Team of the 6 Nations (so far?)

Technically it might not be finished but it will be very difficult to squeeze the remaining fixtures in so I thought it made some sense to pick my favourite XV from the games that have been played.

  1. Rory Sutherland – Scotland’s scrum was one of the most impressive parts of the entire tournament. Apart from one mistake against a very savvy England scrum involving the walking behaviour disorder that is Ellis Genge they stood up well in all 4 of their games.
  2. Julien Marchand – it’s amazing that he’s just 24, in previous seasons Scotland have had a plethora of hooker’s but this season their line out was a little bit of a problem, Jamie George was also incredibly solid but once again – Marchand is just 24!
  3. Zander Fagerson – in the past Fagerson has been good around the park or good at scrum time but this season it seems to have all clicked for the 24 year old.
  4. Maro Itoje – when good Maro turns up he’s excellent (when bad Maro turns up he’s just very good) and 2020 6 Nations version of Maro was back to his unstoppable best.
  5. Scott Cummings – he’s just 23 and was playing in his first 6 Nations but his impact at the breakdown was vital to allow Scotland’s back row to play on the front foot. Bernard Le Roux was an absolute workhorse for the new Les Bleus and I personally enjoyed how furious James Ryan appeared to be by his team mates performance at Twickenham but when Scotland substituted Cummings against England it was clear to see how much he was missed
  6. Charles Ollivon – 4 tries in 4 games for French blindside is a hell of a return for any player let alone a 6 ft 6 blindside (even if blindside’s wear 7 in France).
  7. Justin Tipuric – 3 in 4 for the Welsh openside is an indication that Pivac wants to get one of his best ball handlers playing in a bit of space and the 30 year old looks like he could play for another 5 or 6 seasons.
  8. C.J Stander – he’s arguably made more impact at the breakdown as he has as a ball carrier and he seems to have mastered the art of pushing his luck with officials which is priceless for a back rower.
  9. Antoine Dupont – to paraphrase Brian Potter “I’ve seen the future and it’s Antoine”, he’s 23 and he looks like he was born to play Test rugby, he will be the next French captain.
  10. Romain Ntamack – George Ford has been very good and Dan Biggar looked in vintage form in most games and while Ntamack struggled against Scotland when his pack took a battering he usually looks at home in the blue 10 jersey which is quite an achievement for a 20 year old who often plays at 12 for Toulouse.
  11. Josh Adams – he’s a born finisher and although he got injured against Ireland and left the field against France he still scored 3 tries in 4 games (all against a bumbling Italian defence, but still). Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson both looked remarkably good in individual games and even though Elliott Daly was playing at fullback he finished well out wide too.
  12. Gael Fickou – this is a really tricky decision, Fickou has been very good but he played on the wing against Wales and Scotland and 20 year old Arthur Vincent stepped in and didn’t an incredibly effective job too. Owen Farrell didn’t really do anything wrong in any game and nor did Bundee Aki and I personally love Sam Johnson, he’s so uncomplicated and tough as teak, even Carlo Canna looks to be settling into the 12 shirt but I think Fickou at 12 is the foundation that Sean Edwards wants to build the new French defence on.
  13. Nick Tompkins – he was a shock selection in the original squad but he’s been the most exciting attacking player in the Wales team, he beats defenders for fun and he’s carried a ton of ball. He’s still adapting to defending in Test rugby but as he made his debut in the first game of this tournament that’s not a surprise.
  14. Jonny May – there haven’t really been many consistent performances from wingers in this tournament and while I love Andrew Conway and Matteo Minozzi (who has been switched to wing from fullback) May’s 2 tries are the second most from a winger behind Josh Adams.
  15. Anthony Bouthier – from part time rugby player and builder to Pro D2 and Test rugby in a matter of about 3 years, he’s been an absolute revelation to me. He has a huge boot, doesn’t mind counterattacking from deep and for someone who isn’t physically imposing he doesn’t shirk a tackle.

Bold predictions for 6 Nations week 2

Ireland v Italy bold prediction – Ireland to win by 40 points

Last week Ireland did the whole ruthless efficiency thing as they squeezed past France with the last kick of the game in atrocious conditions (some would say very Irish conditions) in Paris. Whilst they did fail to score a try and Johnny Sexton was their only points scorer virtually the whole team outplayed their opponent. Ireland had 68% possession and territory (70% and 72% in the first half!) which is pretty spectacular for a team playing away from home. This domination was built on the solid foundation the forwards provided, they won 18 of 19 set pieces and won 162 out of 166 rucks alongside 4 of the 4 mauls they attempted. They only conceded 6 penalties (although it would be prescient to point out that Nigel Owens was on the whistle and he has definitely his own laid back approach to the laws of rugby), the only part of their game that was less than excellent was their defending as they missed 15 tackles, about 4 of which came as Teddy Thomas scorched in from 60 metres out.

For their part Italy endured a tough opening game at home against the doomsday device that is Eddie Jones’ England and while their scrum showed a similar consistency to panna cota they didn’t go down without a fight. Italy won the territory and possession battle against England with 52% of both and they did cross for 2 tries but ultimately their disorganised defence which lead to a complete lack of line speed meant England could dance over for 7 tries of their own (if Italy had managed to keep a lid on Sam Simmonds and Anthony Watson the final score would have been a more respectable 15-26). I can’t imagine Italy will be able to dominate either possession or territory against Ireland’s efficient pack and if Johnny Sexton can get some quick ball he will pick Italy’s passive defensive line apart.

England v Wales bold prediction – Wales leave west London with their 100% record intact

England haven’t lost at Twickenham in 14 games but the last 6 Nations team to win there were Wales. To paraphrase Phil Collins – I can feel it coming in the air this morning, even if it would be a huge upset. Although here’s a few reasons why Wales could do it:

  1. England are coming off a 6 day turn around so Wales have had an extra preparation day
  2. England had to fly back from Italy but Wales only had to travel down the M4
  3. Wales only made 98 tackles (they missed 15) compared to the 136 England had to put in (they missed 17) as they lost the territory and possession battles in Rome
  4. Last year in Cardiff England really struggled with the Welsh physicality until Ross Moriarty was substituted (well done Mr. Howley)
  5. England conceded 9 penalties and 1 free kick in Rome, Wales only gave away 7 and 1
  6. Wales made 18 clean breaks and 13 offloads against a Scotland team who tackled well but were very disorganised. England made 14 clean breaks and 11 offloads against a defence that ultimately conceded 46 points
  7. Eddie Jones has provided Wales with enough motivational material for about the next 7 seasons over the last few days. Calling out an inexperienced 10 is pretty bog standard bully boy stuff but ripping into a Lions captain with 123 Test caps is either desperate or nonsense.
  8. Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o to face the same Centre combination that beat his Bath team 35-17. And both Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams scored tries in that game.

Confidence is going to be the deciding factor in this game and it’s technically impossible to determine who will have the most once the game kicks off but the Scarlets have won 15 games in the league and European Champions Cup which is more than any English team in their respective competitions and this Wales team has 10 Scarlets starting so they shouldn’t be short on belief.

And for what it’s worth I personally can’t get on board with the whole “Test rugby is a big step up” platitude mainly because playing rugby (or any sport) is exactly the same when the ball is in play. Uncontrollable variables like who you’re representing or how big the stadium is or what the opposing coach said about you on Thursday are exactly that, uncontrollable. The ball is the same size, the rules are the same (although do vary from referee to referee) and the aim is the same, control yourself, keep a clear head and communicate with your team mates.

Scotland v France bold prediction – Good Finn Russell turns up and absolutely shreds the French defence

Not only did France have to make a lactic acid inducing 238 tackles against Ireland they also missed 15, conceded 10 penalties (plus 1 free kick) and spent more than two thirds of the game in their own half. They also suffered some controversial injuries too which have caused 3 changes in their starting XV with 32 year old Lionel Beauxis being recalled to start at 10 for the first time in six years.

Scotland weren’t terrible last week and on the stats sheet they were relatively close 48% territory (60% in the first half), they beat 19 defenders and they did score a consolation try in the 79th minute. A confused selection (Huw Jones at 12 wasn’t great) and Ali Price starting badly and descending into some sort of shame spiral were pretty fatal but Greig Laidlaw and his stoic solidity are starting this week. Scotland have scored 19 tries in their last 9 6 Nations games at Murrayfield including 3 the last time they played France there so I can’t see them repeating last week’s lacklustre showing. The return of Simon Berghan from a ban should bolster the scrum too, provided he keeps his cool a 6 foot 4, 19 stone Tight-head prop should bring enough physicality to trouble a French team who are still having nightmares about relentless Irish forwards running into them.

6 Nations bold predictions

Every dog and their man has come up with their own 6 Nations preview this week and since the final standings all seem the same (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy) I thought I’d try something different, hopefully humorous and, in a break from the norm, remotely interesting.

Wales v Scotland

Bold prediction – this one finishes as a draw

On paper this game involves 2 teams full of skill and attacking intent and a referee who has very little time for either of the above. Pascal Gauzere can be one of the most frustrating referees to watch because he doesn’t appear to have any feel for the game and has no hesitation in checking as many incidents as possible with the TMO (who is David Grashoff and he has been known to take an interminable length of time just to make incorrect decisions).

Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on the wing meaning that Wales have a back line comprising of 5 Scarlets and a former Scarlets academy winger but Rob Howley insists they are not going to play Scarlets rugby. Rob Howley was an excellent scrum half in his playing days but scrum halves rarely make good backs coaches and it must have something to do with how playing at 9 mainly involves what sport psychologists call “closed skills”, you box kick, you snipe around the fringes or you pass to the first receiver and let them do the fancy stuff. Everyone else in the back line has to respond to external stimuli such as defenders, support runners, their proximity to the touchline as well as the decisions the 9 has to make (kick, pass or keep running) and generally scrum halves who coach backs have no appreciation for any of these factors at all, my own personal belief (and concern) in this was reinforced by Howley’s use of the phrase “Welsh play book” this week because you can really only have a play book for closed skills.

All the talk about Scotland this week has been about how injured their front row is but they have selected one of the best props from the 2017 6 Nations and the stand out hooker from the Autumn Internationals in Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally, Scotland will presumably be looking to play like Glasgow Warriors have been in the new Pro 14 league this season (they’ve 12 out of 13 and recorded 10 bonus points too) and that’s why everyone has great expectations for this game.

I’m expecting fraught defensive coaches on both sides because for all the attacking talent on display (Adams, Evans, Davies for Wales and McGuigan, Harris, Seymour, Hogg in particular for Scotland) there are a number of new combinations and inexperienced Test match players who will provide opportunities for their opponents to expose. If the Welsh fowards can get the upper hand then Scotland will have to wait longer than 16 years to win again in Cardiff, but I can’t see Gauzere and his cohorts allowing anyone to dominate this game.

France v Ireland

Bold prediction – France’s noveau riche start like a house on fire and build a big enough lead to hang on to.

Jaques Brunel isn’t going die wondering in his first game as France coach, he’s starting an 19 year old at Fly Half and if that doesn’t work he’s got a 21 year old to come off the bench to save the day. He’s also got a 21 year old scrum half on the bench (who is seriously quick), two 23 years old’s in the pack and 4 24 year old’s on the bench alongside him so maybe (just maybe) the excitement is back in French rugby?

Now, on paper Ireland should crush these French youngsters like great, big, experienced things crush new, smaller, younger things but since 2008 Ireland have only once in France (by 2 points in 2014) and they’ve drawn once whilst losing 4 times. In fact since 1954 Ireland have only won 3 times in France so Ireland at 2/5 on with the bookmakers almost seems to be a minor oversight.

Brunel has gone for an injection of youth because France are perceived to be one of the unfittest teams in the 6 Nations and Ireland are almost mechanical in their dedication to strength and conditioning work so they should be able to outlast their hosts and with both Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens on officiating duty at the Stade de France the chances that this one is decided by an error are pretty slim. Nigel Owens does like a game to flow though so rucks will be hotly contested and there may be some bodies flying in all directions. If France make a good start, and they do have a team full of ball carriers who like to offload, this game could be a real nail biter but if Ireland can keep their heads (and they rarely do in Paris) the bookies are right.

Italy v England

Bold prediction – it’s hard to make any prediction that doesn’t involve England winning, but how about England winning with 14 players on the pitch.

This is the game where England always look a bit scratchy, don’t thrash Italy as conclusively as they should but Owen Farrell will make sure they win by at least 30. In theory the relentless, spirit crushing threshing machine that is the England tight 5 should provide England with enough clean ball to win this by 100 points but Italy are always ul for their first game at home and something weird usually happens, it snowed one year!

Italy are in a seemingly perpetual “transition phase” possibly because they appear to pick their team out of a hat, admittedly they’re missing players like Venditti (who doesn’t love a 17 stone winger? <well Dean Richards didn’t, but I’m talking about normal people>) and Leonardo Sarto (who doesn’t love a 6 foot 3 winger?) but they do have players like Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Gori and Maxime Mbanda on the bench when they should all be starting.

The one hope Italy have is that Eddie Jones’ England and discipline are rarely easy bedfellows and English discretions may give the Azzurri a glimmer of hope, but they usually kick at the post with all the accuracy of a North Korean missile launch so even that’s a slim hope.

6 Nations round 5

Attempting to predict the 3 winners today would be absolute guesswork so I’m going to try and highlight a few players and matchups to watch out for instead. (Although after Jonathan Joseph found his dancing shoes last weekend and Ireland failed to score a try against Wales an English Grand Slam appears a foregone conclusion)

Joseph and Ringrose is one of the big battles this week and whilst the forwards will have a big say in how well both backline’s perform England will be looking to exploit Ireland’s new Centre pairing. When Scotland beat Ireland in week 1 Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg made hay in the wide channels and while Wales favoured the less subtle approach of ploughing into defenders until George North (& inexplicably Jamie Roberts) got the ball and just dragged tacklers across the try-line the Irish backline defence has conceded 6 tries already in the tournament. 

Jonathan Sexton nearly made 2 game changing interceptions early on against Wales last week so how England combat his ability to read flat passes whilst they try to attack the wide channels will be interesting (but the English forwards could negate his effectiveness if they can dominate the gainline battle).

How Jared Payne goes will be interesting as his versatility could make him attractive to Lions selectors but he hasn’t played for a long time. Iain Henderson has got a bit of a thankless task being parachuted in to take on a high flying England pack too.

Italy look completely devoid of confidence and lacking in skill this year so gauging how Scotland players are playing against them will be tricky, but Huw Jones could make himself feel a lot better against Tommaso Benvenuti after the tough time he had last week against England (although the players alongside him largely left him on an island to defend a rampant English backline)

Wales should be able to make France run around enough to win a scrappy affair in Paris but the battle of the 9’s should be a classic. The immaculately coiffed Rhys Webb against the man who looks like he just woke up and ran on the pitch Baptiste Serin. Both can make defenders look silly, both talk far too much and both are quality 9’s.  There’s a few Welsh forwards who need stand out performances to guarantee a ticket to New Zealand and Alun-Wyn Jones needs to stamp his authority on the game if he’s going to be a serious contender to skipper the Lions in the summer 

Calcutta Cup and Garibaldi Trophy 

England v Scotland seems to be a foregone conclusion, I seem to be the only person who’s been seriously underwhelmed by England. Italy proved that if you can knock them off their stride they can be beaten. Scotland could knock them off their stride by starting like a house on fire because England have been far stronger in the last 30 minutes of games than the first 30 minutes. They left incredibly late to beat Wales, they didn’t put France away until the 70th minute and it was the 47th when they took the decisive lead against Italy. Scotland on the other hand have scored tries in 2 of their first 3 games and against Wales they took the lead on the 44th minute and didn’t conceded another point in the game. 

England should have an advantage at scrum time but with Mathieu Raynal refereeing that may not count for anything, I saw him referee Argentina v Australia at Twickenham and he was at best inconsistent and when it came to scrum time he was almost always wrong! Joe Marler wins his 50th cap today and he could find himself on the receiving end of the Frenchman’s whistle. The battle between the hookers could be fascinating, Dylan Hartley hasn’t really hit his straps after his prolonged pre-tournament ban and Fraser Brown has continued the good form he’s displayed for Glasgow Warriors but he is considerably smaller than the Kiwi opposite him. That’s a microcosm of the entire game, Scotland have the form but England generally have the size and power, however in the Second Row where Scotland’s Gray brothers (who sound like they’d make a great bespoke tailors) outweigh their opposite numbers by about 4 stone! The Scottish Centre pairing outweigh their English counterparts too (not on the bench, Ben Te’o is built like a house and weighs 2 stone and 9 pounds more than Mark Bennett) and after a pretty “intense” i.e devoid of skill 80 minutes of smash ’em, bash ’em rugby in Cardiff last night there’s a chance for all 6 Centres to put their hands up for Lions selection today. 
You can get odds of 4-1 on Scotland turning the Sassernach’s over on their own patch today and there is a chance that all 3 of the underdogs could win this weekend so it could be worth a fiver. If Vern Cotter is feeling particularly mischievous then he’ll tell Scotland to stay well away from the first potential ruck situation, but he’ll have absolutely pilling in at the second one. John Barclay always seems an incredibly measured and level headed guy in interviews so whether or not he can whip his team up into the sort of frenzy they’ll need to shock England early doors will be fascinating. 
Italy and France are 2 teams who are so incredibly inconsistent in terms of both confidence and accuracy that it’s impossible to know how this one will play out. The smart money is on France and you have to think they’ll win by virtue of just having a truly enormous pack of forwards, but England showed that they will fatigue and if Italy can move the ball (and Carli Canna definitely has the vision to see holes in defences) then Italy could sneak the win late on.  The weather in Rome looks glorious so France won’t have to worry about the forward dominated, slow, turgid whistle-fest they endured in Dublin two weeks ago and they might be able to play the Barbarian style, free-flowing, offloading rugby that Guy Noves seems to be craving (they probably won’t, because their accuracy hasn’t been the greatest in recent times) but with individuals like Serin, Fickou, Vakatawa, Nakitaitaci and the newly restored Brice Dulin there should be some tries. From an Italian point of view Campagnaro and Venditti both have the power and pace to make defenders look incredibly silly so it’s really only Kiwi referee Ben O’Keefe standing between us spectators and an bucket of  meat-pies!

2017 6 Nations week 3 preview 

It’s difficult to come up with anything too insightful for Saturday’s games, so far all I’ve got is Scotland have conceded more than 20 penalties in their 2 games so far and wide John Lacey on the whistle today that may well be the deciding factor. Wales won’t mind a staccato affair with plenty of shots at goal for Leigh Halfpenny but Scotland will be hoping Lacey allows a free flowing game and if he does then their outside backs could make their opponents look like leaden footed donkeys.

Wales are always keen to talk about how they have a gameplan which involves “attacking wider” but the problem seems to be to me that they simply don’t have enough speed to threaten International defences. The 3 fast players in the squad are Justin Tipuric, who they appear to have a really convoluted way of using in a pod of forwards in the midfield alongside Alun-Wyn Jones (who admittedly does carry ball like a back, but usually gets crunched by defenders when he runs in bolt upright or surrenders to the first tackler having moved about 8 inches forward) and both the wingers George North and Liam Williams who are unbelievable attacking threats but are woefully neglected by the inside backs who either take contact and kill any momentum or kick the ball away. Scotland on the other hand have attacking threats all along the backline and on the bench too. Huw Jones has a real chance to put up his hand for a Lions spot today with Jonathan Davies struggling to start for his regional side and Jonathan Joseph and Garry Ringrose yet to really hit their straps either. Tim Visser comes in for the injured Sean Maitland and with him and George North there’s potential for some huge collisions and a few serious knocks as they 2 of the most injury prone players in Test rugby.

Wales forwards were absolutely heroic last time out against England in Cardiff and if they can match that level of combativeness they should give the undersized yet dynamic Scottish pack som problems at scrum time, although Wales really did struggle to stop England’s rolling maul so expect Jonathan Humphreys steer’s to focus on that as way of slowing down their Welsh opponents. Incidentally if Wales scrummage well and Scotland maul well then John Lacey will have a field day and the penalties and cards will be flowing, how he referee’s the rucks will be important with both backrows looking to scavenge for scraps on the floor, Lacey is usually pretty hot on tacklers not rolling away and doesn’t allow defenders to compete for the ball for very long, so set-piece dominance may well decide this game. 
Wales conspired to lose from a winning position against England and had it not been for some fairly obtuse refereeing, the abysmal decision making of some of the backs (and what appeared to be a total lack of communication in defence) compounded by a coach who thought that substituting THE besy player on the pitch after 53 minutes they would still be chasing a Grand Slam. As far as this game goes I think Scotland should snap their 9 game hoodoo against Wales provided they can score 3 tries or more and with Ali Price, Jones, Visser, Seymour and Hogg starting allied to the impact Bennett, Swinson and Watson will bring from the bench they should be able to move the Welsh defence all around the park and it could be another late heartbreak for Wales.
Ireland should be absolutely raring to go in Dublin, this will be the first home game of their 2017 tilt, the crowd will be well oiled since they’re not kicking off for 8 and a bit hours but they’re probably “warming up” already and last time out they rattled up 63 points at a canter in Rome (although it’s nearly impossible to extrapolate anything from games against Italy because they’ve been atrocious lately) the Scottish backs cut the Irish defence to pieces out wide and that might be a more relative comparison. 

France are a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in a cloak of misdirection buried in a garden of confusion. They’ve played very well in patches lately and they look to have an incredibly strong scrum (they should have since their pack weighs several metric tonnes) but this week they’ve benched Uini Atonio (let’s hope it’s a strong bench an all that with the big clocking it at close to 22 stone) this means France have gone for the ball carrier Rabah Slimani, he’s 5 stone lighter than Atonio but France’s replacement front row tips the scales at around 58 stone so expect some set-piece dominance late on and a few rolling mauls. All in all France have got a pretty exciting bench with Machenaud, Ollivon, Ben Arous, Chavancy and Camara all pretty nippy around the park and Christopher Tolofua is an absolute wrecking ball. Ireland on the other hand have gone for boom off the bench, Trimble, Henderson, Healy and most of all O’Mahony all have tremendous power but might not be as fleey footed as their French counterparts (although Kieran Marmion would definitely have a chance of injecting some pace at 9 late in proceedings).

I think the Irish pack should be on top early on and if the returning Sexton can pull the strings for the Irish backline then they could be out of sight by the time Guy Noves empties his bench. However France have developed the ability to hang around and make their opponents uncomfortable to the very end, so I’ve got a feeling their impact players will have the desired effect and clinch an important away win.

The mixed up world of the 6 Nations 

Usually when beginning one of these flights of fancy I have a rough handle on what will happen over the next 9 or so hours but, largely due to events in Rome on Sunday I’m absolutely bamboozled. I’d guess at 2 comfortable away wins because Ireland will be fired up after their indiscipline cost them the chance to snatch a result in Edinburgh at the death last week. In a similar fashion Italy could have won their opening game against Wales had they been able to capitalise on their large periods of territorial domination, but instead they allowed the Welsh to get a foothold in the game (not until about the 60th minute mind you) and Wales proceeded to open them up like a tin of beans on the way to a 33-7 win.  Ireland had 59% of the possession against Scotland and an even more impressive 63% of the territory and if it hadn’t been for a missed conversion they would have won.  Italy only had 39% possession and 38% of the territory, so you really feel they could be on the receiving end of a hiding this week. Even the weather seems to be conspiring against Italy, it should be a balmy 16 degrees at kick-off time but if the Italian forwards can slow down what will surely be a ferocious effort from the Irish then it could be closer than Joe Schmidt would like. If the Irish team bus gets caught in Rome’s notorious traffic then all bets are off though after a week of hearing about Ireland’s late arrival was responsible for last week’s loss (which is absolute cobblers, if you know your pre-game routine is so intricately mapped out then you should be aiming to be there an hour earlier so the players can do their own preparation before you start the process!).  If there’s one area where Italy could look to have an edge it’s in the backrow, Italian number 7 Simone Favaro has been a bit of a powerhouse for Glasgow Warriors this season and Sean O’Brien opposite him has not looked like an out and out 7 this season, alongside Sergio Parisse and Maxime Mbanda Favaro will form a very dynamic backrow and as long O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander remain on the pitch together Ireland’s will be unbalanced.  Stander is probably the form number 8 in world rugby and plays at 6 like an 8, last week Heaslip’s major contribution was to give away 2 penalties so he needs a big game to compensate for that but he won’t play like a 6 either and that’s where a problem could arise. 

Wales v England is one those games were both teams talk big but are secretly nervous as hell. Eddie Jones has had verbal diarrhoea all week, either in an attempt to infuriate everyone in Wales or in a series of very careless press conferences he’s questioned if Wales is a country (if Japan is then Wales definitely is Edwardo), he’s claimed that the Welsh are cunning referencing the possession of daffodils as evidence (that bathtub must have given his head a hell of wallop). Wales on the other hand seem to have swerved any similar stream of thought (nobody has questioned England’s actual existence) instead Rhys Webb said that Wales were only concerned with Wales, which appears to be an admirable plan.  As usual it’s Wales’ team selection that is a huge worry, in fact the idea that they might not make a final team selection until 40 minutes before kick-off seems borderline negligent. England have known their team all week and will be settled, Wales with a day less preparation time have been training under the assumption both George North and Dan Biggar are fit but won’t know until just before the game. It won’t be a problem for the players who come into the team (Sam Davies showed last week he’s Mr Cool on the pitch and Alex Cuthbert who I presume would replace North has over 40 caps) but it will for the other players around them, although Rhys Webb knows Sam Davies from the Ospreys Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies don’t play with him week in week out. There’s the potential for a ramble about 10,000 hours of practice to make an elite performer here, but it’s not 100% transferable even if the basic principle remains; fail to prepare, prepare to fail (or the 18+ version Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance) and I’m just not sure Wales’ preparation has been good enough to win a Test match. 

There has been some murmurings about how England didn’t play that well against France last week and whilst it didn’t look pretty and they dominated territory against a monstrous French pack and split possession 50-50 so they weren’t as terrible as some are claiming. They also only conceded 8 penalties (which is always more to do with the referee than the team, but still). For Wales the worst news is they missed 25 tackles last week so they will have been hitting tackle bags all week. 

I personally can’t see Wales winning this game and just like the Italian game it’ll only be close if the home side’s pack play out of their skin. People will point to Jack Clifford being rushed back to counteract Warburton and Tipuric but I don’t think Steady Eddie would risk a player as young as Clifford if there was a chance he’d breakdown. The inclusion of 2 backrower’s on the English bench show how determined England are to win quick ball and Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph could potentially tear the Welsh defence apart if that happens. 

6 Nations musings 

This isn’t really a blog, it’s more a list of things that have popped into my mind lately, a random train of thought if you will.

Scotland v Ireland should be all about which front row can get the upper hand and Ireland have 2 props who are nudging the 19 stone mark and a hooker who is an excellent scrummager. You’d imagine Rory Best will get the chance to captain the Lions in the summer and if he can find his line-out throwing accuracy it could even be in the Test series. However (and it’s a big however) Romain Poite is reffing and he’s not known for facilitating flowing rugby, so even if Ireland can generate momentum through their pack it may well be negated by the whistle. If it does become a staccato whistle-fest then Scotland have the individual brilliance to create unlikely tries, with Finn Russell, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg (Russell and Hogg could nail down Lions shirts in this game, but both are well known <by me and a few others at least, if not the TV commentators> to be wildly inconsistent when it matters) starting and Mark Bennett and Ali Price on the bench Ireland could be in for a torrid time if it becomes fast and loose. And if the Irish pack can’t keep a choke-hold on the game then the Scottish front row will come into their own because they may not be as powerful as their green shirted counterparts but Zander Fagerson and Fraser Brown in particular can maraude around a rugby pitch like few others can, this could be a real Lions trial for front rowers. 

England and France should be much less interesting mainly because England come off the back of an undefeated 12 months (13 wins)  and France only won 4 of their Test matches last season. However England didn’t start their Autumn Tests very well, early in games they missed kicks and managed to pick up a red card early against Argentina. France on the other tend to fade in the last 20 minutes so if they can capitalise early on and open a 2 or 3 try lead then it will be a true test for a England, a test of how they perform under pressure. If France start slowly too then there’s a chance they could be blown away and out of the game by the 50 minute mark.  The real Wildcard in this game though is referee Angus Gardner who refereed Rosslyn Park last week where Eddie Jones was spotted keeping a beady eye on him. The thing about the new high tackle directive is that each referee had struggled to adapt it’s use to their own personal style and since the directive was put in place for the new Super Rugby season which hasn’t started yet Gardner has had minimal time to get to grips with it. Either he’ll ignore it completely which has been a Pro 12 adaptation of the new directive, or he’ll get himself in a right old tizzy and he and the TMO will watch every single contact on the big screen ad infinitum, which has been the approach a few Aviva Premiership referee’s have taken. 

Another point of interest at Twickenham will be how England adapt to not having Mako Vunipola (Wales have the same issue without Gethin Jenkins) often the loose-head will take the ball at first receiver to give George Ford more time to assess the defence and Mako is very good at offloading in contact, or carrying effectively or distributing the ball out the back to the backs. I’m not sure they’ve got another tight 5 forward who can do that, so they may have to use the backrower’s and that may effect the speed of their ruck ball. How the officials interpret Joe Marler’s scrummaging will be interesting (to me at least, I don’t get out much you see) there hasn’t been a concerted PR effort to tell everyone that he drives straight this time and he’s starting against the behemoth Uini Atonio, who is not only a gargantuan 21 and a half stones (!) but he’s also 6 feet 5 inches tall, so any slight angle will be exacerbated with a huge body opposite. Another thing I’ll be looking for is how Elliott Daly approaches kick chases, his last one in an England shirt saw him sent off as he didn’t jump and he ran into the player who had jumped and claimed the ball. 

2017 6 Nations preview

England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men.  It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough.  Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically).  The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth.  The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.

Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year.  Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship.  Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.

France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves.  Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss.  England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges?  Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?

The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us).  If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks.  The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team.  Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.

Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen.  Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.

Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess!  Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total.  The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.

Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table.  Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird).  There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too).  Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.

A chaotic 6 Nations preview

RBS-6-NationsBacking Scotland is always a risky business because they usually thrive when they’ve been written off and not after they’ve been within a hare’s breath of beating Australia (incidentally Craig Joubert has been appointed to referee England v Wales at Twickenham, what could possibly go wrong?) and making a RWC semi final, but I’ve just got a feeling that Vern Cotter might finally have a squad that can win the 6 Nations (they’re last win was in 1999 when it was still the 5 Nations).
W.P Nel and Ben Toolis added to the Gray brothers should provide a solid front 5 and if the Scottish pack is able to even attain parity against their opponents then a back row which should include John Hardie and could include David Denton and Josh Strauss will be more than a match for anyone. Greig Laidlaw is one of the safest pairs of hands in European rugby at scrum half and with the possibility of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne coming off the bench to test tired defenders it’s hard to imagine Cotter’s side won’t score tries. Scotland do have a few injury concerns (as all the Nations do after a gruelling International season) and while Alex Dunbar will miss the first 2 games and Mark Bennett may not be available to play England Scotland are in the unusual position of having about 5 Centre’s who could start. With Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Sean Lamont desperate to play if Vern Cotter needs to call up reinforcements Scotland have more than a few options to cover those missing. For a change Scotland have even got 2 contrasting Fly Halves to call upon with the steady Ruairidh Jackson having a good season for Wasps (he kicked 13 points as Wasps won in Dublin & scored 15 as they beat Toulon) and the exciting Finn Russell who is renowned for getting a backline moving.
Scotland are 4th favourites for the Championship behind England who have a new coach and seem to be making some inexplicable selection decisions and France who, despite having a new coach haven’t made wholesale changes and have selected 7 Toulouse players (Toulouse are 2nd in the Top 14 but won just 1 European Champions Cup game and finished bottom of Pool A, below Oyonnax with a -88 points difference) so they’ll be looking to rely more on individual flair than on collective performances, “plus ca change” an all that.
England are actually the bookmakers favourites, which would rather contradict Eddie Jones’ assertion that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup on Saturday and Warren Gatland’s statement that Ireland must be favourites (that one actually makes sense since Ireland do have 3 home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland). Eddie Jones called up a number of talented youngsters to his training party but then sent most of them back to their club sides late last week so who knows what he’s got planned? If England win in Scotland then they will have a solid base to build from but with consecutive home games against Ireland and Wales Eddie Jones hasn’t got much time to settle on a squad and if he doesn’t trust the younger players to stand up to pressure then it might be a long 2 months for him. As a slight aside in the last 5 years England have scored 97 tries at home and 51 away from home (21 more than Ireland who were second of the 6 Nations teams) so Stuart Lancaster was hardly the albatross around the English rugby that some would have you believe.
Wales’ last 2 Grand Slams have been won in season’s were they had 3 home games and visits to Ireland and Twickenham to contend with but even my most optimistic parts can’t see that happening this season. The residual damage from the ill fated “condition programme” they undertook pre- World Cup will have a big impact on their chances. Scott Williams will be a big miss because he was the only real try threat Wales possessed in September and October (Cory Allen was the other but with Jonathan Davies fit and Gatland’s bizarre belief that George North can play 13 Cory’s not getting a sniff any time soon). Wales have averaged roughly 1.8 tries per game in the last 5 years and that’s not going to be enough to win the Championship, let alone a Grand Slam.
Ireland would be my second favourite for the Championship but they’ve got a slight injury crisis and with Paul O’Connell retiring from international rugby (he would have been injured too if he hadn’t retired) Ireland will start the tournament without Cian Healey, Mike Ross, Ian Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry and with Fly Half Jonny Sexton seemingly ever only 1 heavy blow away from a HIA Ireland will face an uphill struggle to beat England in Twickenham and France in Paris.
Italy are 500-1 shots to win the Championship and you’d have to imagine that’s largely down to their witting duck status with everyone knowing their coach will leave return to France at the end of the season. Their seemingly eternal struggle to find an Outside Half who can both kick and run doesn’t help but if their pack is as strong as it has been in the past they’ll cause some teams problems (Wales particularly) and I can’t imagine Guy Noves will get much sleep this week knowing that Italy love to pull out all the stops when they arrive in Paris.
Rather interestingly you can odds of 40-1 on France finishing bottom of the table which isn’t totally out of the question, under Noves Toulouse (with the exception of Theirry Dusautoir) have often had questions raised over their conditioning and if they’re not ready to battle for 80 minutes they could find themselves on the receiving end of nail biting results. You can also get 10-1 on France winning a Grand Slam, which seems almost impossible to me since they’ve only won 8 of their last 28 away games (29%) and they’ve average 1.4 tries per game away from home in the last 5 years (2.03 per game at home).
In conclusion, just keep your money in your pocket and enjoy the ride, with so many newcomers to this 6 Nations (some from other continents and with Guy Noves maybe even from different planets) a Grand Slam hasn’t been won since Wales did it 2012 and it’s highly unlikely anyone will do it this year but I’m still backing Scotland to win an exciting Championship.