Ones to watch in Round three

Scotland v France

Scotland are riddled with changes as a result of their annual injury crisis but they still have a reasonable chance of winning this game, France have lost in Edinburgh four times since 2016 and they won’t be looking forward to a lunchtime kick off in a gusty Murrayfield whoever is or isn’t available to Gregor Townsend.  Despite the changes Scotland are still able to select their resident fun machine Darcy Graham who gets to line up opposite someone who played in the 12 shirt against Ireland in round two, the 21 year old Yoram Moefana.  Fabien Galthie has named a regular winger on the bench in the form of Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel so France may not yet be sure Moefana is a Test winger who can cope with Graham just yet (they also have their defensive leader Gael Fickou in the 13 shirt so they could swap if it’s all going a bit wrong), of course it was the threat Darcy Graham competing for a cross kick that led to Luke Cowan-Dickie slapping the ball off the Murrayfield pitch to concede the game winning try in round two.

Other than the pairing on the opposite wing (Damian Penaud is a challenge for anyone to defend) there aren’t many interesting match-ups.  Ben White against Maxime Lucu may well be important late on if the game is close, but that will all depend on their respective forward packs and an important part of that should be how the second-row pairings match-up, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner have made 44 tackles between them in the tournament and missed none between them whereas Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki have made 29 between them and just 5.  Obviously, you don’t have to make as many tackles if you’re team is retaining possession but Scotland may well have some joy attacking close to the ruck and it’d be great to see Darcy Graham have a run at either Willemse or Woki. When it comes to ball carriers Nick Haining is a personal favourite and if the Scotland forwards can set a platform, he could have some real impact off the bench late on.

 

England v Wales

Courtney Lawes returns as Captain and Wales have British and Irish Lion Taulupe Faletau back from a lengthy injury break too but the real interest here is in the backlines, Max Malins has provided opposing defences issues all season against Italy his ability to stretch a defensive line provided a lot of gaps for England to attack.  Even though Malins is lining up on the wing and will cause problems out wide the space he creates will be in central areas as defenders are dragged away from the areas they’re responsible for and how Wales’ Centre pairing manage the defence in the middle of the pitch will be vital.  Nick Tompkins often abandons “gap discipline” to coin an NFL phrase in favour of pursuing the ball carrier and Owen Watkin (who carried the ball particularly well against Scotland) hasn’t played at 13 an awful lot for his region the Ospreys (who have been particularly poor defensively this season) so it would be understandable if he were to get to distracted or find himself slightly out of position against England’s “hybrid backline” (which is a terrible name by the way, they’re all rugby players hybrid makes it sound like they need to be charged up at halftime).  It’ll be interesting to see if Henry Slade appears as a first receiver as much as he did against Italy or if England decide to play a more structured game and kick more often (only Wales have kicked from hand on fewer occasions than England thus far).  A lot has been made of Harry Randall starting for England but it’s the forward battle that has more talking points for me, Tomas Francis and Ellis Genge really don’t get on very well after Genge tried to head-butt his opposing prop at a collapsed scrum in Llanelli back in 2020, Gareth Thomas and Will Stewart’s battle off the bench should be one area where Wales look to have an advantage, Stewart had a torrid time in Rome and was substituted before half time while Thomas has been quietly excellent so for Wales.  Alex Cuthbert will be looking forward to lining up opposite his former club teammate Jack Nowell too and both have suffered some serious injury woes over their careers so if they can both complete 80 minutes it’ll be a victory for both.

Ireland v Italy

Ireland have really mixed it up for the Italian’s visit but strangely there are more interesting players in the Italian team and changing so many players for Ireland looks like very much like the sort of selection that will lead to a disjointed performance from Andy Farrell’s charges.  There are some good players in the Italian team who have put up some impressive statistics despite being on the receiving end of two comprehensive losses and strangely the players who are expected to be the leading lights are the ones who have performed the worst.  Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney have looked like they have been given far too much responsibility for two players with just 26 caps between them.  The Italian back-row, particularly 23 year old Michele Lamaro who’s 41 tackles leads the tournament and this week’s second row pairing of Federico Ruzza (who’s made 19 tackles without missing one in just 136 minutes so far) and Niccolo Cannone who has put in 27 tackles of his own and has missed just 2 have been particularly impressive.  If the Italian halfbacks continue their profligacy with the ball then all the Italian forwards can do is tackle and Ireland have got more than enough firepower in their 23 to stumble through the entire 80 minutes and still win comfortably but given they need to win by more than 30 to keep in touch with the table toppers this team seems an odd choice.  Italian hooker Epalahame Faiva (who was a “Dream Team nominee in the 2019 Pro 14 season) always brings plenty of energy with him off the bench but he can overstep the line and concede careless penalties which could be costly, however if he can channel his energy he could be a match for Rob Herring on Ireland’s bench.

 

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6 Nations 2022 Team of Round 2

Wales won in unconvincing fashion in Cardiff in what may well be an indication that Pivac’s Wales will be more functional and effective than dominant and attractive.  France demonstrated their overwhelming power and undoubted ability with the ball in hand but still looked fallible in defence and for their part England looked very workmanlike as they overcame Italy without really translating their dominance onto the scoreboard, but which players starred this week?

  1. This is actually a tricky pick; Andrew Porter is always impressive (maybe it’s the barnet?), Ellis Genge threw an outrageous pass which led to Jamie George’s second try and Cyrill Baille didn’t concede a penalty but at the risk of showing my own bias (my game, my rules) I’d have to pick Wyn Jones.  He was the only loose-head to not miss a single tackle and he didn’t concede any turnovers or penalties.
  2. This one’s pretty easy in comparison, Jamie George scored almost a third of England’s points and whilst he did miss one tackle, he didn’t concede a penalty or a turnover and managed to win 2 turnovers.
  3.  It wasn’t exactly a stellar weekend for tight-head props either, Tomas Francis did score a try and Uini Atonio did rumble for 20 metres from his two carries whilst not missing a tackle in 55 minutes but W.P Nel was the standout performer with a 100% success rate on his 9 tackles, 13 metres made and even a successful pass.
  4. This one is really a two-horse race (with an honourable mention for Tadgh Beirne’s 50-22 kick that he performed with such ease that his halfbacks just looked daft), Will Rowlands made 11 tackles and carried for 64 metres in his 75 minutes on the pitch against Scotland but his opposite number Jonny Gray made a whopping 17 tackles in just 62 minutes and made 24 metres from just 6 carries and you could argue that Scotland really stalled after he left the field.
  5. Adam Beard was a giant in the Welsh lineout with 5 takes but James Ryan’s shift was the most impressive in a 5 jersey during round 2.  He managed 11 tackles, missed none, made 6 carries and the most line-out takes of the weekend with 6 and he made 3 passes (only Ewels made more with 4).
  6.  Francois Cros managed to steal a lineout for France but he only managed to take one on France’s own throw and Itoje carried but he only had to make 5 tackles and he missed one of them so Sam Skinner was the most impressive blindside of the weekend with 18 tackles made, none missed, 3 line-out takes and 27 metres made with ball in hand with two passes and no handling errors.
  7. It’d take something very special for me not to pick Jac Morgan for his debut in a Wales shirt when he carried for 78 metres and made 13 tackles but Michele Lamaro was pretty special.  He carried the ball 8 times and managed 48 metres, kicked it for 23 metres, he made 2 offloads, won a turnover and mad an absolutely whopping 20 tackles!
  8. It was a rough old week for 8’s with two of them not making it to halftime and Ross Moriarty making his first start since the Autumn so it was no surprise he was replaced after 58 minutes.  There was one outstanding performer though, Alex Dombrandt carried the ball 18 times for 128 metres and made 8 tackles without missing one.  His most impressive statistic though was the 4 turnovers he made which sees top if the tournament charts despite only playing n one game so far.
  9. In this tournament how well a 9 plays really depends on what the coach ahs asked them to do, Tomos Williams made 12 tackles (almost double any other 9), Harry Randall really didn’t seem to fit Martin Gleeson’s plan, Jamison Gibson-Park played quite well but made two handling errors and failed to record a try assist (even though he scored one himself) so this (and every) week’s top 9 was Antoine Dupont with a try, a try assist, an offload and broke 3 tackles.
  10. Well Marcus Smith scored a try and recorded an assist but Dan Biggar scored 75% of Wales’ points and dragged Wales to a much needed win as they look to defend their title.
  11. This is a close one between Mack Hansen and Monty Ioane.  Hansen made 89 metres, scored one of the most audacious tries you’ll see in this tournament and made an offload but he was playing for a team who had 53% possession and averaged 4.2 points per visit to their opponent’s 22.  Ioane’s team on the other hand had 41% possession and averaged 0 points per visit but despite his team struggling Ioane still carried for 104 metres, broke 2 tackles and made 2 offloads.
  12. Not many inside centres shone this week, only Bundee Aki recorded a 100% tackle success rate and since he didn’t concede a penalty or turn the ball over he’s the best of the bunch.
  13. It’s tempting to give this to Jonathan Davies for his 15 minute virtuoso performance as he martialed Wales’ defence when it really mattered but he only hade to make 3 tackles himself so it has to be Chris Harris.  He made 10 tackles, made an offload, broke 2 tackles and carried for a whopping 100 metres on 9 carries.
  14. Personally I’d give it to Alex Cuthbert who managed to look very good despite the rest of the Wales team struggling to find him with the ball. Max Malins on the other hand ran for 121 metres as both England and Italy managed to feed him the ball, he broke 3 tackles, made 2 offloads and made the only tackle he had to attempt.
  15. Hugo Keenan looks like a man for a crisis, he was the coolest man in a green shirt while France were ramping up the pressure in the first half in Paris and Melvyn Jaminet looks increasingly impressive as a 22 year old playing Test rugby, likewise Freddie Steward who is a year younger and ran for 191 metres (fullbacks always run more since they catch the opposition’s clearance kicks) but Liam Williams’ 156 metres from 17 carries, 1 broken tackle and 1 turnover were vital in settling a very shaky looking Welsh defence in the first 60 minutes against a dangerous Scottish outfit.

RWC Power Rankings (week 5)

In the final week of warm up games Connacht arose as a surprise dark horse as they beat Russia in Moscow (that’s 2 wins for Irish provinces against teams going to the world cup during the warm up games).

  1. New Zealand – George Bridge carried the ball 247 metres and scored 3 more tries against Tonga than Wales did against Ireland as the All Blacks romped to a 92-7 victory. They seem to be rounding into form nicely!
  2. Ireland – like every good church Ireland run a lot smoother when there’s a good Sexton around and they dominated territory and possession on their way to a 19-10 victory. The World Cup Final we’ve all been waiting for is back on.
  3. England – despise a fairly experimental backline Eddie Jones’ boys thrashed Connor O’Shea’s Italy who can only really take comfort in having Canada and Namibia awaiting them in Pool C.
  4. South Africa – they travelled to Japan to dish out a 41-7 whooping to the very convivial hosts. Just imagine Amanaki Mafi and Eben Etzebeth in the same car park, actually don’t.
  5. Australia – the Wallabies dominated their game over Samoa but didn’t put the game to bed until the 70th minute. Just to add insult to the Samoan injury Matt To’omua scored a try. no really, he did, I swear.
  6. USA – they look to be in a seriously good place at the moment, unfortunately they share Pool with England and France but they could have a very real chance of upsetting Argentina if they avoid too many awkward scrums.
  7. Scotland – 2 wins in 2 weeks for Gregor Townsend’s team doesn’t happen too regularly but they were both against Georgia!
  8. Wales – Ireland have given plenty of teams problem in the Aviva over recent years and while Wales won 100% of their set pieces against a strong pack their ineffectual breakdown work should be a concern.
  9. Japan – losing 7-41 at home is never ideal but when it’s to a team who have beaten and drawn with the All Blacks recently it’s not disastrous. They won 100% of their scrums, only conceded 7 penalties, beat 22 defenders and the brave blossoms snaffled 18 turnovers so there’s plenty of positives to take away.
  10. Samoa – if they had a 10 they’d be dangerous Tusi Pisi looks out of his depth in the Gallagher Premiership so in a Test match he’s a liability. Despite losing 6 line outs and missing 36 tackles they were within 7 points until the 69th minute.
  11. Tonga – they might have been pasted, but they got pasted by an All Black team going for a third successive RWC title. They did only concede 5 penalties (3 fewer than the New Zealanders) in the whole game which is a huge improvement for a traditionally “feisty” team. They will probably on the receiving end against England but there’s no clear favourite to finish second in Pool C so who knows.
  12. Georgia – they scored 9 points in Murrayfield but conceded 8 fewer points than they did last week, small victories an all that.
  13. Italy – even against a hot England team a 37-0 loss is pretty tough to polish.
  14. Canada – Sir Graham Henry seems to have had an instant impact, they lead 12-0 at half time against a very good USA team but tailed off as the substitutes rolled on. Their first Pool B game is against Italy on a short rest week for the Azzuri and their final game is against Namibia after the Welwitschias have played the All Blacks, so with a bit more Henry magic they could have some very close games ahead.
  15. Russia – Lyn Jones had already gone on record bemoaning how their late qualification has effected their build up but losing to a Connacht preseason team should set all the alarm bells ringing!

RWC Power Rankings (week 4)

Just the 4 games this week, but a few of them point toward who could be successful in Japan.

  1. Ireland – James Ryan comes back into the squad and Ireland win again (sunrise, sunset). But that hasn’t stopped Irish rugby twitter having a Jean Kleyn sized meltdown, well done everyone.
  2. France – they always beat Italy but they don’t always do it with 7 tries and a 28 point margin. 2 forwards binned for repeated infringements might be a concern though.
  3. Scotland – Townsend’s boys have discovered how to win away from home, play in Tbilisi in a half empty Dinamo Stadium.
  4. Fiji – another win for the Flying Fijians but only by 10 points against Tonga who are probably going to get a 60 point spanking in Waikato next weekend.
  5. Wales – Rhys Patchell dusted off his mercurial best and dragged Wales to within 5 points of an equitable draw with a bit of help from half back partner Tomos Williams. They now go to Dublin with Gatland weighing up whether or not to throw caution to the wind in his last 3 months or to stick to grinding opponents into a fine dust.
  6. Italy – Bellini (the 6 foot 3 winger, not the cocktail) and Polledri scored 3 tries against a resurgent French team. Bellini even managed to find time to get sin binned too, busy boy.
  7. Tonga – took an early lead against Fiji through Piutau but then allowed Fiji to score the next 22 points. Yikes!
  8. Georgia – They did score a try against Scotland but their overall performance was so alarming they dragged 35 year old Mamuke Gorgodze out of for retirement for a sweaty trip to Japan.

RWC Power Rankings (week 2)

  1. New Zealand – they’re back in black. They nilled the Wallabies in Eden Park a week after they lost in Perth.
  2. Wales – held England to just 2 penalty kicks even though England welcomed Maro Itoje back to the starting line up and had Owen Farrell on the bench.
  3. South Africa – another win for the Springboks, albeit controversially with some interesting refereeing decisions from Luke Pearce.
  4. Argentina – made 10 changes to the starting XV and could have beaten a changed Springboks team in Pretoria.
  5. England – well they did score 6 points.
  6. France – pummelled Scotland 32-3 as Fabien Galthie’s influence appears. But Scotland always struggle in France.
  7. Australia – missed Rory Arnold and still have a huge problem filling the 6 jersey
  8. Italy – scored 13 tries in an 85-15 thumping of Russia including 3 from Minozzi who was restored to the wing.
  9. Russia – they scored 15 points away in Italy even if it was against a changed Italian side
  10. Scotland – just 3 points against a relatively new French team, even for a team who struggle outside Murrayfield that’s quite worrying.

Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Namibia, Canada, USA, Tonga, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay all avoided games this week.

RWC Power Rankings

As the World Rugby ranking algorithm seems to be at best “complicated” I thought I’d come up with a way of ranking the Rugby World Cup teams based on their most recent performance –

  1. Australia (there may have been a Scott Barrett brain fart involved but that’s the most points New Zealand have ever conceded)
  2. South Africa (winning away by 33 points is mighty impressive)
  3. England (winning at a canter with most of the stars on the bench has to be a positive)
  4. Ireland (5 tries in a 19 point win with only 1 first choice forward starting deserves plenty of respect)
  5. Japan (they beat a USA team but who had made a few changes by 14 points and they had made several changes too including positional switches)
  6. Fiji (held Samoa to 3 points without Tuisova, Yato or Murimurivalu in the starting XV)
  7. New Zealand (obviously still RWC favourites, but in terms of recency there’s not many positives in a 21 point drubbing)
  8. Wales (lost by 14 points at Twickenham which is pretty normal stuff but lost the Grand Slam winning 10 who brings the calm and confidence to the whole squad)
  9. Samoa (lost to Fiji’s changed team but only by 7 points)
  10. Argentina (Los Jaguares exploits in Super Rugby seem to be kicking in now and Nicholas Sanchez seems to be Ledesma’s Emperor’s New Clothes)
  11. Italy (picked a bit of a mish mash backline but losing by 19 to an underpowered Ireland seems cause for concern)
  12. USA (lost by 14 points to Japan but they’re trying to blend some new players and integrate 2 of the successful 7’s squad into the 15’s set up)
  13. Tonga (they made a few changes and actually won but they conspired to concede 23 points against Canada who hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a Pacific Nations Cup game since 2014)
  14. Canada (its a mystery how Kingsley Jones gets so little out of that squad).

Russia, France, Scotland, Namibia, Georgia and Uruguay all avoided games this week and therefore any unnecessary (see also heart breaking) injuries.

An alternative RWC prognostication

Rugby World Cup 2019 doesn’t start until the 20th of September and there’s a Rugby Championship, Elgon Cup, Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup warm up games to squeeze in before then too. Coaches don’t have to name a final 31 man squad until the 2nd of September and with so many games to be played injuries are virtually guaranteed so it’s far too early to make sweeping predictions about who will definitely make the final so here’s a “what could happen if the underdogs come good” view.

Pool A only had two teams who are currently ranked inside the top 10 in Ireland and Scotland but in Japan they have the team ranked 11th who drew with France in November 2017 and who lead England after 56 minutes at Twickenham last autumn, so there’s definite upset potential with a home crowd behind them. The brave blossoms have the enviable task of playing Russia in their first game (Russia are ranked 20th and have win – loss record of 8 – 9 since 2017) while Ireland and Scotland get to battle it out in the most brutal conditions the tournament promises to provide. Then Japan have a shot at an Ireland team coming off 6 days rest (Japan have an 8 day rest since they open the show) while Scotland take on a Samoa team who are always physical and look to have some incredibly large humans in their Pacific Nations squad. Japan v Scotland will be the final pool game so Japan have a very real chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals and for the purposes of this highly imaginative story let’s say they do (outside Murrayfield where Scotland look like world beaters and terrified the All Blacks in 2017 Scotland have a pretty dodgy record). Historically Ireland have had mixed results at World Cup’s but its difficult to see them losing a pool game even in a fantasy land scenario.

Pool B is more of a forgone conclusion than all the other pool’s, really only New Zealand and South Africa can qualify, Italy did beat South Africa by 2 points in 2016 but they have only won 3 games since) and Canada and Namibia are the two lowest ranked teams in the competition.

Pool C is the polar opposite of B with England, France and Argentina all incredibly close as England seem to be stalling slightly under Eddie Jones, France have had to parachute new coaches in to save them and Argentina appear to be on the rise as they welcome back their overseas stars. USA can’t be completely ruled out of the running either as Major League Rugby seems to be developing their talent pool and they’ve called 3 of their 7’s stars into the training squad. USA are actually afforded the luxury of taking on England just 4 days after England’s bruising encounter against Tonga in what will be the Eagles first game of the tournament. USA’s fixture list actually throws a lot of opportunities for them to cause some upsets, their second game is 6 days later against a France team coming off an 11 day break (imagine France spending 11 whole days in each others company, what could possibly go wrong), then they have a whole week off before they play Argentina just 4 days after the Pumas take on England. The USA’s short rest week is before they play Tonga and by then they could have already qualified for the next round. Purely hypothetically let’s say Argentina top the pool and USA qualify second.

Pool D is also far from simple, Wales are currently ranked second in the world rankings, Australia are sixth and Fiji are 9th but as their name suggests the Fijians are currently flying on the pitch (they’ve won 5 of their last 7 and only lost to Ireland by 3 in 2017) even if they appear to be having a few issues with money and coaches leaving their camp. Australia appear to have the kindest schedule with 8 days rest before they play Wales, 6 days before they take on Uruguay and another 6 rest days before they face Georgia (although Georgia’s scrum could cause some issues for everyone especially the Wallabies). Wales get the luxury of resting most of their starters in the first game against Georgia while Australia have the tricky task of keeping a lid on Fiji (and that could be a particularly feisty encounter with a few Fijians opting to represent Australia). Wales and Australia meet in their second game of the pool so the pool could realistically be decided by how Fiji perform at the start of the pool games, but we’re not here to be realistic so let’s imagine Fiji top Pool D and Australia overcome their “annus horribilis” (take that republicans) and sneak into second place.

That would provide the unlikely Quarter Final matchups of Argentina v Australia, New Zealand v Japan, Fiji v USA and Ireland v South Africa (actually not that unlikely).

In the spirit of creativity let’s go with Argentina v New Zealand in Semi Final 1 (and they traditionally serve up absolute belters at world cups) and Fiji v Ireland in the Semi Final numero deux which could lead to the tantalising prospect of Argentina and their contingent of Los Jaguares playing possession rugby against the flying Fijians, sexy rugby all round! I reckon the Pumas would probably sneak it by virtue of having a better place kicker but it would certainly be fun to watch.

6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.

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.

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.