Saturday brings the start of the 2018 Nat West 6 Nations Championship. It kicks off in Cardiff where Wales entertain Scotland. This is probably the most competitive 6 Nations in 20 years. Five of the Six teams will think they will have a chance of victory. England will be favourites quite rightly, but will the wait if history be too much for them as these search for a historic three championships in a row. From the Autumn internationals, it would look like Ireland and Scotland will be the next in line. But you can’t rule out France or Wales.
In my opinion tie of the first week of the championship will be in Cardiff, and also a large determinant of what to expect from both countries for the rest of the tournament.
While Scotland have not won in Cardiff in 16 years, there is an intriguing sub plot to this fixture. With only two Scots boarding the plane to New Zealand for the tied British and Irish Lions tour, compared to Wales’s 12 despite finishing above them in the last 6 Nations, many of the players will have a point to prove to Warren Gatland. Both sides have been hit by injuries (as have all the nations, and player’s health is high on the agenda again), it is the Scottish front row that could be the key to the outcome. With Scotland down to their 6th and 7th choice props, Gatland has admitted that they would be targeting that area. This will probably be the reason for his selection of Leigh Halfpenny. Halfpenny’s high percentage of kick conversion (though not as high this season as his usual) will have been a major consideration. So, with Wales targeting the scrum, if they get the penalties, they would hope Halfpenny does the business. Selecting Halfpenny at 15, means a debut for Rhys Patchell at fly half. He is one of six starting Scarlets in the backs, with the exception being the former Scarlets apprentice Josh Adams who debuts on the wing. I feel that if Scotland can get parity in the scrums, I think that the choice of Halfpenny rather than Patchell at full back, could be key if Scotland are to win in Cardiff for the second time this Millenium. Patchell is a more attacking player than Halfpenny, and I can see Scotland launching early deep balls and encouraging Wales to kick it back. It is in that area that Scotland are at their most dangerous. They are developing a knack of making major inroads in open play, rather than in structured set piece play. With Halfpenny it is more likely they will kick it back more than with Patchell as fullback, which if he is not at his best, it will open up chances for Scotland’s back three and Stuart Hogg in particular.
Overall with 10 Scarlets start the game, Gatland will hope that they bring their club form of the last year to the national side. The backs will have a good understanding. The only issue may be whether they will have to follow the Welsh gameplan or the one that has been so successful for the Scarlets. The same could be said about Scotland, with the six of the starters coming from Glasgow. However, the main difference is that the game that Gregor Townsend wants to play is very similar to the way Glasgow and to a lesser extent Edinburgh play. It will be an intriguing game. I think that it will come down to the front 5. If Scotland get parity, I think (it may be the heart ruling the head) Scotland will come out with the coveted away win, and set them up nicely for the rest of the championship. I even feel that Wales may not even get a losing BP.
As for the other games, England should comfortably see off Italy. The selection of Ben Te’o at centre shows a shrewd side to Eddie Jones. He is going to batter the Italian centres, which will either lead to immediate line breaks, or after sustained pressure, the floodgates will open. I see England winning comfortably with a winning BP, and potential a large score.
The game in Paris has its own intrigue. Ireland will be missing 13 internationals that Joe Schmidt would have selected. This will not be as noticeable as they have developed a sizable strength in depth. With France under new stewardship, it is still not clear what direction they will take, or what team will turn up. If the players play with the same commitment and panache that they do in the Top 14, then they will be a force to be reckoned with. This is a very hard one to call, but I think with the game being in Paris, France will sneak it with a LBP to Ireland.
At the end of the day I can see the championship coming down to the last weekend, with at least three teams still in the hunt.