With less than a month left until the RBS Six Nations kicks off, we thought it was about time we provided our punters with a tournament preview.
While his focus has mainly been on the upcoming Super Rugby tournament – and figuring out how the new and apparently improved tournament format works – our rugby scribe has found the time to pen a Six Nations preview for your reading pleasure.
Review of the 2015 tournament
A lot of Southern-Hemisphere rugby fans and pundits view the Six Nations as a dull tournament, that produces little in the way of entertainment. Many believe the tournament to be a throwback to a long forgotten era of rugby that focused on forward packs and goal kickers, boring the living daylights out of new age spectators, who simply want to see the ball run from goal line to goal line. Sadly, the tournament is often viewed as little more than a stop-gap between the end of the year international tours and the new Super Rugby season.
And while I can’t sit here and pretend that the tournament exudes the same quality as that on display during the Rugby Championship, I can say, with a hell of a lot of conviction behind the forthcoming words, that the tournament is a great deal more entertaining than many would have you believe. Don’t believe me? Let’s just do a short recap of last year’s competition, shall we?
Whilst the opening round only featured six tries across all three fixtures, there were still some intriguing clashes. France just managed to hold off a spirited Scottish side at the Stade de France while England and Wales played out an epic encounter at Millenium Stadium which saw the Roses claim a narrow five-point victory.
The tournament proved a lot more entertaining from there on in. The second week saw 127 points scored across the three games as well as 13 tries. And while the third week was a bit of a low scoring round – only seven tries and 102 points were scored across the board – it still produced one of the clashes of the year. Ireland’s stoic 19-9 victory over England would ultimately ensure that the Men from the Emerald Isle would retain the Six Nations crown in dramatic fashion.
Wales’ victory over Ireland in the fourth round meant that three teams could be crowned champions heading into the fifth and final week of the competition. While Ireland were in the pound seats heading into the final day – due to their superior points difference - both England and Wales could have still rained on Joe Schmidt’s parade.
Wales would have sent Irish hearts into near cardiac arrest after they recorded a 41 point victory over Italy in the day’s opening clash. The massive win put Wales top of the log due to their superior points difference – which was 20 more than that of Ireland. Joe Schmidt’s charges – who had only scored four tries in the tournament at that point – knew they would need to beat Scotland by more than 21 points if they were to have any chance of retaining their crown. A tough ask, for a side that was really struggling to cross the whitewash.
That crop of Irishmen was a determined bunch, however. Lead by recently retired stalwart, Paul O’Connell, the Irish put on one of their best performances in recent history and when all was said and done at Murrayfield, the Irish had moved back into top spot on the log.
The result meant Wales were out of the running and the only team that could now stop Ireland from marching to back to back titles were the English. Que one of the most enthralling encounters witnessed last year.
Needing 26 points to go above Ireland on the log, England took to the hallowed Twickenham turf with a steely determination about them. Their job was always going to a tough one, as they needed to play a helter-skelter brand of rugby in order to stop Ireland retaining their title. While it was always going to be tough for such a conservative team to switch tact and adopt a Queensland Reds circa 2011 style, their task would be made all the more harder by the French. As most rugby fans know, Le Bleu thrive when the game is end to end. And while England managed to score 55 points, they were unable to stop the French from scoring 35 of their own.
So that was that and England fell seven points for short of Ireland, who retained their Six Nations trophy.
Hopefully, this year can live up to its predecessor, because if it does, we’re in for five weeks of highly entertaining rugby.
To Win Tournament
2015 Finish: Champions
They may be defending Champions, but I really don’t fancy Ireland to make to win three Six Nations titles in a row. Firstly, they’re missing some of their big names from last year’s tournament. The biggest of which is Paul O’Connell. After 13 years of international rugby, the giant lock forward decided to bid adieu to the international scene after last year’s World Cup. While his physical presence is going to be hard to replace, the loss of his leadership skills may be a much bigger blow for the men from the Emerald Isle.
The blow may be softened somewhat by the return of Donnacha Ryan. The Munster man is scheduled to return from injury later this month; although it may take a few weeks for him to get his fitness levels up to the required rate. Another man who has been on the treatment table recently is prop Cian Healy. The Leinster frontrower underwent knee surgery at the beginning of January but should be available for Ireland’s opening fixture against Wales.
While Healy and Ryan should be back in the mix come the opening round, there are a few Irishmen who will definitely miss the opener. Lock Peter O’Mahony, centre Stuart Olding, prop James Cronin, and loose forward Jack Conan are all unavailable for the first few rounds.
Quite the injury list, hey? Well, it doesn’t end there. Veteran utility back, Tommy Bowe, is still yet to recover from the knee injury he picked up at the World Cup. The Ulsterman is unlikely to play any part in the tournament. While his Ulster compatriot Ian Henderson has also been ruled out of the tournament. The lock/flanker has been will miss the majority of the 2016 season with a serious hamstring injury.
Player to watch for: Ian Madigan
While Jonny Sexton is likely to be the catalyst for the men in green, I think youngster Ian Madigan will make an impact. He’s unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to play in his preferred role of flyhalf, but the Leinster utility back has the skillset to pretty much cover every position in the backline. His versatility may prove key for this injury-hit Irish side.
Verdict: Third Place Finish
Ireland were always going to struggle to replicate the feats of 2014 and 2015 with Paul O’Connell no longer available. And with their treatment room looking like a military hospital, I can’t see Ireland putting up much of a title defense.
2015 Finish: Runners-up
The Eddie Jones era will officially begin next month, and I personally cannot wait to see what the former Wallaby mentor does with this English side. While Jones enjoyed a fantastic World Cup as head coach of Japan, his new charges had a nightmare on home soil. A first round exit had English rugby fans baying for former head coach, Stuart Lancaster’s, head to roll. The ERU duly obliged, and Lancaster was sent to the unemployment line late last year.
While Jones’ fledgling tenure has already been full of controversy – he was meant to coach the Stormers during the Super Rugby season before the ERU came headhunting – he will undoubtedly get the best out of this England side.
In typical Jones’ fashion, the new England mentor has made a few fascinating selection decisions. Saracens young gun, Maro Itoje has been selected ahead of some of the more established English locks. Another youngster who has been called up to the squad is Wasps’ outside centre Elliot Daly. The 23-year-old has enjoyed a fantastic start to both Wasps’ domestic and European campaigns, and with Henry Slade out injured and Manu Tuilagi still recovering from injury, the Wasps’ youngster is likely to start the first few games.
Having established that Daly is likely to fill the void at outside centre, I’m now left to question who will line up alongside him? Former Sharks man, Brad Barritt, has filled the role for the last few years but with Jones’ wanting to implement a more attacking minded game plan, it seems the Saracens stalwart’s international career may have come to an end. I suspect he will be replaced by Owen Farrell.
That last line segways quite nicely into the next selection conundrum Jones is facing. Who does he field at flyhalf? While Owen Farrell has been a pillar of consistency for Saracens this season, I think Bath’s George Ford may well crack the nod. Both youngsters are fantastic players but Ford offers a slight bit more on attack than his counterpart.
Player to watch for: Maro Itoje
I really think this youngster is destined for huge things. While most modern locks have decent handling skills, this guy takes it to the next level. He’s able to offload in the tackle, throw a side step, run like an outside half, and he still dominates at lineout time. Definitely, one of the most exciting prospects to come out of English rugby in the last ten years.
I fancy England to claim the spoils this year. They’ve got some talented youngsters coming through and with Jones at the helm, you know they’re going to be well drilled.
2015 Finish: Third Place
Wales are the bravest team in world rugby by a country mile. Despite enduring a plethora of injuries, the Dragons were fantastic at last year’s World Cup. And while the semi-finals proved a bridge too far, the Welsh will still take a lot of heart out of their run to the quarters.
It seems lady luck isn't a Welsh supporter. The Dragons will once again be hampered by some massive injury blows heading into a major tournament. Scrumhalf, Rhys Webb will miss the start of the Six Nations with a foot injury sustained before last year’s World Cup while centre Owen Williams faces a race against time to be fit for the opening round. The former Scarlets man sustained a knock to his jaw in the Aviva Premiership last week. While it’s yet to be confirmed if it’s a broken jaw, I suspect the Leinster centre may have to undergo surgery. If that does prove to be the case, then Williams is unlikely to play any part in the Dragons' campaign. Another centre who’s currently on the treatment table is Scott Williams. The Scarlets midfield maestro picked up a knee ligament injury during his side’s victory over England at the World Cup. The Welsh medical team have already stated that he will play no part in the tournament.
There is some good news for Warren Gatland however, with his talismanic centre, Jonathon Davies, having returned to the playing field. The stocky 12 has put in some impressive performances for his club side Clermont, since recovering from a cruciate ligament injury. He will be vital to the Dragons chances of claiming their fifth Six Nations crown.
Player to watch for: Dan Biggar
He’s like a modern-day Henry Honibal – he hits hard, chases his own kicks and can conduct a defensive like Beethoven conducted as symphony. The big pivot’s ability to contest his own up and unders is likely to rattle a few opposition defenders feathers. He is also a great reader of the game and has a monstrous right boot.
Verdict: Runners Up
They have the quality to win the tournament but with the amount of injuries they’ll inevitably pick up, I can’t see them doing it. An honourable runners-up spot is what I foresee for the brave Dragons.
2015 Finish: Fourth Place
They may have a new coach but I expect we will see the same old Le Bleu – they’ll put in a mesmerizing performance one week and then play like a bunch of amateurs the next. Their biggest issue is the deals that were struck between the French Top 14 Clubs and the French Rugby Union a few years back. The deals – which involved a massive amount of money being exchanged between the clubs and the union – have effectively given the clubs all the power. The likes of Toulon and Clermont have been able to insert clauses - in their French players' contracts - that allow the clubs to pick and choose how much training their players do with the national team. This is an exceedingly absurd situation, but that’s modern sport for you.
Recently installed head coach, Guy Noves, has tried to take a hard line with the clubs but with little success. He’s also taken a hard line with some of Le Bleu's big name players. Toulon centre, Mathieu Bastareaud, has been left out of the Six Nations squad. The massive centre has failed to live up to all the hype that surrounded him when he burst onto the scene a few years ago. And with Toulon likely to have a few of the previously mentioned clauses in Bastareaud’s contract; I think Noves probably thinks having the big man in his squad isn't worth the hassle. Another man who’s found himself frozen out of the squad is former Sharks and Lions scrumhalf, Rory Kockett. While Kockett is a handy player, there’s just so many quality nines for Noves to choose from that his decision to drop Kockett honestly doesn’t surprise me.
Another man who won’t be a part of France’s Six Nations campaign is former skipper Thierry Dusautoir. The talismanic flanker decided to hang up his international boots at the close of last year’s World Cup. His starting berth is likely to be filled by impressive youngster, Yacouba Camara.
Player to watch for: Yacouba Camara
The Toulouse youngster has been the stand out loose forward in the French Top 14 so far. His playing style is very similar to that of his predecessor. He’s not scared to do the dirty work – like any loose forward worth his salt – but also has incredible handling skills and a terrific turn of pace.
Verdict: Fourth Place
There not consistent enough to win the tournament but I do think they'll have a big say in which team does take the crown, especially considering they'll once again take on England in the final round of fixtures.
2015 Finish: Fifth Place
I have to be brutally honest here, I really don’t enjoy writing about Italian rugby, nor watching it for that matter. Their approach to the game is stuck in the dark ages, and while I do relish watching their front row decimate opposition packs at scrumtime, there’s not much else I like about their games.
This year may just prove to be a little different, however. Head coach Jaques Brunel – who was due to step down at the end of the World Cup – has selected a youthful looking squad, who will hopefully play a much more attacking brand of rugby. I suppose the Italy mentor had little choice other than to opt for a young side with veterans Mauro Bergamasco and Martin Castrogiovanni having retired last year.
The loss of those three men has opened the door for two South Africans who made the move to Italy. Former Lion and Free State Cheetah, Andries Van Schalkwyk and Sharks old boy, Abraham Steyn, have both been included in the Italian national squad for the first time. They will be joined by fellow uncapped players, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Sami Panic and Jacopo Sarto.
Player to watch for: Andries Van Schalkwyk
The journeymen loose forward seems to have finally found a home at French club Zebre. His form has been impressive this season – he’s scored five tries in the Pro 12- and I think he could make a huge impact for the Italians.
Verdict: Sixth Place
I’m hoping the Italians play a more enterprising brand of rugby as this would be a victory in itself. However, regardless of whatever game plan they opt to go for, they’re still going to finish stone last.
2015 Finish: Last
Whilst they are yet to recapture the glory days of the early nineties, Scottish rugby is certainly on an upward trend. Last year started off poorly for the Thistles, who endured one of their worst Six Nations campaigns ever. Having ended the tournament as wooden spoonists, many pundits were tipping Scotland for a group-stage exit at the World Cup. The men in blue had other ideas, however. They managed to claim second place in Pool B, which secured their progress to knockout phase of the tournament. The Scots then put in one of the performances of the World Cup against the Wallabies in their quarter-final clash. A strange refereeing decision would ultimately see the Australians advance to the semi-finals and the Scots sent home, however.
Despite losing the match, the Scots will draw a lot of confidence from that fixture. To run the second best team in world rugby that close is a magnificent achievement in itself. The players now know that they are capable of taking on the best world rugby has to offer.
Their morale-boosting World Cup campaign isn't the only thing the Scottish having going for them heading into this year’s Six Nations tournament. Unlike his Welsh and Irish counterparts, Scotland mentor, Vern Cotter, has an almost fully fit pool of players to choose from. His only real injury concern is winger Tim Visser. The Amsterdam native sustained an injury whilst on club duty last weekend and looks set to miss Scotland's opener against England.
Player to watch for: Greig Laidlaw
The nine was in terrific form during last year’s World Cup. He’s also put in some great displays for Gloucester during their Aviva Premiership and Challenge Cup campaigns. He’s a brilliant distributor of the ball and one of the most accurate goal-kickers in Europe.
Verdict: Fifth Place
I can’t see them finishing any higher than fifth spot but they’ll definitely cause an upset this year. Be extremely wary when you bet on opposition sides to clear any margin above ten points against the Scots.
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