Yes it’s finally here, a tournament that for most of us is the highlight of our annual rugby calendar. That in no way detracts from the Rugby Championship for our Southern Hemisphere friends but as International Test Rugby’s oldest annual dustup, the Six Nations has so much history behind it that it’s hard to top in terms of a sense of occasion. Some editions have been less than stellar but this year’s competition looks set to have us glued to our TV screens for the next two months. Add into the mix the colorful crowds, which are such an integral and important part of this classic tournament, and ladies and gentleman get ready to start your engines this Saturday!
Good natured debates are already crowding the airwaves and discussions in pubs and bars around the globe as rugby’s oldest tournament prepares to spool up once more. There is no doubt that as always there are some clear front runners, but in our opinion this year’s tournament looks set to be one of the closest in history. We are fairly certain however that a Grand Slam for any of the six participants is quite frankly out of the question. Even the best, whom many think this year are France are going to encounter a banana skin along the way to Super Saturday on March 19th.
So without any further ado, let’s do our own bit of initial crystal ball gazing as to what the teams might be able to expect out of this year’s tournament.
France – the sleeping giant is finally awake!
Oh France what will you give us this year? The rugby media is literally fainting at the door to the French dressing room, such is the adulation for Fabien Galthie and his charges. To be honest we find it all a bit much. Don’t get us wrong we hold France in the greatest regard and think that this current group of individuals in blue jerseys is one of the most formidable units in Test rugby. But invincible – absolutely not. Sure they have a pretty admirable draw card with home matches against their two toughest opponents England and Ireland, but consistency is just not a strong suit in France’s arsenal. Under Galthie they are almost there and this is probably the most composed and clinical French side we’ve seen in the last 50 years. The killer instinct is there without the emotion which at times has tripped them up on so many occasions.
However, as we saw last year they are still prone to moments that defy all logic and scupper their lofty ambitions. As good as France are presently, we just can’t see them winning every single match. Away matches in Cardiff and Murrayfield could be their greatest stumbling blocks, especially as Scotland managed to pull one over on them in Paris last year. While we think they should comfortably get the measure of England in Paris in their final match, even that is not a given. What happens if England’s new breed of talent turn the tables upside down and arrive at the Stade de France unbeaten on March 19th? There’s also that rather problematic visit of a red hot Ireland in Round 2 – a side who knows what it’s like to upset France on home soil against all the odds. So in short nothing is a given for France this year.
It’s pretty hard to see any weaknesses in this French side, but if we had to pick out any it would perhaps be in their front row. We’re just not convinced they’ve found the right balance there yet as compared to a side like Ireland. But apart from that it’s a pretty impressive looking squad from 1 to 23, even despite the absence of one or two stars from last year. Their second row stocks look sound, particularly in the shape of newcomer Thibaud Flament. Their back row, like Ireland and England’s, packs a hefty punch, while their half back pairings are the stuff of fantasy. In the centres they appear to have lots of exciting options and their back line just oozes class and pedigree.
They are missing some key players through injury most notably last year’s Captain Charles Ollivon, and you can almost be certain that Covid and its mutations along with further injuries will have an impact on the squad roster as the tournament unfolds. Although this concern will not be unique to France and is one faced by all the competitors. In short, expect the 2022 edition of France to wow us every weekend, and most likely go on to lift the trophy on March 19th. However it won’t be on the back of a Grand Slam and the road there will involve a few more nail biting finishes than Monsieur Galthie would probably like.
Ireland – the side everyone seems afraid of!
Ireland definitely won’t repeat their Grand Slam success of 2018, but they are going to be everyone’s biggest problem side. Beat Ireland and then you can start to entertain thoughts of Six Nations Glory. There are still some personnel questions, such as how much longer can Ireland really rely on Jonathan Sexton, especially with a World Cup just round the corner? What’s more important – claiming a Six Nations crown with Sexton at the helm or using the tournament to put his understudies to the ultimate Test? We’ll leave that one up for debate.
With that aside though Ireland look in terrifyingly rude health. They have depth in every position, with an increasingly impressive crop of youngsters rapidly stepping up to take on the legacy that Sexton and his league of veterans will leave behind. The Irish front row is hands down the strongest in the tournament, as is probably their back row, with only a few lingering question marks of how to achieve the best balance in the second row. Apart from the ongoing debates about the halfback berths, there is talent aplenty there, and a daunting mix of veterans and youngsters look set to make up midfield and back line pairings that would put a smile on any Coach’s face. Whatever you say about Sexton’s age there is no doubt that at the swansong of his career he is playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious playing days, and there is definitely still life left in the old dog yet.
Ireland have arguably their two toughest fixtures on the road, against England and France, and it remains to be seen how good this new look Ireland is on the road. Their enterprise and speed of play is an absolute joy to watch and will provide France and England with a plethora of headaches in how to contain it, let alone a hospital full of bruised bodies. The rather stodgy, but defensively sound and disciplined Ireland of the Joe Schmidt era has evolved into a Hummer chassis with a Ferrari engine and Mercedes reliability. In short, it’s going to hurt you and keep you guessing while reaching for the oxygen tanks at half time. We see a strong second place finish for Ireland provided they can handle either England or France, but beware of the Scottish smoking gun when it shows up at the Aviva.
England – Eddie Jones’ young whizz kids will impress but remain pretenders to the throne for now
Has Eddie Jones finally taken popular opinion into account in his selection decisions? Not a man to be swayed by what the media or lesser mortals like the general public and England supporters think, Jones’ rather Thatcherite approach to Coaching has meant that England’s aspiring youngsters have not seen much game time until lately. With his regular choice at Captain, Owen Farrell out with injury for the entire tournament, and his second choice Courtney Lawes probably in the same boat, Jones has been forced to embrace change at long last. This is one of the most exciting looking English units we’ve seen since 2015.
England are still too raw in our opinion to lift this year’s silverware, but they have everything to prove and in their enthusiasm to do so will upset most of their opponents over the coming weeks. Like Ireland, they will deny anyone who has the gall to think a Grand Slam is a possibility this year. France may be a bridge too far in the final round in Paris, but Ireland are certainly a tasty proposition on home soil in front of an ecstatic Twickenham crowd. They also have the advantage of an under strength Welsh side paying them a visit. However, their opener in the hostile cauldron of Murrayfield will be the sternest test of this new look England.
Make no mistake this is a very good English side. Their front and second rows do concern us and we feel may struggle, especially against Ireland. However, from there they go from strength to strength. It seems Jones is finally about to establish the balanced back row he has lacked for so long. His halfback options, led by the truly outstanding Marcus Smith look strong and we really hope that Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke are going to get lots of game time alongside him in the scrum half position. England’s centre pairings are really the only other weak link in the chain Henry Slade excepted. However, out wide and at the back, with their find of last year Freddie Steward, they look solid though perhaps not as accomplished as their French rivals.
In short, we expect England to charge hard for a solid third place finish, and possibly even second place if France and Ireland have too many consistency wobbles along the road to March 19th.
Scotland – more like a smoking howitzer than just a gun
Scotland have excelled in the last few years at wrecking their Six Nations’ opponents parties. While they are not quite at the stage where they can realistically entertain ideas of lifting Six Nations silverware, they are really good at destroying everybody else’s ambitions to do the same. Scotland are a really good side that for the most part are a joy to watch and, next to France, probably play the tournament’s most exciting brand of rugby. The problem is that they tend to like throwing caution to the wind a bit too much for our liking, and it has a habit of wrecking their own party. Their joyful exuberance simply gets in the way of finishing the job all too often. While we sincerely hope this year will be different, with Finn Russell running the show at fly half, we still feel that there is an element of recklessness at times which will cause Scotland to fall at the odd hurdle over the next two months.
This is not to say that we think Scotland are not a good side. On the contrary, but consistency is simply not part of their makeup. Brilliant one weekend, but a shambles the next, particularly if the stretcher bearers make their way on to the pitch during the course of the tournament exposing Scotland’s lack of depth. However, last year we felt that Scotland did actually make strides to tighten up their lack of consistency, but finishing out big games especially under pressure is still not their strong suit. They can do it, as we saw in their opener against England at Twickenham last year and that epic win on the road over France. The problem is they just can’t seem to do it week in week out, and despite the joyful delirium always present at Murrayfield in the stands, it remains a mixed bag in terms of being a successful hunting ground for the Scots. Nevertheless they are no doubt taking a shot if confidence from the fact they are facing two of their toughest opponents, England and France, on said hallowed home ground.
We have concerns about their front row and lack of effectiveness in the lineouts. Their back row stocks are world class, but we are slightly puzzled that they only have one specialist fly half in Finn Russell and that smacks dangerously of putting all your eggs in one basket. However, those Scottish backs and centers are a nightmare for defenses to deal with, so there will be definitely plenty of flair on hand from the darker blue equivalent of les Bleus and in Chris Harris they have one of Test Rugby’s best defensive midfielders.
We really wrestled with predicting an outcome for Scotland this Six Nations. They will definitely finish at least fourth, but we have a hunch that a third place finish is not out of the question especially if one of the front three of France, Ireland and England fail to fire. We love watching Scotland play and they should do so much better than the results they seem to consistently end up with in the tournament. We can’t wait to see what Scotland’s 2022 Six Nations journey ultimately ends up being, but be prepared to strap yourself in for a thrill ride.
Wales – Down but not Out
Wales as so often in recent years, appear to be heading into this Six Nations with one hand tied behind their backs, as a number of their key players find themselves on the injury list. Their most notable omissions are Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, and all star flankers Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and our favourite Welsh player of all time Justin Tipuric to name but a few. However, this is Wales we’re talking about. Apart from tough trips to Twickenham and Dublin, their fixture list favors them taking full advantage of the legendary Principality Stadium and its 75,000 Welshmen in full song, which as everyone knows is one of the most powerful 16th men out there.
Their injury list from hell also means should they submit any more bodies to the stretcher bearers during the course of the tournament, they will start to run alarmingly thin on depth. However, Wales are a side that despite this seem able to punch way above their weight especially on home soil. Expect no different this year. While they are likely to suffer at scrum time, they will compete at lineout time and their back row led by renaissance man par excellence Ellis Jenkins are set to thrill and be a constant thorn in opposition defenses. If Dan Biggar can fine tune his communication skills with referees then Welsh game plans will be ably managed, alongside some dynamic scrum halves who excel at making the most out of their dynamic loose forwards. Even if Dan Biggar goes missing, Welsh Coach Dan Pivac has decided to bolster his stocks with no less than three other specialist fly halves. We have to admit we found this decision rather strange to say the least, despite Biggar and Anscombe’s ongoing injury concerns along with Priestland’s age. It’s a capable if not flash set of backs and centers, with the exception of greased lightning in the shape of winger Louis Rees-Zammit. However, we were puzzled at the omission of big bruising winger Owen Lane, and surely he could have taken one of the four fly half berths.
We have a hunch that the pundits may be right and, despite being Six Nations champions last year, Wales may find themselves finishing fifth. However, we feel that of all the predictions we are making in this piece, this is the one most likely to be way off base. We really have trouble seeing Wales finish so low, even if all the cool headed science and statistics would indicate that this is the Men in Red’s likely fortune this year. So we’ll stick with the convictions of rugby brains much wiser than ours for now but are thoroughly prepared to be proven wrong, and for Welsh supporters we certainly hope this will ultimately be the case.
Italy – does the promise of yet another false dawn beckon?
It seems every year at the start of the Six Nations we herald what is supposed to be the dawn of a new era in Italian rugby only to find ourselves struggling to figure out what all the fuss was about, as Italy walk away with yet another Wooden Spoon. While we are hard pressed to see anything different happening this year, we have to admit that we are cautiously optimistic that Italy may at least be genuinely competitive over the next two months. There won’t be too many opportunities for a surprise win, and the only real possibility is their game in the final round against a possibly weakened and floundering Welsh side. But even that is a genuine long shot as Italy have to travel to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium to achieve it. If Wales’ Six Nations campaign has been a shambles up to that point the Cardiff faithful will expect nothing less than a wholesale slaughter of the hapless Italians.
So yes, this year doesn’t look too promising for new Coach Kieran Crowley and his charges, so why the optimism you might ask? We still think Italy will emerge winless, but in the process they are likely to give one or two sides a genuine fright. This is a very youthful and energetic Italian side and arguably the youngest in the competition. The academy system in Italy is finally starting to bear fruit and while Zebre are still a very long way from striking fear into the hearts of their opponents, Benetton (Crowley’s former employer) have been a quiet success story. They won the Rainbow Cup last year in the old PRO 14 and this year have been competitive in the United Rugby Championship. This current Italian squad benefits from having the core of that Benetton squad. Captain Michele Lamaro is the youngest leader in the tournament, but has shown a maturity beyond his years in his duties both with Italy and Benetton. The talent that has made Italy increasingly competitive in the U20 Six Nations is now firmly embedded into this senior squad. Paolo Garbisi is a increasingly effective game manager at fly half, and is a genuine world class talent. Rugby is now being offered in schools in Italy alongside football and interest is growing. Don’t forget, it took France 49 years to clinch their first outright Six Nations Championship and look at them now!
There are no clear areas where Italy can dominate any of their opponents but there is enough talent spread across all fifteen positions that Italy can at least be competitive. If they can manage their discipline which all too often gets away from them and keep up the kind of focus and effort that saw them hold New Zealand scoreless for the first thirty minutes last November, then Italy could finally start to show the glimmerings of a coming of age in the Six Nations. The debates as to whether or not they should be in the tournament in the first place, we’d argue are irrelevant, but we hope that Italy finally starts to silence them this year. While they are unlikely to win any of their matches, if they can emerge with at least 3 losing bonus points by keeping the score line to a difference of less than seven points in three of their matches then there will definitely be reasons for thinking positively about the future.
So yes sadly it’s yet another Wooden Spoon for Italy this year, but one awarded with a sense of optimism as we very much doubt that Italy are going to be a pushover in five straight matches especially at home. Scotland will need to be on their guard if Italy have managed to emerge with some degree of credibility from three very tough opening rounds against France, England and Ireland and who knows where Wales will be come March 19th?
So that’s a wrap for now. Enjoy the tournament everyone we think it’s going to be an absolute belter this year. I’ll do my best to try and get previews out for this weekend’s matches if the pressure of the day job permits, and if nothing else at least get a podcast out for each of the games.