fans around the world, as the world’s oldest annual rugby competition the Six Nations gets underway this weekend and for those with leanings towards the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby has its opening festivities. With plenty of new faces and sea changes in personnel, this could be one of the most interesting opening weekends post a World Cup, that both tournaments have seen in a long time.
As mentioned above, we are genuinely fascinated by the start of this year’s tournament. A new look France is for many taking center stage on Sunday. It’s a team that boasts perhaps one of the most exciting crops of young French talent that we’ve seen in years. Add to that a new dynamic coaching regime under Fabien Galthie that has seemingly got off to a very determined start in building for the World Cup in 2023, perhaps more so than any other team in the competition. France could well end up being the surprise package of the tournament, and although it may sound like a broken record that has never really been the hit song it promised, we can’t help feeling that there’s something potentially ominous about this French squad. They’ve got a capable and very mobile set of young energetic forwards and a solid albeit young halfback partnership with scrum half Antoine Dupont being an absolute nightmare for opposition defences. It’s that French set of backs though that really get the heart racing and is going to test the other Six Nations defenses to the limit at times if used creatively and given any kind of space.
We have to admit to some confusion though regarding Wales’ selections for their opening match against Italy. Italy despite a strong selection are the weakest side going into the tournament. Consequently wouldn’t it be a golden opportunity for Wales to blood Gloucester sensation winger Louis Rees-Zammit? Much to our amazement he doesn’t even make the bench. It is after all Wales at home, a ground they rarely seem to lose on these days. However, it is also new Coach Wayne Pivac’s first proper international outing with his charges, so perhaps we can understand his caution and need to make a good impression with some tried and trusted figures in what should be a fairly foregone conclusion in terms of results. He has given winger Johnny McNicholl his first cap, and consequently perhaps felt two new wingers was too much of a gamble despite their obvious talents. Seasoned Welsh supporters will also be eagerly awaiting the return of Taulupe Faletau at number 8. Arguably one of Wales’ most important players in recent years, the powerful forward had to miss out on the tournament last year as well as the World Cup due to injury.
Italy should be able to give Wales a gritty physical contest up front at times, but we fear that ultimately they will, especially away from home, inevitably be outclassed with a slick looking Welsh squad that has a strong sense of unity and familiarity to it. Furthermore, we are puzzled at the omission of second rower Federico Ruzza, who was our Italian player of last year’s tournament, who doesn’t even make the bench.
Ireland field an exciting blend of youth and experience, although many, ourselves included felt that Ulster’s John Cooney should have got the start over Conor Murray for this match. Murray may be the seasoned campaigner that new Irish Coach Andy Farrell would want guiding his forwards, but there is no denying that Cooney is the form player at the moment. Cooney will get his chance from the bench and it will be fascinating to see at what point Farrell decides to give the youngster his chance. All eyes will be on newcomer Caelan Doris as he gets his first Irish cap, and once more proves that Ireland have rudely healthy stocks of back rowers. Ireland desperately need to make a BIG statement in Dublin on Saturday, and prove to their supporters and critics that their disastrous run of form last year is behind them and that they have genuinely learnt from their mistakes. We feel the team running out at the Aviva is the kind of team that can do that and hopefully make Ireland a genuine contender once more for Six Nations silverware.
Scotland a bit like France are the great unknown this tournament in more ways than one. Their campaign gets underway Saturday in Dublin surrounded by all the makings of a soap opera. Rumors of dissent in the camp about Gregor Townsend’s coaching methods abound fueled largely by the Finn Russell fiasco. Scotland have plenty of talent make no mistake, but how cohesive they are as a unit under pressure remains to be seen, and new Captain Stuart Hogg will have the additional task of building a team that seems clearly rattled heading into the tournament. We like many have mixed feelings about Finn Russell, as he is clearly one of the most talented players in International Rugby at the moment, but his maverick approach to the game doesn’t always provide the kind of stability a side like Scotland clearly need right now. He is willing to take enormous risks which when they pay off produce spectacular results, but when they don’t Scotland ends up at sixes and sevens and appears rather rudderless. Adam Hastings who gets the nod at fly half for this match, is also showing some impressive form and is starting to have a surprising arsenal of tricks of his own up his sleeve, so Scotland certainly won’t be lacking in the creativity department on Saturday. Still it’s going to be a very tall order to take down an impressive looking Irish unit in front of a demanding Dublin crowd.
England would still appear to be the favorites, but we are not entirely sure they are going to breeze through this tournament. Like many we think that their date with France Sunday could be a rather rude awakening from their World Cup disappointments. They will need to come out of the blocks firing, and your opening weekend in Paris is not always the best place to achieve that. France could well pack plenty of surprises that England may struggle to cope with, and as we saw in the World Cup, once the Men in White feel they are struggling to make any kind of headway they start to unravel rather dramatically, particularly in terms of leadership – something we feel that Captain Owen Farrell is not particularly effective at turning around. It’s a powerful and accomplished English team that runs out onto the pitch at Stade de France on Sunday – but can it stay that way for the next seven weeks? Add to that their dilemma at scrum half and seeming lack of any kind of long-term plan for the position, and England remains just short of where they need to be.
It’s still one of the greatest rugby shows on earth and we CAN’T wait!!!!!
We sadly admit to the fact that we don’t quite have the same degree of enthusiasm for the opening weekend of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament that we do for what will be taking place on the playing fields of Europe over the next seven weeks. Nevertheless it is a competition that has always showcased some extraordinary rugby skill and for that reason alone, it will get our attention.
Just like in the Northern Hemisphere there have been plenty of changes in setups across the fifteen competing sides since the end of the World Cup. It is Japan’s Sunwolves swansong in the tournament as they will no longer feature after 2020. Will New Zealand’s Blues finally return to winning ways after years in the wilderness? With former Welsh Coach Warren Gatland now back in his native land coaching the Chiefs and Crusaders Coach Scott Robertson likely feeling just a little pipped at not getting the All Blacks job, the race for the number one Coaching job in World Rugby is alive and well in the land of the long White Cloud once current incumbent Ian Foster’s contract is up for review at the end of two years. Can Argentina’s Jaguares still be the force they were last year with so many of their star players now having sought greener pastures? Can South African and Australian teams even be competitive with a player exodus of massive proportions for the former, and a fractured and rudderless administration running the show in the latter? In short, more questions than answers this year, which sadly detract from the rugby on hand especially as the competition is unlikely to survive in its current format beyond this year.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of matches that we are keen to have a look at this weekend. Although a raft of matches take place on Friday, it’s Saturday that has caught our eye. The competition sees three matches which highlight it’s globetrotting nature, as well as featuring three teams we think could well make the semis and one potential wild card. The Crusaders are always worth watching and once again are likely to produce a healthy contingent of the 2020 All Blacks side. Consequently their match against Australia’s Waratahs will be definitely one to watch, and pay particular attention to that set of Crusaders backs.
On looking at South African prospects this year, we have a hunch that the Stormers may well be the front runners. New Zealand’s Hurricanes remain a force but it remains to be seen how they adapt to the loss of the outstanding Beauden Barrett at fly half now he plies his trade with the Blues this season. This should definitely be a fiery contest and an interesting contrast of styles, especially in the contest between the two fly halves in terms of the experienced cut and thrust of the Hurricanes TJ Perenara and the live wire that is the Stormers Hershel Jantjies.
Lastly we have Argentina’s Jaguares kicking off their campaign in Buenos Aires against South Africa’s Lions. There have been some feisty contests between these two sides in the last two years, with both sides facing off against each other in the knockouts. The Lions and Jaguares have seen a massive depletion in terms of some of their big name players but some of the youngsters look just as exciting if not more, especially in the case of the South Americans. Furthermore we love the fact that the Estadio Jose Amalfitani often boasts the healthiest and liveliest crowds of the competition, with thousands of passionate supporters, which makes a refreshing change from the rows and rows of empty seats that often tend to be the norm in other stadiums in the tournament. In short it’s noisy, atmospheric and there’s plenty of fast paced exciting rugby on hand to keep it all bubbling along. We love it!
Major League Rugby
We’re still not sure who will be broadcasting Major League Rugby here in Canada once the Toronto Arrows kick of their season on February 9 in Austin against the Herd. We know CBS has acquired the rights in the US, but last year Game TV had them here in Canada, but it is still to be confirmed as to who will be covering it this season. Games can be watched through the Arrows Facebook page and hopefully we’ll have details in the next week as to who is covering it via streaming or on demand here in Canada. We know ESPN has an agreement to air some of the games in the US and given their affiliation with TSN we are hoping that something similar may happen North of the border. We’ll keep you posted.
So get ready, get the fridges stocked or find out where you and your mates can catch the games in a bar. If you’re in Toronto, Hemingway’s and Balmy Beach Club are two definites for the Six Nations, otherwise spark up the TV and fire up your Chromecast for DAZN and the Six Nations and TSN and Super Rugby!!!
Enjoy and see you next week!