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The closest Six Nations for some time. That is what we can expect from the grand old tournament this year according to many pundits.
It’s hard to argue with that epithet too, as even England, going from strength to strength and without doubt the flagship northern hemisphere side since their dismal 2015 World Cup performance, are without several key personnel. Few tournaments in any sport evoke the same emotions of excitement and passion as does the Six Nations in rugby fans. Indeed, this year all fans except those of Italy could make semi-decent claims on their team’s chances of winning.
However, by looking a little further we can see that the likely winners will come from one of three nations. By looking at squad make-up, domestic form and scheduling England, Ireland and Scotland emerge as the front runners for this year’s championship. Yea, I said Scotland. No, I’m not drunk. You’re drunk.
Despite England’s injury and disciplinary issues, Eddie Jones’ men will still head in to this year’s tournament as favourites. And rightly so. They have an established axis with George Ford and Owen Farrell. Although Ford is not everyone’s cup of tea at 10, he’s an excellent player with front foot ball and he gets an absolute ton of it from England’s pack.
The most obvious gap for the men in white this year comes with two enormous absences, quite literally. Billy Vunipola, in some people’s books the best player in the world, and Nathan Hughes are both absent through injury. This will surely impact on their ability to create consistent front-foot ball. Fortunately for Jones he has an abundance of talent to call on in reserve. Sam Simmons looks to have played himself in to the vacant number 8 shirt in recent weeks. Eddie Jones has also removed Zack Mercer’s apprentice status – nothing less than his recent performances have deserved – and is unlucky to miss out due to a chest infection. Jones even has the luxury of overlooking the likes of Don Armand, such is the strength in depth of English Rugby at the moment.
Looking at England’s fixtures you would expect them to beat Italy and Wales comfortably at home, with the Irish offering a more stern test in front of the Twickenham faithful. The tricky part of the tournament for the English will be back to back (rounds 3 and 4) trips to Scotland and France. The Scots are looking very strong this year and will provide a sterner test than during last year’s Calcutta Calamity. The French? Well who knows. The French are typically a totally different prospect at home in comparison to on the road, so England will have to be at their best in Paris.
Ireland, despite three home games, have got a slightly tougher run of games with trips to south-west London and Paris. However, Joe Schmidt will be buoyed by the form of the Irish provinces in both domestic and European competition. Leinster were the first team to qualify for the knock-out rounds of the Champions Cup and are seeded first and in doing so have been imperious. With comparatively few injuries and a side with a wonderful blend of experience and youthful exuberance, the men in green are a decent bet to win. Odds are that all eyes will be on Twickenham on that final weekend for what could be a Grand Slam decider.
Which brings us to Scotland. Admittedly, with three matches on the road, Scotland’s is a tall order. However, with a (mostly) fit squad, Glasgow flying high in the Pro 14 and off the back of some
impressive performances and results last autumn, Scotland will be quietly confident of having a successful Six Nations. On balance, the full championship may be beyond them this year, but be assured that we could well see Scotland’s highest place finish in quite some time. With Gregor Townsend in charge they will certainly be entertaining to watch and will be targeting Wales in Cardiff and France at home to put down an early marker. Watch out for Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, both showing great form coming in to the championship.
For the rest, although Wales and France could spring a surprise, it remains unlikely. France seemed in disarray during the autumn – a new coaching team may breath fresh impetus in to the team, but there has been no consistency in the French squad for years. No salary cap and a plethora of foreign talent in the Top 14 means that French talent has been stifled and as a result cannot match the strength in depth of the likes of England and Ireland.
Wales on the other hand, have a serious injury problem and are without some key players. In truth, Wales have not been able to kick on from the glory years of 2012 and 2013 and are probably in need of a shake up in the backroom. On their day they have the skill and determination to beat all five of their opponents, but four or five wins seem unlikely.
Although Italy played some ingenious rugby at times last year under the new stewardship of O’Shea, Catt and Venter, they appear to have gone backwards rather than forward. Their ageing talisman Sergio Parisse is still head and shoulders above the rest of the squad and that is worrying. One win from their set of fixtures should probably regarded as a successful campaign, given the strength of their opponents.
Regardless of the final standings the 2018 Six Nations, it promises to be one hell of a tournament. Fans from all six countries and, indeed, around the world are drooling in anticipation of what should be a fabulous competition.
So the International season is upon us. A time of year when our Southern cousins arrive on our shores to give us all a lesson in fast, expansive rugby for a few weeks. But maybe, just maybe, this year might be different.
I do love the Autumn Internationals, I look forward to them every year, although in Cardiff it does mean that thousands of ill-informed, drunken idiots descend on the city’s pubs and bars to shout obscenities and refereeing advice at the big screens, but it’s still all good fun. I mean, I don’t venture into town unless i’m going to the game, but i’m told this is what it’s like.
Wales have already put in one dour performance, a game when Australia cut through the fabled Welsh defence almost at will, and should’ve scored a lot more than the 32 points that they managed to rack up. The fact that Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate seemed to be playing in an Invisibility Cloaks greatly exacerbated this. Personally, I think the ‘Gatland-ball’ game plan of a load of big, strong, quick blokes just smashing it up the middle has had it’s day. Team’s have figured it out, they know how to deal with it, and more worrying the know how to exploit it’s weaknesses too, as Australia proved so admirably on the weekend.
Now, Ireland. I’m a little bit gutted I didn’t watch it live, I was a fireworks display with my daughter, so I recorded it and planned to watch it when I got in and so I avoided Facebook and Twitter for fear of the result being ruined, and then unfortunately a rather lovely man at the display loudly announced the result to his son while he was stood right next to me. Devastating. Anyway, the were tremendous, they nullified the All Blacks perfectly. It was the best performance I’ve seen against NZ that I can remember, and it shows how far they’ve progressed under Schmidt. There defence was superb, they used that famed to ‘choke-tackle’ to wonderful effect and I really liked that figure 8 during the Haka, I think it was a brilliant and fitting tribute to the late Anthony Foley.
England are probably going to clean-sweep their autumn series, as much as it pains me to admit it. Even without Itoje, I think that they will still be too strong and clinical for all the teams that they are playing. I feel that England have got all the ingredients to really take on the SH teams. They’ve got great players, massive strength in depth, and if they had a go i’m sure they could play free scoring, expansive rugby that we’d all love to see. But alas, International rugby is a results business, and i’ve no doubt that Eddie Jones will be happy with a 3 – 0 win, as long as it’s a win. Which is sad.
So, I read a Tweet the other day that described Saracens as 'one of the best non-Test teams of the era'. This tweet
wasn't from some fez-wearing Saracens season ticket holder either, it was from Stephen Jones, chief Rugby writer at The Times no less. It made me annoyed, and also a bit sad. I'll elaborate. Firstly, how do you define an era?? Is it a year long, five years, ten years??? Who knows?!? But to describe a team that have won only one European title in any of those time periods seemed like high praise to me. Sure they're good, but are they worthy of that level of reverence yet?!? I'd say not. Toulon won three in a row remember.
Secondly, and this is my main point, the current pundit and journalist love affair with Saracens makes me a little bit sad and also is the reason that i think we in the Northern Hemisphere have such problems against our cousins from the South. They're entire game is built on defence, and that's not a bad thing, every team needs a good defence but it's the pride that they seem to take in nulifying opponents and strangling games that really narks me. This whole 'wolf pack' thing.
They can play great, expansive, open rugby, as they proved in the Aviva final against Bath. The blitz defence has become their defining characteristic, and i can't help but think that any Southeren Hemisphere team, that had achieved the success that Saracens have would never have put such an emphasis on defence, but would rather win games by attacking and trying to score tries. I'd rather watch that, i think most people would rather watch that, unless you ask anyone from the Saracens Supporters Club i'm sure.
I will be honest, i've only ever seen one of their games live, it was at Wembley, against Leicester and was honestly one of most boring 80 minutes of rugby i've ever had the displeasure of sitting through. But hey, the ticket was free.
As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, rugby fans across the northern hemisphere get ready to welcome the The Rugby Championship’s finest. Although these Autumn Tests are always reason for cheer, you have to feel that all sides facing the imperious All Blacks will have less reason than Wales, perhaps, who have already face New Zealand three times this year. Indeed, Ireland have the dubious honour of playing the double world champions twice this autumn series, once in Chicago and once more back home in Dublin.
The source of this pessimistic outlook? Simple. The All Blacks have looked absolutely unbeatable this year and over their last 18 (unbeaten) games their stats are staggering. They have averaged 41 points scored per game against only 14 conceded and scored a staggering 104 tries in that time (just under six per game). It is no wonder with these try scoring capabilities that their one perceivable weakness, their goal-kicking, doesn’t really matter. If you score six tries per game, who cares if only two or three are converted?! By comparison, the second place team in World Rugby’s rankings, England, have scored an average of 29 points per game in the same amount of games.
One of the key factors in this pure dominance is the All Blacks’ strength in depth. Every time a player gets injured, falls out of form or gets a bit naughty (erhem, Mr. Smith) they have three or four fill players to fill the void. Not just any players either. World Class players. After the 2015 World Cup and the retirement of some of the key protagonists in New Zealand’s dominance of the last eight years or so (McCaw, Nonu, Carter, et al.) you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand might need a year or two to rebuild. Not so.
Thanks to a well thought out progression plan this has not been the case. This plan stems from high school rugby, where talent is identified and nurtured; through the NPC and Super Rugby where that same talent is tested and developed; to the Test team, where players are blooded bit by bit to ensure when they are called upon they already have Test experience. This was just the case with Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Cane, for example. Fekitoa had 13 caps by the end of last year’s World Cup. Cane had 31. Both have fitted straight in to the starting line-up seamlessly.
However, this strength in depth goes further than just the “next one in”. Already this season we have seen the blooding of Anton Lienert-Brown in the centre and Ardie Savea at open-side behind Fekitoa and Cane and neither has been found wanting. Such is the embarrassment of talent in the New Zealand pool that young Damian McKenzie, who lit up the Super Rugby tournament, has been limited to only one appearance from the bench against Argentina.
It would be naïve to suggest that the only reason that the All Blacks have achieved this unbeaten run is because of their strength in depth. In fact it is only one part of what has made them unbeatable. Another major factor is the sheer talent of the key players in the team. Nowhere else in world rugby do you have two locks as comfortable on the ball in midfield as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Nowhere in world rugby will you come across a more skilful hooker than Dane Coles. And I certainly don’t feel that there is a better attacking fly-half in the world right now than Beauden Barrett.
As a team they may not be the most destructive scrummagers or the most aggressive maulers, but they can attack you from anywhere with razor-sharp precision, their off-loading game making it near
impossible to stop the big black machine if it starts gathering momentum. The defences of Italy, France and Ireland will almost certainly not have enough to stop them.
A final word of advice for these teams? Play the full 80 minutes. Or at least pick a team and bench that can do so. So often New Zealand’s games have looked close up until 50-60 minutes, only for them to pull away and make the final score look embarrassing for their embattled opponents. Wales saw it, South Africa bore the brunt of a record defeat in a game that had looked finely balanced and Argentina kept pace for 50 minutes before being ruthlessly blown away. The point here is, through superior fitness and a bench most coaches would kill for, the All Blacks just cannot be contended with for the duration. While most teams’ now customary emptying of the bench around 60 minutes brings a break down in continuity, Steve Hansen’s men barely miss a beat. They play as consummately in minute 80 as they do in minute four. That is a truly perplexing thing to have to face for messrs Noves, O’Shea and Schmidt (twice)!
Nonetheless, it promises to be a scintillating autumn with no shortage of tries. And that’s something I’ll happily drink to.
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