It’s back people!!!! Test Rugby and one of our favorite times of the year, the Six Nations gets underway this weekend. Although the stadiums will be empty, COVID so far has not managed to throw a spanner in the works, and proceedings look set to take place as planned. While France’s trip to Rome is more than likely a dead rubber in the Frenchmen’s favor, there have always been surprises in this fixture in the past that have made it closer than expected. On paper last year’s Six Nations champions England should get the better of Scotland, but this is a Scottish side overflowing with creativity in attack, a quality that has been rather lacking in England’s approach to the game in the past year. Lastly on Sunday, a stop start Irish side makes the difficult trip to Cardiff to face a Welsh team that surely can’t be as poor as they were last year. Either way entertainment is to be had aplenty and Saturday can’t come soon enough! So here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s matchups.
Italy vs France – Saturday, February 6th – Rome
It’s hard if not impossible to see anything other than an emphatic win for a French team that many are tipping to walk away with the silver in this year’s Six Nations. As 2020 wore on, despite the many curve balls thrown at them France just got better and better while showing that they have two world class match day squads of 23 at their disposal. Well coached, well disciplined and demonstrating an almost infectious joy in the way they play the game, France are by the far the most exciting package going into this year’s tournament. Have other sides figured them out in 2021 and now know how to contain them? We think perhaps to a certain degree, but you can’t help get the feeling that France are just getting going with plenty more to come, all peaking at the right time come 2023.
As for Italy, it’s business as usual. That means a general talking up of their abilities and promise for the future, but as the tournament wears on, many of us are likely to struggle to find anything new in Italy’s ultimate path to yet another wooden spoon. We sincerely hope we’re wrong this year, but for now that’s all we can say and sadly can’t base such hopes on much tangible evidence to the contrary. On the flip side, despite France’s brilliance, Italy has a habit of making this fixture a challenging one at times for Les Bleus and in theory they have the ability to do so yet again on Saturday.
Italy looks to the future more than the here and now
Most people are probably scratching their heads slightly at Italian Coach Franco Smith’s selections for this important match. While we ourselves thought much the same, it also says to us that Smith is using this tournament to build a team for 2023 and as a result for the most part results themselves are immaterial. In many ways you have to salute him for the courage to really have a look at the assets at his disposal in this first real year of building towards the next World Cup. If he does pull off some surprises along the way then all credit to him and his foresight. He clearly doesn’t care about the debates about relegation and Georgia entering the Six Nations at Italy’s expense. He knows it isn’t going to happen in this World Cup cycle, so it’s irrelevant. If Italy ends up with the Wooden Spoon again this year so what, but if they look consistently better at the end of the Championship than when they started, and consequently a contender for a higher finish next year then he can consider 2021 a job well done. Smith knows he needs to unearth every nook and cranny of Italian rugby and he only has this year to do it. Hence unless you’ve watched a lot of Italian rugby then most of the names on Saturday’s teamsheet will mean very little to you, but we’re looking forward to learning more, hopefully in a positive light.
France – are they the Championship’s ultimate Sports Car?
Vroom vroom! In addition to many of us shouting “allez le Bleus” over the next two months, you get the sense that this will be the sound emanating from the French changing rooms prior to every match. Outrageously talented, fast and capable of 0 to full throttle excitement in the blink of an eye, the team that Coach Fabien Galthie and his staff have assembled for the tournament has it all. Saturday’s lineup oozes pedigree even if most of that pedigree has only been developed in the space of a mere 12 months. If you’re a neutral we’re willing to bet that France will be your team for the next two months.
We’ll be seeing a lot of this fellow in the coming weeks
Coach Fabien Galthie has picked an all star French side for Saturday’s clash in Rome, but we remain convinced that this gentleman is likely to find himself constantly on the front pages of rugby journals in the coming weeks. The powerful number eight is simply outstanding on both attack and defence, and he’s only 23. Arguably one of the best in Test Rugby right now, Aldritt would have little difficulty making a World XV. He is one of many outstanding French players taking to the field Saturday, but allied to exceptional teammate and Captain Charles Ollivon in the back row Italy are going to find him and his colleagues a nightmare to deal with.
One to watch for Italy
Sure there’s been plenty of talk about the Azurri’s Senior Kindergarten player of 2020 fly half Paolo Garbisi, and we’ve definitely been on that bandwagon – but if you’re looking for someone who is constantly going to ask opposition defenses some embarrassing questions then look no further than center Marco Zanon. Although Garbisi grabbed all the limelight in the Autumn Nations Cup and finish to Italy’s 2020 Six Nations campaign, it was Zanon who kept popping up on our TV screens in 2020 and making us ask “who is this guy”? He creates chances for Italy and is a genuine playmaker for the team especially in broken play. We’d argue that if you want something to cheer about when Italy is otherwise having a bad day at the office, look no further than Zanon this year.
Simple but effective – France turn seizing the moment into a fine art
Italy will remember this but sincerely hope they don’t see a repeat of it on Saturday, especially as the protaganist of the above video is back, winger Gabin Villiere. He made this try look like it came out of nowhere, but if you watch the video above you can see that it demonstrates how good France have become at reading those small moments in a game and turning them to their advantage. Scrum half Antoine Dupont and fly half Mathieu Jallibert have the added advantage of not only being able to spot these kinds of now you see them now you don’t opportunities, but also have the skill to create them in the first place. This is more than just French flair these days, it’s a genuine skill that is coached and which France have mastered better than any other.
In short, France will be essentially impossible to beat on Saturday. They will face a fired up but vastly inexperienced and unfamiliar Italian team. We appreciate that is a very bold statement and one we are not used to making, but we just can’t help feeling that France are just that good right now and there is a body of evidence that has been produced in the last six months to prove it. For Italy’s sake though we hope that their youngsters prove more than just deer in the headlights on Saturday, and actually show Coach Franco Smith enough nuggets of raw talent that he is able to start building an Italian side that may ultimately manage to make one or two statements in France in 2023.
England vs Scotland – Saturday, February 6th – Twickenham
If you’re like us, you can probably hardly wait till Saturday morning 1145 AM Eastern. This fixture for the famous Calcutta Cup, is one of the tournament’s annual classics and in recent years has served up some thrillers – who can forget that incredible draw the last time these two sides met at Twickenham two years ago? There is every reason to hope that Saturday’s encounter has the potential to serve up more of the same. England have clearly picked a team that is concerned about Scotland’s almost reckless abandon in attack, and as a result expect the Men in White to play a game that makes the opposition do all the running. This lack of an attacking game in England’s arsenal over the last few months has caused much consternation amongst their supporters, and for good reason. However, on the flip side of the coin there is no denying that England’s preference to not play with ball in hand has produced results as the opposition becomes more and more desperate to break a seemingly impenetrable defensive shield of white shirts.
Expect more of the same, as the Scots will run at England from every inch of the park. Whether or not they can keep it up for a full eighty minutes while still maintaining the kind of execution and discipline needed for it to put points on the board remains a big question mark. Scotland may also find themselves struggling to contain England in the set pieces as the Men in White’s tight five is without doubt one of the best in the business. After that though we’d argue it’s a relatively even contest, with some English players out of form and a lack of balance in some departments for England. Scotland’s progress in a rather strange year to say the least for Test Rugby was impressive at times, but it was never consistent – something which England was throughout. It will be an interesting contrast of styles with England’s rather dour approach up against Scotland’s willingness to throw caution to the wind with sometimes dazzling results. England are your reliable siege engine while Scotland are your gritty, unpredictable mavericks. It should make for a great contest.
One of the greats in the making
English second rower Maro Itoje has always been a bit like one of those excellent vintages that you get in the wine store with the caveat best drunk a few years from now. Well those years are now. In our opinion, putting aside the remarkable individual try scoring efforts of winger Jonny May, Itoje has become the complete team asset for England. His presence on the pitch lends England an authority and ruthlessness they have often lacked in the past. This smoldering giant is likely England’s next Captain and his ability to get himself and the rest of his teammates under oppositions’ skins is very much in the mold of England’s World Cup winning skipper Martin Johnson. His indestructability on the pitch and ability to put in stadium jarring hits for the full eighty minutes is the stuff of legends and an enormous inspiration to his fellow teammates. He was outstanding in 2020, expect him to be phenomenal in 2021!
Has his time come and gone?
For years Billy Vunipola was seen as an essential cog in the engine room of England’s back row. However, on the basis of what we saw from him last year, we have a hunch that England’s one man panzer division is not quite the blitzkrieg weapon he once was. In our humble opinion, England perhaps relied on his exceptional talents a little too much at the expense of developing a balanced back row. He is a devastating number eight and has served England exceptionally well, but he’s been far too quiet of late for us and we haven’t seen any signs that he is likely to start shouting from the rooftops once more. Injuries seem to be getting the better of him making his trip to the next World Cup questionable, and England’s priority must be to address what they want their back row to look like now rather than a year out from France. His back row partner for Saturday’s match Mark Wilson is one of our favorites but also another who is unlikely to make the next World Cup given his age. England has no shortage of depth in the back row, so it’s a bit early to be ringing the alarm bells. However, given Scotland’s rampaging back row trio of Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson this Saturday, some younger and fresher legs might have been the right call.
The Farrell/Ford debate – for once we think Eddie Jones may have got it right
As regular readers of this blog know, we are not fans of English Captain and fly half Owen Farrell, and yes we’ll lay our cards on the table – we actually think George Ford is the better player. Then why we hear you ask do you think England Coach Eddie Jones putting George Ford on the bench is the right call? One of our major beefs about Owen Farrell is that he tends to go to pieces if the opposition makes a mockery of his game plan. Once he gets the wobbles his decision making and discipline goes out the window (let alone his tackling technique). Jones is clearly anxious about the kind of high jinks Scottish fly half Finn Russell will pull out of his hat on Saturday, so has decided that Farrell’s comfort level of playing without the ball and forcing mavericks like Russell into costly mistakes is the right option. However, if it doesn’t work and England find themselves being run ragged by Scotland, then exit Farrell stage right and bring in Ford who seems to be able to handle pressure much better. Ford loves to run with the ball and if the Scots have the upper hand come half time, it’s Ford’s attacking play that England will need as opposed to Farrell’s containment policies.
Scotland’s court jester – Finn Russell
Some of the things Scotland fly half Finn Russell does appear bereft of any kind of logic and yet the results are often spectacular. He is one of those players it is almost impossible to read. He thinks so quickly that even his teammates struggle to keep up with him at times. He is one of the most exciting players in Test Rugby right now, but occassionally his penchant for the extraordinary can at times be a liability. While England will be justifiably cautious and apprehensive of the magical Scotsman, they also know that if they can put his side under pressure on the scoreboard, Scotland’s ambitions will ultimately start to turn into a desperate recklessness as Russell throws caution to the wind.
England’s new attacking breed?
While England fans have lamented their side’s lack of attacking rugby, they may have cause to breathe a sigh of relief if utility back Max Malins gets some serious game time on Saturday. The Bristol Bears utility back is equally at home in the number 10 or 15 jersey, so much so that he has been likened to England’s answer to two time World Player of the Year New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett, who is also exceptionally comfortable in both roles. Both have a similar style, are dynamic with ball in hand and possess a superb kick and chase game. The contest between himself and Scotland’s “Mr. Excitement” Stuart Hogg, provided Malins get sufficient time off the bench should be superb entertainment.
It’s hard to not see England getting the better of a feisty and unpredictable Scottish side packed with attacking prowess at Fortress Twickenham, even if it is devoid of their passionate supporters. Scotland though as they showed so admirably two years ago can throw the form book right out the window on any given Saturday. We’d argue that they are a better side now than the one that turned out for that memorable contest that almost got Scotland that first elusive win at Twickenham since 1983. However, Scotland still lack consistency at times and a penchant for attempting the unthinkable if Russell gets his way. England may not be getting us out of our seats as much on Saturday, but are still more likely to have got the job done by the time the final whistle shrills out across the empty stands. Either way you won’t want to miss it.
We’ll be back tomorrow with our look at Sunday’s game between Wales and Ireland once the teamsheets are out. Till then stay safe, make sure you’ve got your libations of choice in hand for the weekend and here’s hoping for some great rugby!