Bye Bye January, it has being more pain than pleasure. RBS 6 Nations tournament always whets my appetite. I find that the year flies from here on out. Before we know it, the tourney is finished and we are heading into April and the business end of the club rugby season. Will England continue their unbeaten winning streak? Can Ireland continue their Autumn international form? Is this the season where Scotland’s efforts earn some much needed victories? Can Italy under Conor O’Shea show improvements and be consistently competitive in the tournament? How will the Welsh team fare under the guidance of Rob Howley? Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict some of the main talking points from the tournament.
Bonus Point System
A natural progression for the tournament as the conception of the bonus point has being an overwhelming success in club rugby. The typical conservative approach which has plighted recent tournaments should be lessened by this new rule change. Wales will look to target a bonus point win and set an early marker when facing Italy this weekend in Rome. It could be a physiological edge for Wales for the rest of the tournament potentially. The bonus point to me will be seen more in the last two rounds of this competition when the weather conditions typically improve which allows teams to become more expansive with ball in hand, teams will know what they have to do to potentially make up ground on the leader. Conservative game plans will win little so it will be interesting to see how teams embrace this significant rule change.
Conor O’Shea and Italy
A new tournament. A new start for Italy under the management of Conor O’Shea whose resume is superb. This is a challenging role for anyone. The form of the Italian clubs has being woeful. No distinct options for O’Shea to call into the squad so the Irish man will have to make do and work with existing players who have being second best in recent years. Italy may point to a win against South Africa but their reversal against Tonga immediately after brought the Azzuri right back down to earth. Tonga exposed the front five in the set piece and Italy’s inability to create opportunities in their back line was further underlined. I don’t expect Italy to improve significantly this season. They may provide their typical passion in the opening rounds with ties against Wales and Ireland in Rome but you really fear for the side when they have to face England, France and Wales. O’Shea will look for modest improvements this season; the key is to identify a core of players to work from and then hope that new arrivals either citizenship rule or youth academies can produce the players that the side needs to get to the next level. The organizers have closed the door on Romania and Georgia but any repeats of Italian capitulations in this tournament will open further ridicule of this decision.
Ireland have had an encouraging Autumn series. A thrilling win against New Zealand in Chicago along with a win against Australia minus several first line players indicates promising signs for Joe Schmidt. There are concerns leading into this tournament though. The over reliance on scrum half Conor Murray is quite evident; if anything happens to the Munster scrum-half (similar to his province), then serious questions on squad depth will emerge. Marmion is a good scrum half but is unproven at international level, perhaps Schmidt needs to evaluate the player and his options at this position during the tournament. The number ten position is lesser so, think it is a great opportunity for Paddy Jackson to cement his starting spot. Sexton’s injury problems does not inspire confidence that the player will even make the 2019 RWC tournament. Schmidt needs to look at the bigger picture here; look at the ten depth chart and identify players who can take the slack from Sexton who like Murray is a single point of failure. These tournaments are a perfect opportunity to evaluate. The tournament will be interesting for Ireland to see if they can transition into a more expansive side than the structured unit that we have seen in recent seasons. With an exciting back line in tow, Ireland need to provide quick ball to the likes of Ringrose and Henshaw to make the line breaks and provide a platform to perhaps secure bonus point victories? Time will tell.
It has being a stellar twelve months for England. New head coach who does not care what the media and rugby clubs think, training sessions are intense and it is brought to game day. England will look to continue to win games based off their dominant pack whose set piece has being on point. Maro Itoje is a sublime talent; his power and pace for a second row is freakish. The set piece execution has being on point but opposition will look to focus on Hartley and the lineout to see if they can unsettle the captain who has being beset by suspension woes. Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and George Ford will provide the platform for England’s back line to impress. Billy Vunipola at eight is a big miss but there is sufficient cover to somehow offset the loss of a player whose ball carrying and tackle count is superb. Eddie Jones will look to rotate the squad at different stages of the tournament; will be interesting to see how the team progress and their ability to score bonus point wins if and when they present themselves. England did not face New Zealand last Autumn but a dominant RBS 6 Nations tournament will provide more confidence for the team ahead of an impending fixture later in the year.
Glasgow Warriors offloading style was in full view at Welford Road when they trounced Leicester Tigers to secure a last eight European Cup berth. This is the platform from which the national side should aspire to. Scotland have had too many hard luck stories in recent years, hard work in the breakdown and fringes has being undermined because of poor maul defense as well as a vulnerable scrum at times. There is also a question on game management. This is a tournament where Finn Russell needs to shine and impress; he needs to take control of the side in the vital exchanges with correct game time decisions. His reluctance to not drop goal against Munster last month was evident to all. Russell to be considered a realistic Lions squad member needs to provide leadership in this tournament. Laidlaw at scrum half has at times taken the responsibility but it is time for Russell to step up. Scotland under Vern Cotter has made steady progress. The back line on paper looks exciting with Hogg, Dunbar, Visser in their ranks but all not seldom see quick ball to exploit defensive line gaps. The back row is a match for anyone. John Barclay is the standout and his prominence in the breakdown will be key to Scotland’s success. Scotland will go to target Ireland in the breakdown with their mobility; the Murray storyline will not feature. Scotland and top three berth is a realistic target. This is a serious banana skin fixture for Ireland and if Scotland can start on the front foot, anything is possible.
Welsh Squad New Blood Required
It will be interesting to see how Wales fare in this tournament. Their game plan at times has being underwhelming considering the back line options at their disposal. Williams, North, Davies, Halfpenny are exceptional talents but they have being starved of quality quick ball. The bonus point rule change hopefully will change their mindset; it needs to or Wales will not win the tournament. Rome to kick off the tournament will be interesting, a trip where Howley may be tempted to blood a couple of new players to the starting lineup. The back row options at their disposal is luxurious. Warburton, Faletau, Lydiate, Tipuric would walk onto any other national side but there is serious talent coming through the ranks. Davies is a player of immense upside, the flanker work rate at the breakdown and his pace with ball in hand is a major asset. The half-back options will read along familar lines. Webb and Biggar need to build an effective platform, good game management is required are very much the dark horse this season, expect them to run the fancied teams extremely close particularly with England and Ireland going to Cardiff this season.
France – Enigma
Guy Noves has an impossible job at present. With so many foreigners (sound like Trump) plying their trade in French club rugby, the possibility of unearthing a young French youngster is virtually impossible. The French squad will be along familiar lines; young blood is remote in this selection. Does Noves try to implement an expansive style or does the team look to build from the pack? There are too many uncertainties with France to make them genuine contenders to upset England this weekend. The nine and ten spots are up for grabs, no Fofana at three quarters. Where is the game line breaks going to come from? How do France break the game up sufficiently to take England off their stride? That question may be answered further in the tournament but for now, France are a distinct work in progress and their fitness and conditioning could allow opponents a way back into contests. Hoping for a superb offloading France, but it never materialized last season and I am not holding out hope that it will happen this year either.
- England (no GS)
- Ireland (squad depth issues at half-back?)
- Scotland (opening fixture win crucial)
- Wales (lack of BP crucial)
- France (uninspired, lethargic)
- Italy (off the pace)