The second half of my 6 Nations preview is on its way (yay!)
Ireland, after winning the 6N in 2015, had a disappointing World Cup exit and a relatively weak showing in 6N 2016, with some fans questioning the conservative approach of coach Declan Kidney. However, they really impressed later in the year, beating South Africa with a weakened side before the Springbok decline was as clear as it ended up being, beating Australia in a thriller when the Aussies had thrashed Wales and for the first time in their history beating New Zealand and pushing them close again in 2 controversial and brutal matches. They have a great pack and a wealth of riches at backrow which may be key in their final match, at home vs England. But they also have a tough opener with Sexton injured and potentially a target on their backs after beating the World Champs.
Prediction: I’m going to say 2nd. But it could be a Grand Slam for them (that’s winning every match)
Key player: CJ Stander. He has been destructive this season and a big part of the go forward that allowed Ireland to bully the All Blacks, and looks a shoe in for a Lions place right now. If he gets neutralised, someone is going to have to do a lot of hard carrying.
A star to be born: My rugby forum friends know I think a lot of young Josh Van Der Flier on the flank, and many are excited for the “New Brian O’Driscoll”, Gary Ringrose, but I am going to say Utan Dillane. A hardworking and flexible and powerful lock, one of the few representatives of the 4th province, Connacht, Dillane has taken to top tier rugby as if born to it and is physically abrasive enough to burst through the considerable talent above him.
Italy have a new coach in Conor O’Shea, known for his optimism and his offload based attacking game and utilising backs and linking forwards. Not the usual Italian style, though he saw them defeat South Africa before losing to a Tongan side they really should have beaten. I think this year we will see more from the Italian backs than every before, an evolution of their style, but I’m worried about their ageing forwards. Until the Italian Club game catches up with other Nations, Italy will always be at a disadvantage and though I trust O’Shea to improve things, this is too soon. If they catch a team unawares, and someone actually kicks accurately for them for the first time since Dominguez, then they could take a scalp. But 2 seems unlikely.
Prediction: sadly, 6th
Key Player: Sergio Parisse. I’m not a fan of his antics sometimes. I don’t think he’s as superlative as some others. But his work all over the pitch is vital to Italy and they always miss him. Hopefully with some younger players stepping up, he can spread some of the responsibility and not make rash decisions like last year.
A star to be born: Carlo Canna is hopefully the answer to a decades long issue the Italy side has had at fly half. His goalkicking, before his injury last season, looked ok and not great, so needs work, but his territorial play and attacking ability are a step above what Italy has had to work with before and he looks like he could be the fulcrum needed for a Conor O’Shea gameplan.
Scotland are a conundrum. On paper, despite a small player pool, their team looks strong, and over the years and especially under Cotter they have pushed very good teams very close. But rarely finished the job. This trend continued this Autumn, where they scared Australia but could not beat them. It is hard to bet on them doing better than midtable, and yet I could see them being able to win every match. Their biggest issue is depth, especially at fly half where the step down after Russell is huge, but in Cotter’s final season with them, I think they’ll do a bit better than in recent years.
Prediction: a tentative 3rd. But would not be shocked with 5th or even 6th. Or 2nd at a stretch.
Key player: Finn Russell. Russell is in great form for Glasgow, and with clever kicking and a passing game that probably edges his next rival in George Ford, just, is an excellent attacking fly half producing more moments of magic and fewer brain farts than in previous seasons. He is also irreplaceable, as his back up options are a big step down or else utility players who cover 10 as a secondary position.
A star to be born: Huw Jones. Jones has played all his professional rugby in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby, rare for a Northern Hemisphere player, and currently excels for the Stormers in South Africa. He had a great debut, scoring 2 tries I think in his first 3 matches, this Autumn, but still has some work to do as a defender. Nevertheless, he has great attacking instincts and is a black horse to go on the Lions Tour.
Wales have had a rough 12 months, not helped with Gatland taking this season out to prepare and coach the Lions, and a belated realisation that teams have adapted to face their previously effective direct form of playing, not necessarily best implemented by Gatland’s assistant Howley. I’ve shared an excellent blog by a friend that evaluates Welsh rugby, including at club level, in more detail, but suffice to say right now they look tired, and I don’t think that some of the older heads will be able to lead Wales to a successful 6 Nations. However, some exciting young faces have or are being added to their ranks and all it takes is a bit of momentum in rugby, especially in this competition where form changes so quickly, and Wales have the quality of players to win the whole thing. With Italy first, they need to build up speed.
Prediction: honestly I think 5th right now, but anything up to 2nd would not shock me once they get their tails up.
Key player: Alun Wynn Jones. AWJ is the new captain, never an easy task, and one of the constantly good performers over the recent lull in Welsh rugby. He leads an excellent Ospreys side and is being vaunted as Lions Captain despite huge opposition in his position. This is a lot of leadership potential, and proactive leadership will be needed to get the Welsh morale up, but also a lot of pressure.
A star to be born: Thomas Young. In the squad but not the matchday squad for Italy, Wasps’ Thomas Young is a dynamic flanker at 6 or 7 who has been hugely influential, in defence but also linking attacks between the pack and backs, for his Club side. Some old favourites like ex-captain Warburton as well as other in form players in Moriarity and Justin Tipuric, are keeping him out right now, but he has a huge future ahead.
Scotland v Ireland
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 14:25 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite
Scotland team to face Ireland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (capt), Allan Dell, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson, Josh Strauss.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Tim Swinson, John Barclay, Ali Price, Duncan Weir, Mark Bennett.
Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, T Furlong; I Henderson, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, U Dillane, J Ryan, J van der Flier, K Marmion, I Keatley, T Bowe.
Prediction: Scotland just to edge it
Key battles: The Grays vs Henderson and Toner – In previous seasons, this would be the indomitable Johnny Gray vs the crunching carries and hits of Henderson, but my opinion of Ritchie and of Toner has gone up in their recent good form, and both sides will need a solid lineout to launch attacks, and both duos look well balanced, so I am intrigued for this one.
Ringrose vs Jones: 2 young tyros at 13, both natural try scorers, both unproven defenders. Exciting.
Italy v Wales
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Sunday, 5 February Kick-off: 14:00 GMT
Referee: JP Doyle
Italy: Edoardo Padovani (Zebre); Giulio Bisegni (Zebre), Tommaso Benvenuti (Treviso), Luke McLean (Treviso), Giovanbattista Venditti (Zebre), Carlo Canna (Zebre), Edoardo Gori (Treviso); Andrea Lovotti (Zebre), Ornel Gega (Treviso), Lorenzo Cittadini (Bayonne), Marco Fuser (Treviso), George Biagi (Zebre), Abraham Steyn (Treviso), Maxime Mata Mbanda (Zebre), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais Paris, capt).
Replacements: Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse), Sami Panico (Calvisano), Pietro Ceccarelli (Zebre), Joshua Furno (Zebre), Francesco Minto (Treviso), Giorgio Bronzini (Treviso), Tommaso Allan (Treviso), Michele Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs).
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon); George North (Northampton), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Liam Williams (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys); Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester).
Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Rob Evans (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons), James King (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Sam Davies (Ospreys), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins).
Prediction: Wales by a fair bit
Key battles: Gori vs Webb – Webb is back after a while out with injury and Gori a dangerous attacker who Italy will need to test the Welsh fringes. If either gets on top, then from scrum half a huge amount of momentum can be produced.
McLean vs S Williams – Williams is replacing Jamie Roberts at long last, and is a very powerful carrier, against a man who doesn’t usually defend at 12 (being a fullback or fly half) and isn’t a great tackler. However, McLean does has playmaking ability and passing above that of his opponent, and with the current vogue for such players at 12 this could be a masterstroke for Italy in terms of releasing players outside.