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If Carlsberg did Rugby Tournaments…

The comedian Spike Milligan, who was a huge rugby fan, apparently commented as  he neared the end of his long life that it was looking forward to what was then the Five Nations that kept him going for another  year!

Not sure I would go as far but there is something about this historic competition which makes it so anticipated and loved.  Yes,  we know the Southern Hemisphere  chuck it about a bit in The Rugby Championship  but I  think in the Six Nations  we have got a brilliant format and years of history which makes it special. 

As a player I relished coming up against rampant Scottish teams at Murrayfield seemingly intent on re-creating  The Battle of Bannockburn, facing a snorting, fire breathing French front row  and hearing the passionate Irish and Welsh fans in full voice in Cardiff and Dublin.

There is something about those traditional rivalries which makes nearly every game a fierce local derby.  The unique format of home and away is also something to cherish as it makes each year a new challenge depending on how the schedule falls.

For me the Six nations favourites for 2017 are Ireland and England and I agree with most commentators that we could see a massive show down on the final weekend to see who wins the trophy or nails a Grand Slam.  There is a big but coming however,  as every team in the competition has got  reasons to be optimistic and I really feel there will be upsets this year.

England led by everyone’s favourite Aussie Eddie Jones go into the tournament limping very slightly with half their first choice pack missing.  The strength in depth is building but there is no team on earth that is not going to miss the brothers Vunipola, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw.  The workrate alone of these players will be a tough ask to replicate.  A new name to look for in the front row is up and coming 21 year old Leicester Tigers prop Ellis Genge who has fantastic skills and looks like a real handful in the loose .  I expect England to win at Twickenham but nerves will be shredded come that final game out in Dublin.

I would not underrate Wales this year.  They have freshened the squad up with some real talent including the Wasps star performer Thomas Young who has been making a real statement in the Aviva Premiership.  The coaching team is another interesting one with the very talented Alex King lately of Northampton Saints and previously with French giants Clermont joining  Rob Howley and Sean Edwards.  Throw into the mix another left field selection of Sevens coaching supremo Ben Ryan and we should see a vastly improved Wales in attack.

Ireland kick off by travelling to face Scotland.  For some reason Ireland struggle a bit in Murrayfield but my goodness they are brimming with confidence at the moment.  With that  All Blacks scalp pinned to the dressing room they must feel they can beat anyone anywhere and I think for the first time they have real strength in depth.  They have a cracking front row with Jack McGrath and newcomer Tadgh Furlong in sparkling form and another to look out for is the uncapped hooker Niall Scannell who I  really rate.

With the heroics of Glasgow’s scintillating and unexpected trouncing of Leicester Tigers  still fresh in the memory Scotland should really benefit.  This is the strongest looking Scotland I have seen for a while and with a large part of the squad playing regularly together at Glasgow gelling the team should not take long.  Find of the season has to be the fly half Finn Russell.  Quite dazzling skills are possessed by the young man and with a whole array of, what looks like to me,  turbo charged backs -  I don’t think Scotland will have trouble finding the try line.

As for the French and the Italians both with new coaches there is a bit of an unknown.  Guy Noves the wily French coach who knows a thing or two about winning is starting to bring back some French flair to the team.  Playing England first up may not work for them but I would expect them to get stronger as the tournament progresses.

The interesting thing about Italy is more the coaching set up than the players.  With Connor O Shea recruited from Harlequins the team is going to be more organised and better prepared than in the past.  Connor has cleverly bought on board Mike Catt as attack coach which I think is inspired.  Italy has always had the desire and passion but get let down by lack of skills and an attacking strategy.  We also have to remember Italy did manage for the first time to beat South Africa in the Autumn.  It was a poor South Africa but it was still a great performance from the Italians.

So nail your colours to the mast and may the best team win.

 

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