The Six Nations are back, and it has sneaked up on us as it is less than four months since the culmination of the 2020 tournament. With the Autumn Nations Cup pitting the Six Nations rivals against each other, the tournament has for me, lost a little of its glamour this year.
It is a different type of year as it is the first true year of the next Rugby World Cup (RWC) cycle and also a (hopefully) British and Irish Lions year. With the draw for the RWC in France already taken place, the usual jostling for seedings will not be at the fore, as teams will now be trying to develop their style and new players for the 2023 championship.
What I do hope for is a more expansive style of rugby than what was seen at the Autumn Nations Cup. The focus appeared to be on defence as teams box kicked so much and focussed on defending rather than attacking.
With pandemic still gripping all the nations, what will be intriguing is that the competition is likely to be more akin to a Rugby World Cup, as all the squads that have been selected will be there for the duration (remining in their bubble), with only some players being added. This will be of advantage to the Pro-14 countries, and may have bearing on the tournament, as they are able to select a larger squad, due to the contract that the home-based players.
Looking at the squads, England have 28 players and France, 31, while the Pro-14 countries have a larger base (Ireland (35), Italy (32), Scotland (35) and Wales (36)). While this may have an effect on the club sides, especially with Champions Cup qualification at risk, at least there is no risk of relegation. The one advantage for France and England is their strength of squad, which I think will negate the size, as the players they will bring in (if required) will be battle ready seasoned internationals.
My thoughts about the outcome! I reckon that France will come top of the pile, followed by England, though if this was reversed, it would not surprise me in the least. As for third to fifth, it could be any of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with Italy picking up the wooden spoon. For positions 3-5, I think the lack of crowds may have an effect. I think that Scotland will pick up three home wins, which I think will put them in third, though they won three last year and finished fourth. Fourth will be Ireland, winning in Cardiff and Rome, and picking up a win at home against either England / France, which I think will be have a bearing on where the Championship end up. I think the lack of crowds will have a major impact on Wales, especially with their roof, which of all the venues, can be a 16th man. While this is a crucial set of fixtures for Wayne Pivac, I feel that it will not be a positive experience, with their sole victory going to be in Rome.
It’s going to be a strange situation for me, I will be able to watch all the matches, as normally I am watching matches live, and then miss some or all of the other matches.
For this weekends fixtures:
England v Scotland
This is a strange game. I have visited Twickenham every two years since 1995 to watch the Calcutta Cup, and have seen good teams soundly beaten and less able teams (technically) be within a score in the last ten minutes. But for some reason, while I don’t think that Scotland will win, I think that this is a major opportunity.
The reasons are threefold:
1) While home advantage is strongest for Wales, I think England (or a full Twickenham) has an aura that can overpower many teams. The fact that there will be no fans, could be beneficial for Gregor Townsend’s team.
2) As it is the first game of the Championship, some of the England team may be undercooked. The Saracens contingent, have not played competitively since the end of the Autumn Nations Cup. While all the moves and training can prepare you for the match tactics, the physicality preparedness that you get from matches can’t be replicated. For this reason, I think it gives Scotland another slight chink of light.
3) Scotland go into the game with a squad that has shown that they can match England, over the last three matches. They also have the returning X factor that is Finn Russell. If Scotland can temper their exuberance (second half in 2019), with pragmatism, then the magic of Russell and lesser so, Stuart Hogg could be pivotal in the outcome.
Wales v Ireland
This is a crucial game for Pivac. It will have a major influence on what type of championship Wales will have. With BT Murrayfield the following week, they will want a home victory. I don’t think that they will get it. While both teams have relatively new coaching teams, the promotion from within by Ireland, seems to have assisted in the transition. While not scaling the heights yet of Joe Schmidt’s tenure, they have not had the drop off in performance that Wales have. The game is quite balanced, but with the news from both camps this week, it tips it in favour of Ireland. Jonny Sexton being passed fit, as he is the fulcrum of the Irish side and Josh Adams indiscretion, I think will be crucial. I think that Adams would have started on the wing on Sunday, so all the drills will have been focussed around that, with George North in the centres. The late change may force North to the wing, but with the lack of success that Wales experienced in 2020, the confidence in the squad may not have the strength to overcome this late alteration. Andy Farrell will also be looking for a strong performance, as even though they finished third in the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, that was with three home games, and performances that were not what would have been hoped. Farrell will be hoping to get his blueprint on the team as he builds towards 2023.
Italy v France
This game kicks off the tournament, and should see a win for France. Whether it is a bonus point (BP) one is up to how quickly the French gel. Italy have not had the best of times recently and their club sides have not had much success either, so the players will not be coming onto this with confidence. The absence of Romain Ntamack at first 5/8th, I don’t feel will be crucial as France have the players, and the depth as was shown in the Autumn to be able to deal with his absence, and potentially any other of their 1st choice. A comfortable win to get the tournament underway.
This tournament also has an interesting sub-plot, selection for British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa (if it takes place). I think that the first round of fixtures will be crucial, as it pits all eligible players against each other. The key for me is how the Scots compete, as they always seem to be overlooked in favour of other nations. If they can develop a winning mentality, there should be more than two that were selected in 2017. But that is for another blog.