If you are a rugby fan this is the time of the year that sparks more excitement, more debate, more heat and more passion than any other. Yep – it’s Six Nations time and boy I don’t think anyone can wait.
This competition which is looked on with envy by the rest of the rugby playing world, is by common agreement the best rugby tournament in the world. Why? It’s a mix of the history, the fierce rivalries and tribalism, the awesome away support and the way the fixtures change every year throwing up completely different challenges.
Whilst Ireland, quite rightly, are favourites there are potentially 4 other teams that could realistically nick it. Momentum and the order you play your home and away fixtures all help make the Six Nations ludicrously competitive. There is a reason back to back Grand Slams are rare and that is because they are bloody difficult to win. The last time it was done was by France way back in 1998 and the standard has not exactly fallen in that time.
If you were going to back one nation to achieve the Slam, then of course it’s our Celtic cousins - the high flying Irish. They have a perfect blend of playing and coaching talent and now have the added ingredient of huge self-belief and confidence. The tiny question hanging over them is to do with their traditional slow starts where they are slightly vulnerable. This year however something feels different and I suspect having England park their tanks on the Aviva lawn may concentrate their minds beautifully with no motivation required. I hope Eddie’s game plan doesn’t just read ‘smash ‘em’ for this fixture as If England think they can just bull doze Ireland then they are wrong. Ireland’s defensive system is very clever, and their game plan means they keep possession and force you into errors. England may occasionally have success on the gainline but that won’t be enough to win. What is a worrying stat for England is their inability to score tries against Ireland and Andy Farrell of all people understands how you stop England.
For England overall, I have huge hopes for them to turn around their disastrous 2018 campaign and become one of the main challengers. It was revealing to read in a Paul Gustard interview an admission from the ex England coach that the coaching team had got it wrong last year and over trained the players going into the tournament. Lots of people thought the team looked sluggish and lacking in bite and intensity which given Eddie Jones’s notorious training sessions was not a total surprise. England fans will be hoping the squad are topping up their tans in Portugal this week rather than their bench press stats and will start the tournament with the energy and physicality that was lacking in the previous campaign.
A lot will be pinned on England’s returning star players but reasons to be cautious are their lack of game time. Billy Vunipola is undoubtedly a crucial man for England at his best. He has played however just three games and in his own words has said he is not quite back to his best. The series of broken arms are understandably playing on the big number 8’s mind and you can see if you watched those come- back games how he is not playing with the same bull dozing intensity. The hope is that he is building up to it and he is definitely showing signs of his confidence returning.
Manu Tuilagi is another where huge expectations have to be tempered with the knowledge the poor lad has been away from International test rugby for a staggering 7 years. He has been showing tantalising glimpses of Manu circa 2012 at Leicester but will he be able to deliver in the white-hot atmosphere in Dublin? With Ben Te’o out it is looking like he is going to get his chance and what a stage for him to announce his return. So, there are reasons to be cheerful or at least hopeful for England fans especially with the outstanding form of Maro Itoje and the reuniting of the Vunipola brothers. England of course can win in Dublin and I am sure Ireland do not believe they just have to turn up to win. It should be close but Ireland’s game management, structure and lack of errors gives them the right to feel confident of the victory.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has ditched the faux modesty and humbleness and stated if Wales beat France in Paris on Friday night they will win the competition. Bold claim but I would be inclined to go along with that given Wales have their two other strongest rivals visiting them in the bear pit of the Millennium stadium. Ireland and England’s record at the Cardiff stadium is patchy and this is a very fine Wales squad on a very good run of their own. Forget European form here as the Welsh regions’ performance rarely impacts on the national side. To balance out that optimism for Wales there are a few injuries to key men that just might derail the red dragon. Halfpenny is their kicking go to man with his dead eye and nerves helping Wales many a time to get over the line and Faletau at number 8 is a big old loss. But like a lot of the other tournament sides their depth has increased and canny old Warren Gatland has built a team that is a true contender.
Scotland would have looked at the 2019 fixtures and thought – we like that! The vagaries of the schedule have given Scotland a gentle start with the visit of Italy to Murrayfield. The best bit is they are at home again the second week and welcome Ireland. Ireland at Murrayfield is never a given with some rare old battles played out in the capital and Ireland know there is the potential to come out on the wrong side. I like this Scotland side and despite a few blows on the injury front they will be strong and passionate and fired up when it all kicks off in Edinburgh. If their quicksilver fly half Finn Russell can add some control to his wonderful game then they are capable of pulling teams apart. They will have a big say in where the trophy heads with a chance to derail hopes in both Dublin and Wales.
Whilst Italy are finally showing under Connor O Shea signs of getting their act together it is sadly at a time when all the other nations have raised their game. It has been marvellous to see Treviso ramp up the gears and become a threat in the Pro 14. Their game last weekend against Ulster away in Ireland, with most of their star names off with Italy, showed just how much the Italians are improving. It’s a slow process but is the right one. Conner has addressed the fundamentals in Italy getting the structures and pathways right which has already resulted in a very good and competitive U20’s side. I believe Italy appointed the right man to overhaul the game and put it on the right path towards being more competitive at Tier 1 level. It will take time and this Six Nations is a little soon. A couple of key men in a paper-thin squad will not help the Italian cause but expect them to really compete at home. Their attack looks miles better albeit if I was the Italian Federation I would be getting the cheque book out for a top class defence coach,
As for Les Bleus - what can we say? We are all a little bored of repeating each year ‘which French team will turn up’ but infuriatingly we have to ask the same question every year. It has never been more true for 2019 with a squad selected that looks like it was picked using a lucky dip. There is, as usual, so much talent still in there and I like the way France have thrown in some of their U20 World Cup winners. There issue is lack of consistent selection and no experienced spine of the team. With the half backs on a constant merry go round and players hardly given one season to bed down in the team it is little wonder no one is backing them to go on and win the tournament. Of course they can, and I am sure they will, have a say and no more so than on the opening fixture in Paris against Wales.
My guess is there will be no Grand Slam this year and we could even have Ireland, Wales and England all losing one game bringing it down to points difference as we did in that manic last Saturday a few years ago when teams threw away their playbook and just went for tries. That, my friends, is the magic of the Six Nations. You just never know what you are going to get.