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.

It’s way too early to select a starting XV for the 1st Lions Test, so here goes….

rugbyUnless you have the misfortune of being a Top 14 player the 2016/17 rugby season doesn’t start for about 3 weeks but since people have been picking their Lions teams to tour New Zealand since the last tour finished in Australia I thought I’d finally succumb and join in.

Providing Eddie Jones isn’t the coach (and he has said he’s got zero interest in it|), pragmatism will rule and assuming there aren’t a string of catastrophic injuries (but with all the rugby matches they play these days there probably will be) and trying to forget that 11 years ago Sir Clive Woodward used 51 players on the corresponding tour these are the 15 players who I can see starting at Eden Park at the end of June –

  1. Jack McGrath (who doesn’t love a 19 stone loose head?)
  2. Dylan Hartley (it’s practically written in the stars, Kiwi stars for Lions v All Blacks!)
  3. Kieran Brookes (he’s suffered terribly with injuries but he’s pushing 20 stone of man mountain)
  4. Maro Itoje (probably the skipper, definitely the first name on the team sheet)
  5. Jonny Gray (he tops the tackle stats and rucks hit for club and country, the 22 yr old is a machine)
  6. Sean O’Brien (the tackle area will be trench warfare, might as well pick 2 7’s)
  7. John Hardie (he’s been instrumental in Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter)
  8. Taulupe Faletau (he’s used to playing behind 2 awfully soft packs, any parity and he’ll be in his element)
  9. Rhys Webb (he’s a try machine and without Biggar’s ego to get in his way he’ll be a constant threat)
  10. Owen Farrell (he may not be Barry John but he won a Grand Slam, the Premiership and the Champions Cup last season)
  11. Jonny May (remember that try he scored against the Kiwis at Twickenham in 2014? Well that!)
  12. Robbie Henshaw (He’s 6 feet 3 and over 16 stone. Also Warren Gatland is the only person who thinks he’s a 12 and Manu is unfortunately too broken as he terrifies the All Blacks)
  13. Scott Williams (he may well end up pushed into 12 by Jonathan Davies return to Parc Y Scarlets, but when he’s fit he’s too fast not to be in the outside channels)
  14. Jack Nowell (twinkling toes and 15 stone of BOOM make him a defenders nightmare, although I’m a big fan if Chris Ashton’s ability to romp down the middle of the park under the sticks)
  15. Mike Brown (he’s a very angry man, just what you need when you’re going to New Zealand to meet 15 very angry men. Plus Halfpenny is going to take a while to get back to full fitness and Stuart Hogg is a car crash waiting to happen in his own 22)

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.

96 days to go now….

rugbyPool C features the perennial number 1 team in the World in New Zealand and nobody else in the top 7 teams of the current World Rugby rankings, so the All Blacks should cruise through as the top team. Argentina (who are ranked 8th in the world) however always save their best performances for World Cup games against the Kiwis, so there is 1 potential banana skin for Richie McCaw’s boys to avoid. Argentina should be the other qualifier in this group as the other 3 teams in Pool C are Tonga, Georgia and Namibia who all have excellent players in their ranks but not in the depth that the All Blacks and the Pumas (Jaguars. Tomato, tomato. yadda, yadda etc). Tonga vs. New Zealand at St James’ Park on a Friday night in October is almost certain to be a fiery affair and with Argentina’s last group game being against Namibia the All Blacks could need a convincing win to secure top spoor in the group. Jacques Burger leading his Namibian side against the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium will be scintillating viewing too, if World Rugby’s player of the year Brodie Retallick didn’t know who Courtney Lawes was before the All Blacks played England last summer then he won’t know who Burger is. He definitely will by the 25th of September.
Only 15 ranking places separates the team’s in Pool D, with Ireland currently ranked 3rd , France standing at 7th, Italy 15th, Canada 17th and Romania 18th. Ireland have been in a phenomenal run since Joe Schmidt took over as their head coach picking up consecutive 6 Nations titles for the first time ever and won 17 out of 25 Test since the start of 2013 beating South Africa and Australia along the way. Ireland are not always at their most comfortable during World Cup tournaments though but with 2 games in London where there will surely have a raucous following should make them feel slightly more at ease than they have done in previous World Cups in France and New Zealand. France are the most unpredictable team in World Rugby, the fact that their coach will be leaving following this tournament should be an indication of exactly how disappointing they have been recently though. They should have enough to get past Canada and Romania although the Canadian back row and outside backs could well pose more than a few problems for a French backline who are regularly tinkered with by Phillipe Saint-Andre and the Romanian forwards will relish the challenge that Les Bleus forwards will provide them, so that might be a bit of a dog fight in the Olympic Stadium. Italy will have to battle the fact that they have a fairly old squad now with the occasional sprinkling of youth and with 4 games in 22 days they will do well to keep the squad intact let alone compete in every outing. The one they have got going for them is that their first game will be at Twickenham against the French so they should be able to give their Garibaldi Cup opponents both barrels and if they can upset Les Bleus then the Azzuri may very well finish 2nd in this group.
The first Quarter Final will almost certainly be contested between New Zealand and France in the Millennium Stadium, so if Wayne Barnes is reffing the ALL Blacks are toast! In all seriousness I can see France pulling out all the stops to upset the apple cart in Cardiff à la 2007. I can’t imagine that New Zealand will want a repeat of that result, but with the possibility of a few ageing bodies in their squad having to play 4 games in 19 days (finishing off with a bruising tussle with Tonga), no Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett coming off an injury spoiled season they are far from infallible. For the purpose of this flight of fancy we’ll say that the All Blacks will make it past the French and advance to a semi final in Twickenham. The second Quarter Final will in all likelihood be between South Africa and Wales in Twickenham (well it saves travelling too far for the semi’s) and while Wales have recently made a habit of getting dangerously close to the Springboks (and putting my own personal optimism to one side) they have never beaten them outside of Cardiff so I suspect the team who will face the daunting prospect of a meeting with the All Blacks in West London will be South Africa, with so many Springboks unlikely to play in another RWC they won’t to go out with a whimper in the first knockout phase. Quarter Final 3 will be played in Cardiff and should see Ireland take on Argentina, which could be tricky for an Irish side who won’t want to become embroiled in a forward battle with the Pumas I imagine the team who maintains discipline will be the victor here and while that will be a bit of a lottery and largely dependent on who is refereeing I’ll say Joe Schmidt will guide Ireland through to the semi final in Twickenham where they will meet England who should do a number on Samoa on their home field.

South Africa and New Zealand in a RWC semi final in Twickenham is a mouth watering prospect and certainly worthy of a RWC Final (remember 1994?) they have played some absolutely fantastic matches in the last 3 seasons and if Nigel Owens is refereeing then it might be time to get the abacus out to keep score. I think South Africa might just have enough forward power to upset the favourites (this is a World Cup remember, there has to be an upset somewhere along the lines) and advance to the final. In the second semi final England could actually face the prospect of playing a RWC semi final on their home pitch whilst being underdogs. Ireland have beaten England in 8 of their last 13 meetings and while England squeaked past the Irishmen 13-10 the last time they played at Twickenham I’m backing Ireland to send England to the Olympic Park for a 3rd and 4th playoff against New Zealand.
South Africa v Ireland in the RWC final then, since the 12th of June 2004 they have played each other 8 times and both have 4 wins so this could prove to be an intriguing finale to any tournament. You’d say South Africa would be favourites having had a more difficult path to the final but after battling with New Zealand having played Samoa and Wales they very well be depleted by the time they get to Twickenham on the final day of October so if Ireland are to win their first RWC this would be a perfect time. I still can’t shake the feeling that experience is more vital in a World Cup final than it is in any other big game so the trophy should be headed south of the equator as the Springboks scoop the big prize for a third time.
Oh yeah, does anyone care who “wins” 3rd place? No? I didn’t think so.