The 2nd Half

The second half of my 6 Nations preview is on its way (yay!)

 

Ireland:

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:

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:

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:

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.

 

 

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6 Nations, 1 Victor

So this year’s 6 Nations are shortly starting, after England’s Victory last year and dramatic recovery from a dire World Cup, and just before a tantalising Lions (which is when England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland join forces to play one of Australia, New Zealand or South Africa away in the latter group’s home Nation) Tour to New Zealand.

The 6 Nations are a rugby tournament from 2000 (though originally existing in a 4 then 5 Nation format from 1883 until Italy joined) competed every Spring by the Rugby playing European Nations of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Due to the excitement of a Lions Tour, with eligible players keen to impress and book a place on a tour that only occurs every 4 years (and to New Zealand, only every 12 years), the fluctuations in the rugby scene and form, and permutations with new coaches (Conor O’Shea at Italy has his first tournament, with Eddie Jones of England and Guy Noves of France in their second), leaving coaches (Vern Cotter of Scotland) and strangely absent coaches (Wales’ Warren Gatland is coaching the aforementioned Lions and so his Nation is being led by his assistant staff), it feels like a very intriguing year.

The first 2 teams:

England:

England, after a dismal World Cup, became reigning 6N Champions last season with a new head coach, Australian Jones, and a simple and direct style. Over the year they have slowly improved after winning the Championship without every playing dazzling rugby, and won every match in 2016. As the largest of the European Unions, they have the most depth, but already start the tournament with key players missing, for example workhorse ex-Captain Robshaw, the heavy duty carrying of the Vunipola brothers and the explosive but sadly increasingly absent Manu Tuilagi who will all miss the entire tournament. More players are missing the start of the competition too, but it is the absences above and how they weaken the backrow and carrying abilities that will concern many of my countrymen. That and a final match against Ireland in Dublin…

Prediction: my heart says winners, my head says top 2 but I won’t put my money where my mouth is!

Key player: James Haskell. The set piece will manage unless it gets further ravaged by injury, and there are options in the backs, but the backrow is weakened and needs the extraordinary energy Haskell showed this time last year to compete with Wales, Scotland and Ireland at the breakdown particularly

A star to be born: Itoje is getting all the hype after a great debut international season and a move to 6 to cover Robshaw, but the explosive prop Kyle Sinckler is my tip, giving a much needed long term replacement for the weary Dan Cole.

France:

France have shown signs of improvement over the 12 month reign of new coach Noves, with a poor 6 Nations in which they were still finding their way slowly built upon with a good set of results in the Autumn, pushing the World Champions New Zealand all the way, and some signs that the dormant French attacking flair is stirring. They have changed their pack a lot recently, and still struggle to pick a real leader at 10, which will hurt their cohesion. However, once their momentum builds up even the recent weak French sides could derail teams looking to win the Championship, so  with the gameplan looking attack focused again and the French Union starting to weed out their many, many  domestic issues, everyone will be wary of Les Bleus.

Prediction: 3rd to 5th are all hard to call, but I’ll say 4th

Key player: Gael Fickou. Usual attacking maestro Wes Fofana is out of the tournament with an injury, so Fickou is the most natural threat in the French midfield and the likely focus of their  attacks. If France are to tear teams to pieces again after so long, the young centre will be the sword that does the damage in my opinion.

A star to be born: Baptiste Serin. The French are no strangers to top class scrum halves, but the tempo from Serin has lifted them more than anyone since Parra was in his petulant prime (apologies for the Eddie Butler prose there), and he has been Bordeaux’ most important player this season too for the same reason.

 

England vs France: Twickenham – Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 16:50 GMT

Referee: Angus Gardner (I don’t know much about this guy)

England team to face France: Mike Brown; Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley (captain), Dan Cole; Joe Launchbury; Courtney Lawes; Maro Itoje, Tom Wood, Nathan Hughes.

Replacements: Jamie George, Matt Mullan, Kyle Sinckler, Teimana Harrison, James Haskell, Danny Care, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell.

France team to face England: Scott Spedding, Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Camille Lopez, Baptiste Serin; Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Damien Chouly, Yoann Maestri, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Uni Atonio, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Cyril Baille.

Reserves: Clement Maynadier, Rabah Slimani, Xavier Chiocci, Arthur Iturria, Loann Goujon, Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain, Yoann Huget.

Key battles: the front row clash – both Nations pride themselves on this area and France have had the upper hand in recent years and will need to capitalise here with Marler barely back from a broken leg, because I can’t see them winning much lineout ball against Lawes, Launchbury, Itoje and Wood, all excellent defensive jumpers.

The kicking duel: Ford and Serin will be the architects in attack (England currently play off 10 whilst France as usual off 9), but the icy kicking of Lopez and Farrell will be needed to give each side scoreboard pressure when playing well and keep their noses in the match when they are struggling. Farrell’s boot has been exceptional recently but Lopez is a cool customer

Prediction: England by 2 scores. Fingers crossed.

 

The other sides and matches for the weekend I shall get up later today 🙂

 

Thanks for reading

Mack is Back

Hello everyone,

 

It’s been a long time since my last post, as I couldn’t articulate exactly what I wanted to say on the topic I wanted to talk about and there was nothing else I felt like I should talk about on here since.

Much has happened since then and I will post briefly in the near-ish future on Brexit and Trump amongst other things. I shall also, in order to ever finish these posts, make my blog shorter!

I also have a list of a few light hearted things I want to talk about, as well as my insights into the currently stretched NHS, Brexit and Trump and the currently fraught world and how I think we can make the best of it and best make it a better rather than worse place.

 

These things will include the upcoming Lions Rugby (and thus this upcoming 6 Nations Rugby too) and a few reviews.

 

Later tonight I intend to post a brief review of this weekends 6 Nations’ matches and my thoughts for the tournament, and then hopefully soon afterwards a review of Moana, the latest Disney film.

 

I shall also be re-posting some blogs I think are very good, namely one photography blog and one friend’s rugby blog. I hope you enjoy them, but they are not mine.

 

Hasta pronto,

 

J

Season’s Greetings

(I hate this phrase. But I’m using it kind of pseudo-cleverly here 😒☺️)

 

I am sorry that I am unlikely to blog again for a couple of months, due to oncalls on my new Psychiatry job and the fact that I am revising hard for my expensive and difficult paediatrics exam at the beginning of February amongst other commitments.

In the meantime, I’ll post twice, once later briefly to cover the pop-culture-y stuff in part 2 but right here to discuss this time of year and the Symbolism around it. By this time of year, I don’t specifically mean Christmas, which is why I used the horrible “Season’s Greetings” instead.

Now Christmas itself is very important, both in terms of its own symbolic messages, riffs on various pre-Christian legends and stories and the clear importance given its position in the most prominent faith in our country and much of the West.

It (and its associated festivals like Advent, Epiphany etc) has also spawned a lot of non-religious traditions and traditions built upon aspects of the religious story that I think are good things (though the rank commercialism and entitlement of “deserving” or “needing” gifts are not). You get concepts of birth (part of a pair with the rebirth of Easter), of life beginning, the first step to redemption, of hope, of light after darkness, as well as giving (though technically Epiphany is a separate entity) and humble beginnings, of incarnation, of royalty. But the concepts of conception, birth and beginning are most key in my opinion. The Christingle and Advent Candles objects tie this idea of birth in with the idea of light.

As Christmas is what our country as a whole is explicitly celebrating, even if that has taken on meanings other than the literal “Mass of Christ” (unsurprising given our relatively secular society), I much prefer the phrase “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” (which is too clearly trying to be PC and appease everyone, when that isn’t really what you are celebrating. By all means, wish people who are celebrating a specific other holiday a “Happy Hannukah” etc but pretending that it is all one big holiday doesn’t make any sense) and the banal “Season’s Greetings”, which means nothing and isn’t even Season specific. May as well say “Good day”.

Despite this, Christmas is far from the only major festival over this period. Judaism has Hannukah, celebration of lights and salvation. Buddhism celebrates the enlightenment of Buddha in December. Then various forms of paganism have holidays in December and often on the 25th December itself.

And this is no coincidence. Assuming that the biblical story about the census etc is accurate and Jesus did exist as he is believed to, it is suspected that he would be born not in the year 0 and certainly not in December (his estimated month of birth is July based on the information available to us). The 25th of December was specifically chosen.

Malkh, a festival of the pantheistic/animistic beliefs of the Vainakh people who once lived between the Caspian and Black Seas, whose religions influenced the late Roman Empire amongst other cultures, is a celebration of the birth of the Sun on the 25th December.

The late Roman Empire continued this on the same day with a celebration of their Sun God, specifically as “Unconquered” and around his birth, and likely led into the chosen date for Christmas.

Saturnalia is another, older, Roman festival in December, specifically and relevantly (as we will see in a bit) based around the Winter Solstice. A celebration of giving gifts, feasting and role reversal (a celebration of the humble over the mighty), it mirrors many “modern” Christmas traditions. It is also a festival of light, and search for wisdom and truth, and celebrates Saturn (a deity with a really interesting story and associated myths), the god of agriculture and the Golden Age (kind of a Roman version of the Garden of Eden really). It also was thought by some philosophers to focus on the idea of “immortality and freeing of souls”.

Even the Talmud (Rabbanic Jewish text) comments on “Saturna” (probably Saturnalia) and the associated Kalenda as earlier pagan festivals originating from Adam reflecting on his sin and learning about the life cycle of the sun and the seasons and thus existence, all themes we mentioned above.

Yule is a pagan festival, giving many Christmas traditions, and revolving around Odin, motherhood, fertility, midwinter/solstice and sacrifice and feasting to bring back the sun after it “dies” throughout winter. It has traditional links with sacrifice and the circle of birth, life, death and rebirth, bringing back good things after a time of hardship and darkness.

Finally we have Yalda. A Persian festival, name meaning “Birth” in Middle Aramaic Syriac, with pagan, Christian and Zoroastrian links, it is about overcoming darkness and again falls on the Solstice, the Bleak Midwinter. Also linked to this, and more importantly the Roman festivals above and Christmas itself, is the Persian God of Mithras, born on 22nd December either due to or causing the lengthening of days after the longest night. Mithras was born to a Virgin Mother, represents the Sun, goodness, light and truth and his name (and also his role in Zoroastrianism) means “The Covenant”. He is an aspect of the good deity of the duodeistic religion, though his symbolism does not entirely fit that of Christianity (and is also quite interesting) especially regarding death and rebirth. He also has links to Prometheus and Gabriel.

Christmas was deliberately placed in this time to coincide with vaguely similar festivals, some of which had influenced each other, and to try to ease conversion amongst other things, but also for the same reasons that these festivals fell during December anyway. And that is the cycle of our Sun, recognised as a symbol and source of power and life and goodness very early in the fertile Mesopotamian areas in which civilisation began. Because the Sun was and still is the most direct physical “source of life”. I mean, photosynthesis is the keystone of life on Earth as we know it and even aside from that, the heat of the sun is key for agriculture and humanity’s survival. Almost all religions have venerated the Sun, including Abrahamic faiths which see light as the first thing created and as an aspect of Jesus and God.

Winter, with colder temperatures, no crops and darkness, was an understandably scary time for most cultures. The Sun’s power was waning and they did not understand why. The Solstice, where nights start to get longer again and the Sun is “reborn” and the circle of life restarts, was a vital sign of things getting better, tied to our own lives and the idea of conception and birth for humanity too. The Midwinter is what makes December objectively such an important symbolic time and has fed into our many traditions and led to Christmas being celebrated where it is now. The (truistic) idea that the light comes just after the deepest darkness, the metaphor for hope and for life. Imprinted in our cultural psyche.

I think it’s really interesting, the implications of this season, and hope that you have too. Whatever faith you are, or none at all, I wish you the best for this period. Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings, and a Happy New Year (another allusion to rebirth 😉 ).
Thanks for reading. One more blog and then a few weeks break. Don’t miss me too much,

J