The Lineout Calls of the Week

It’s that most WONDERFUL time of the year again – as the song goes. Yes it’s the Rugby version of Christmas with, as our good friend Squidge Rugby likes to say, Friday being Sixmas Eve. Sure we love the Rugby Championship and the World Cup is something we all eagerly build up to over four years, but somehow the next two months of Test Rugby strike a special chord in our hearts. For all its faults the Six Nations is without a doubt the highlight of our annual Rugby calendar. The drama, the pomp and ceremony, the age old rivalries, the personalities and the exuberant, passionate and colorful crowds make this tournament unique. It’s dubbed as “rugby’s greatest championship” and although we think that’s pushing it a bit, it’s not far off the mark. What it does do though year in year out is give us memories shared with our rugby mates that live on for decades – and measured against that criteria it takes some beating.

So sure there have been other things going on in the rugby world this week, but we haven’t been able to think about anything else other than the Six Nations. So here’s what kept our debates raging as we looked ahead to what should be a tournament that has the potential to be one for the ages. With a World Cup just around the corner, this is the last big hurrah before the global showdown in September for all six participants. Consequently there is so much at stake in terms of final preparations, lessons to be learned, game plans to be honed and Coaches hoping to settle on the groups that they will be handing out tickets to for that trip to France come September. So we broke it down into where we think the teams will finish and what they need to get out of this Six Nations apart from winning it. We pick the most critical game for each of the six sides and the player most likely to influence it.

Naturally all this may be completely academic by Super Saturday, March 18th, as the inevitable injuries take their toll and upsets that we just didn’t see coming turn the table upside down. But for now after much agonising over numerous frothy pints here’s our look ahead to the Six Nations in the order in which we think the teams will finish, though just like last year even though we got it wrong we don’t think there will be anyone pulling off a Grand Slam this year.

Ireland – 1st but no Grand Slam

Ireland will want to win the Six Nations, and although many tip Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton’s troops to claim a Grand Slam we think that is less important than consolidating the platform they need to achieve their first ever trip to a World Cup semi-final and possibly beyond

Ireland enter this Six Nations feeling full of confidence but for most Irish supporters there’s that ominous sense of deja vu once more. Just like in 2019 Ireland looked on top of the world only to crash out spectacularly in the World Cup later that year in Japan. Furthermore while Ireland had a successful Autumn Nations campaign last year dispatching South Africa, Fiji and Australia there were times when they looked far from convincing. Adding to the concern was the fact that none of those wins were overly emphatic. Even in the Fiji match which had the most positive scoreline Ireland looked shaky at times. Against South Africa and Australia, Ireland ensured through some stellar defence that they were low scoring affairs but struggled to make their own attacks stick. In short, despite holding up well in a massive physical contest with South Africa Ireland’s Autumn Nations campaign failed to light the imagination after the euphoria of the first ever series win in New Zealand earlier that summer.

Nevertheless Leinster, from which a large chunk of this year’s Ireland Six Nations squad originate, are sweeping all before them in Europe and look on target to be one of the favourites to lift the Champions Cup in May. Munster are starting to click as well, while Ulster and Connacht have plenty of talent but lack consistency. However, Irish depth is ridiculously strong with only the halfback positions leaving us with some unanswered questions. In Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park they have one of the best 9/10 combinations on the planet but should either of them succumb to injury then it remains to be seen if Ireland’s rank as the number one team in the world is truly justified.

What they need from this Six Nations: While winning the Championship, especially with a Grand Slam would be an enormous confidence booster in a World Cup year, we’d argue it is not Ireland’s most important priority over the next two months. It is common knowledge that without a firing Johnny Sexton on the pitch Ireland are a very different beast. It’s that nagging uncertainty that has caused them to come unstuck too often. Furthermore despite the fact that Sexton is considered perhaps the greatest Irish player of his time, when he has a bad day his whole team suffers.

As a result Ireland need to find his understudy and someone who can stay the course under pressure. It would appear that Leinster’s Ross Byrne is the chosen successor, but his appearances in the green jersey have not been convincing unlike his masterful performances in the blue of Leinster. Munster’s Jack Crawley is rapidly being touted as the next best thing in a 10 jersey but Ross Byrne’s brother Harry is also a potential candidate.

Meanwhile at scrum half the debate rages with Munster’s Conor Murray seemingly past his prime and fellow teammate Craig Casey considered too small and inconsistent despite a blistering speed of delivery and ability to seize opportunities that are presented to him. Even Leinster stalwart Jamison Gibson-Park is still not back to his best after injury.

In short, Ireland need this tournament to provide them with a convincing Plan B for both these positions. That means that in addition to Gibson-Park and Sexton Ireland need to get as much game time as possible for their respective understudies without jeopardizing their chances at Six Nations silverware. These players need pressure game time in some of the big games, if Ireland are truly serious about getting past the Quarter Final stage of the World Cup in eight months for the first time in their history.

Most important game: Ireland vs France – There is no denying that this along with possibly the England game at the end of the tournament will be this year’s Championship defining match for Ireland. If Ireland put in a convincing performance against Wales in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in the opening weekend, then a confidence boosting win at home in front of the Aviva faithful against World Cup favourites and potential quarter-final opponents France will be critical to not only their Six Nations chances, but also their preparations for the World Cup. With two relatively straightforward trips to Italy and Scotland to follow this match, only a rejuvenated England back in Dublin on the final weekend could spoil Ireland’s Six Nations party. As number one in the world meets number two the pressure will be intense for both sides, and as a result this is probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the tournament for both supporters and neutrals alike.

Most important player : Johnny Sexton – We simply cannot understate the importance of the 37 year old veteran fly half to Ireland’s aspirations in 2023 both in the Six Nations and the World Cup six months later. Despite his age he appears to defy the ravages of time and is probably playing his best rugby of an exceptionally distinguished career. The desire and ambition to end on a high note for both himself and his country is clearly there for all to see and his teammates feed off his motivation. Without him on the pitch, Ireland need its other leaders to step up, and should Sexton succumb to injury which is always a concern Ireland has to find a way to maintain the shape and direction he provides them. While Ireland will need to find their Sexton Plan B this tournament, his importance to Ireland’s aspirations over the next eight months is paramount. How he is managed as a result will be fascinating to see.

France – 2nd as some very classy runners up

Although many consider France Captain and scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s greatest rugby player at the moment, we have a hunch that Coach Fabien Galthie is more focused on seeing how well his exceptional charges deal with the mounting pressure on them ahead of their own World Cup and how to use the remarkable depth of talent that French rugby seems blessed with

As last year’s Grand Slam Champions, World Cup hosts and number two ranked side in the world France have EVERYTHING to prove this Six Nations. Undefeated in 2022 and blessed with a depth of talent across the pitch that is the envy of every International Coach, France look the business in this World Cup year. However, a raft of mounting injuries and a disturbing lack of form in European club competition this season have raised some uncomfortable questions for the Men in Blue, most pressing being have they peaked too soon ahead of the World Cup? This question has tended to be reserved for Ireland in recent times, but there is no denying that France perhaps more than their rivals in green need to lay down a marker this Six Nations.

Their saving grace is an almost abundant depth of talent across every position. France can at any time choose between three world class players no matter what the number on their jersey. Perhaps their only concern this tournament is finding a bit more proven depth in the centre channels, but everywhere else their stocks are plentiful, despite the mounting casualty list. They may not necessarily be this year’s Six Nations favourites but they are not far off it, and whatever work is done over the next two months will be excellent preparation to iron out whatever wrinkles and doubts they may have ahead of the World Cup.

What they need from this Six Nations: French clubs’ lack of form in Europe at the moment can in part be put down to the injury crisis sweeping French rugby and causing Coach Fabien Galthie and his selectors such headaches. However, what France seem able to do better than any other team at the moment is take a third choice player and elevate him to world class in the space of a few matches. Expect to see a lot of that this Six Nations, and while winning it will be as important as ever to Galthie and his charges, consolidating their depth when it comes to selection choices will be equally important. France will want to head into the World Cup with a Plan A,B and C for every position, and we’d argue that this Six Nations will be the proving ground for a lot of players aiming to stamp their ownership on a World Cup jersey. France along with Ireland are clear favourites to win this year’s Championship but a Grand Slam won’t be the driver it was last year. Consistency of performance and lessons to be learnt in terms of depth ahead of the World Cup are likely to be more important concerns.

Most important game: England vs France – This will be the big one for Les Bleus. While the game in Dublin will be of huge significance, if France come short at the Aviva this game will be critical to righting their Six Nations ship. Lose this one if things have gone badly against Ireland, and France’s Six Nations aspirations are over and their preparations for the World Cup will take a serious knock. Twickenham although a difficult place to travel to can be a happy hunting ground for the French and a win here will set them up nicely for a home Championship decider on the last weekend of the tournament against Wales.

Most important player: Antoine Dupont – The Toulouse scrum half is regarded by many as the best player of his generation and is already being venerated as one of the greatest to grace the international game in its long and colorful history. Much like Ireland’s Sexton, when Dupont fires France take their game to an almost existential level. France are good without him, but with him they look unstoppable. His ability to read a game almost three plays in advance is uncanny and means that he is constantly able to put his team one step ahead of the opposition defences. Ally this to a turn of pace and an eye for opportunity, and it’s easy to see why his teammates dub him the “little magician”.

England – Third but potential finally unleashed

New England Coach Steve Borthwick is handed the unenviable task of righting England’s sturdy but leaky ship only eight months out from the World Cup. He’s stuck with some familiar faces, most notably Captain Owen Farrell, but the goal of this Six Nations is how to fit all of England’s individual pieces of considerable talent into a cohesive unit

England start a new chapter in their troubled recent history as Coach Steve Borthwick takes charge of his first Six Nations campaign as the man in the hot seat. Hopefully, the inconsistent and at times baffling selection decisions regardless of form made by his predecessor Eddie Jones are a thing of the past. In the process what English supporters hope will emerge is a settled side that has a clear idea of the game they want to play and which suits their colllective abilities, particularly in attack. England need a game plan and the discipline to execute it properly. Their at times laughable disciplinary record under Jones has to be a thing of the past. Borthwick, although sticking with some of England’s golden oldies has already shown a refreshing penchant to really unearth and fast track the younger generation of talent seen at club level in English rugby.

Consequently, England and their supporters should feel more than a little optimistic about their chances this Six Nations. While asking Borthwick to turn around the fortunes of the Men in White in the space of a mere five weekends and win the Six Nations is probably too much of a tall order, expect England to put in a much more consistent and disciplined Six Nations challenge than in recent years.

What they need from this Six Nations: England need to get three things out of this Championship plain and simple. First get some consistency in selection decisions and really embed an exciting younger generation of players into England’s plans for not only the World Cup but the future beyond it. Second develop an attacking game plan that all the players can buy into, understand and which suits their individual and collective skill sets. Three improve England’s overall discipline and put a halt to giving away silly and mindless penalties.

That’s it Steve – pretty simple really so have at it! If you do we fancy England will once again be a side on the rise and one which can pose a genuine threat come September in France.

Most important game: Ireland vs England – If England have done well by the time they get to Dublin by dispatching France at Twickenham and overturning the Welsh in Cardiff, then this their final game of the Championship will be a watershed moment for Steve Borthwick in his first tournament as the new England boss. If the two aforementioned games have gone in England’s favor then all of a sudden there is everything to play for on the final day of the Championship. England would then find themselves in a realistic hunt for the silverware with only eighty minutes left on the tournament clock, especially if Ireland have had a Championship that is a flashback to their 2019 Six Nations effort. Dublin on the last day of the Six Nations is a place few people would want to end their campaign, but what a potential feather in the cap for Steve Borthwick and his charges if they could knock Ireland off their perch. If things have gone well for England this Six Nations expect their motivation to be off the charts when referee Jaco Peyper blows the whistle for kick off at the Aviva.

Most important player: Jack van Poortfliet: Surely it’s Marcus Smith we hear you say. We’d argue that although Smith is critically important to England’s plans for this Six Nations and beyond, it’s the Leicester scrum half who really needs to shine in a white jersey. His talents are there for all too see, but his lack of game time at this level has been evident, most notably during the Autumn Nations series which clearly rattled his confidence. Veteran scrum half Ben Youngs is not the player to take England to the World Cup and beyond. England need van Poortfliet’s pace and speed of delivery as well as his ability to surprise opposition defences. Ben Youngs game is both ponderous and predictable allowing opponents to read England like a book. Van Poortfliet just needs to develop confidence in his role and alongside Marcus Smith England could well end up with a genuine world class halfback axis.

Scotland – Fourth but everybody’s banana skin

Scotland have a highly capable Captain in Jamie Ritchie but whether Coach Gregor Townsend has the backing of his players is very much up for debate. Scotland will trip several teams up over the next two months, but a lack of consistency in how they do it from one weekend to the next will leave them as frustrated as they are every year

Scotland are the Six Nations greatest conundrum – they can be brilliant and on any given weekend beat any of the Six Nations competitors. The problem is they just can’t do it with any degree of consistency – spectacular one weekend and then a disaster the next. Until Scotland fix this they’ll always be seen as the team that will upset other teams’ title aspirations but never be a genuine contender themselves. Add to that some obvious friction between key players and Coach Gregor Townsend which causes Scotland to trip up when they and the rest of us least expect it. They seem to have adopted the trait of French teams of old, as we find ourselves asking each weekend of the tournament which Scottish side will show up?

Scotland are a frustrating side to watch. For a country with a relatively small player pool, they still manage to turn out some extraordinarily gifted players and as a team they are often a joy to behold in action. At times their running game is akin to the Northern Hemisphere’s version of Fijian rugby. The problem is they just can’t seem to replicate it week in week out. Scottish rugby is a great product make no mistake, you just never know which version you’ve just bought.

What they need from this Six Nations: Consistency – That’s it nothing more to be said. Sure some injuries have got in the way for this Six Nations, most notably superstar winger Darcy Graham, but there’s enough talent in this Scottish squad to deliver it and still leave us wanting for more. Scotland often seem to want to try and play a different style of rugby every week, and what they need to do this Six Nations is just be Scotland – plain and simple. Don’t try and be New Zealand one week and South Africa the next. The players and Coaches need to be reading from the same script for the five weekends of the Championship. Do that and all of a sudden Scotland are no longer that banana skin that might catch you unawares, but instead a side that poses a genuine threat week in week out and has a real chance of finally getting their hands on some Six Nations silverware.

Most important game: France vs Scotland – In our humble opinion Scotland’s Six Nations campaign will be decided in this fixture. Paris is never an easy place to visit at the best of times. However, if France have come unstuck prior to this match against Ireland then they will be wounded and perhaps lacking in confidence. If Scotland manage to once more turn over England at Twickenham in the opening weekend, followed up by teaching Wales a lesson at Murrayfield then all of a sudden it’s game on for their Championship hopes. If they can do the unthinkable and defeat a French side harboring some doubts in the Stade de France in Round 3, they then can await Ireland’s visit to Murrayfield with a fair degree of optimism prior to hosting Wooden Spoon specialists Italy. Lose badly in Paris and Scotland’s trend of imploding in the latter stages of the tournament will be reinforced, leaving them vulnerable to not only a rampaging Ireland but an Italian side who knows how to win away from home against all the odds on Super Saturday.

Most important player: Finn Russell – Scotland’s maverick fly half along with his relationship to Coach Gregor Townsend is the key to whether or not they go deep into this tournament or lose the plot from the outset. What we have noticed of late is that Russell’s play is more measured – though never predictable. His ability to keep defences guessing is still world class, but the reckless risk taking appears to have been toned down. If his teammates can keep up with him and click with his remarkable vision then Scotland could finally become the team we’ve all been waiting for in the Six Nations.

Wales – Fifth as “Warrenball” takes its toll on a side with plenty of talent

Captain Ken Owens and former Coach Warren Gatland who has been parachuted in at the eleventh hour somehow need to stay clear of the malaise affecting Welsh rugby and its future

Wales head into this Six Nations once more reeling from an injury list and a governing body that much like England’s seems woefully out of touch with the game it is supposed to be managing. Wales may be low on confidence but are not short on talent. Even though Welsh club rugby is a mess, Ospreys’ recent resurgence in the URC and the European Champions Cup will give Welsh supporters some confidence heading into a tricky Six Nations.

The Coaching reshuffle that has brought in Warren Gatland after Wayne Pivac’s summary dismissal at the end of 2022 has raised some eyebrows. Gatland may know more about Welsh rugby than any other Coach out there, and may be more familiar with its nuances than how to renew his New Zealand passport, but there’s no denying that the aura surrounding his Coaching talents has dimmed somewhat since the last World Cup. If anything his sides have looked ponderous and predictable.

However, despite the problems racking Welsh rugby, the Six Nations is a tournament in which, despite whatever is happening at club level, the Men in Red seem to rise to the occasion for. We expect no less this year and as a result opponents will write them off at their peril. Their fixture list may not be ideal, but if they can start well then Wales’ problems of last year may suddenly seem like a distant memory at least for the Six Nations.

What they need from this Six Nations: Stay injury free as much as possible – plain and simple. Wales have assembled a talented Six Nations squad, but if the stretcher bearers start depleting the ranks too early there is simply not enough depth to carry Wales through to the end of the tournament. Given that the injury lists are are already relatively full and even some of the current squad have injury concerns, Wales have a tricky two months ahead of them. Add to this some genuine problems with the set pieces and disciplinary lapses and Warren Gatland has a long to do list coupled with some sleepless nights fretting over the fitness of some of his key players. “Warrenball” Welsh style needs to evolve from what worked in the past and rotation of his player base will be key in ensuring that Wales survive this Six Nations intact and in a position to prepare for the World Cup in six months time.

Most important game: Italy vs Wales – If Wales’ campaign has gone badly by the time they arrive in Rome by having lost to Ireland, Scotland or England you can be sure that Italy will smell blood looking to repeat their Six Nations redemption heroics of last year. As a result this game could see Wales staring at the handle of the Wooden Spoon should they lose to Italy as well. If that proves to be the case then they only have a difficult trip left to Paris a week later in which to attempt to rescue some Six Nations pride. The games against Ireland and England will be challenging enough even if they are being played in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and a road trip to Murrayfield to face the Scots is always a difficult proposition. Consequently this, their last but one match of the tournament, will be critical as a second consecutive loss to the Azzurri would be anathema to their supporters and leave them heading into their World Cup preparations in a crisis of confidence.

Most important player: Justin Tipuric – Any regular reader of this blog over the last few years will know that we regard Justin Tipuric as one of the greatest Welsh players to don the red jersey this century, a fact that until recently seems to have gone unnoticed by his fellow countrymen. Back from injury with a vengeance, the back rower with one of the highest workrates in the International game is once more lighting up the pitch for his Ospreys club in the URC and the Heineken Cup. The seemingly tireless loose forward has reversed the fortunes of the Ospreys in both the URC and Europe. His presence is an enormous source of inspiration to his teammates and he is rapidly becoming the talisman that up until recently has been the sole preserve of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones. He simply pops up everywhere on the pitch and is at the heart of everything that Wales and the Ospreys do well. A player who just never gives up will bring enormous confidence to a team in desperate need of some good old fashioned never say die attitude.

Italy – Sixth with the Wooden Spoon once more but one that has the potential to stir the odd upset along the way

Anyone remember the last time Kieran Crowley laughed this much? Italy’s Kiwi Coach has plenty of reasons to feel cheerful this Six Nations despite still being tipped for yet another Wooden Spoon. Any team that takes Michele Lamaro and his troops lightly over the next two months is likely to come seriously short

Yes we know we’re falling into the annual trap that catches so many observers of the International game. You’ve all heard it before that this is the year that Italy’s dismal Six Nations record finally becomes a thing of the past. Italy looked exceptionally competitive at times last year, and no-one will forget their heroics in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations. Although still a long way from the finished product, Italy under Kieran Crowley are no longer a pushover, and their opponents will need to take them seriously. We have a hunch that the days of Italy being an easy points haul for the teams trying to secure a points difference advantage on the table are a thing of the past. Italy actually look like they are enjoying their rugby at long last, and Benetton are becoming a tricky side in the URC especially at home. Kieran Crowley who hardly ever cracked a smile while he was coaching Canada, is now prone to sudden outbursts of genuine merriment. In short, something positive is happening in Italian rugby at long last.

What it means in the long run and whether or not it will change the fact that Italy are still likely to be clutching the Wooden Spoon on March 18th remains to be seen. The difference this year, especially with a favourable fixture list which sees them with three home games, is that Italy looks organized with a young and talented squad who know what it’s like to win big games under pressure. There’s still a long way to go, but nobody will be taking Italy for granted this year.

What they need from this Six Nations: Some big wins plain and simple. They got one last year and this year they need to up it to two. That may be a tall order but they simply have to win one of their home games at the very least most likely against Wales. They find themselves in a Pool of Death at the World Cup, which makes it almost impossible for them to get to the Quarter Finals as to do so they would have to beat either New Zealand or France. However, a strong third place Pool finish will be vital to ensure that this young squad can build with confidence for Australia 2027, having guaranteed automatic qualification. Consequently this Six Nations will be seen as the platform to achieve that goal as a bare minimum and ensure that Italy is seen as a genuinely competitive and tricky side to deal with.

Most important game: Scotland vs Italy – Some might think that getting back to back victories over Wales, especially given that they play the Men in Red at home, would be Italy’s target for this year. There is no doubt that this will be at the forefront of their planning. However, we’d argue that if Italy are to really make a statement that they are now a force to be reckoned with, another Six Nations win on the road at the end of the tournament is of paramount importance and will stand them in excellent stead for their preparations for the World Cup. If Scotland have imploded in the latter stages of the tournament as they have had a tendency to do in recent years, then Italy will once again see an opportunity that bears an enormous similarity to the situation they found themselves in last year in Cardiff, but now benefitting from having the experience needed to win such games. Italy have beaten Scotland at Murrayfield twice since joining the Six Nations so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

Most important player: Paolo Garbisi – When we learned that the star Italian fly half and playmaker was set to miss at least the first three matches of the tournament, we couldn’t help but consign Italy to the fringes of the tournament despite a squad boasting some genuine talent. However, it’s Garbisi that brings it all together and makes it sing. Possessing a wisdom and understanding of the game well beyond his 22 years and 21 caps, Garbisi is vital to Italy’s plans to finally turn a corner in their rugby fortunes. If he can keep fit, and furthermore catch France by surprise in their tournament opener in Rome, especially given the fact that France have a tendency of forgetting to get out of bed for their first Six Nations fixture, we all may well find ourselves having to rewrite these predictions. We can’t wait to find out!

Well that’s it folks, only three more sleeps till referee Karl Dickson blows the whistle in Cardiff to open this year’s festivities. We can’t wait and as always you can catch it here in Canada on DAZN and Premier Sports Asia. A tournament that always surprises and never fails to entertain awaits – let the games begin!!!!!


Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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