Goodbye January. Hello February and the start of the RBS 6 Nations 2018 campaign. A tournament which will provide several key note story lines in the next couple of weeks. Who will be the main challenger to England this season? Will the new law changes make any difference to the quality of the matches on show? Can Italy spring a shock? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
There is going to be quite a few casual rugby fans watching the tournament for the next few weeks. The know it all’s will be out in force until the officiating crew start to ping at scrum and ruck time. Cue the silence. You know your friends who fit into that bracket?
To summarize the law changes, they have being in effect since the start of the season. The scrum set piece will have subtle changes. No referee signal. The scrum-half will be asked to throw the ball in straight (whether it will be enforced is another story). The competition in the front row to win the set piece as well has being updated; any front row player can use either foot to strike for the ball.
The team with the scrum needs at least one of their front row to strike for the ball. The number eight can now pick up the ball from the feet of the second rows. Continuity yes, but let there will be scrum collapses which the officiating crews need to wise up better on and make the call sooner. The issue of not driving straight could be a key trend in this weekend’s action.
15.4 law will provide fans with levels of admiration or frustration depending on the side you support. The tackler must get up before the ball and then can only play from their own side of the tackle “gate”. Depending on the referee, there may be a disparity in how the transition between the tackle and playing the ball is officiated. It will be compelling viewing to see how this law is officiated in this tournament.
The Italian ruck tactic used to great effect at Twickenham last season is consigned to the history books. The loophole has being closed off with the amendment of the rucking laws. A ruck commences when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground (tackled player, tackler). At this point the offside lines are created. Players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.
The ruck laws conclude with a player welfare directive penalizing teams if their player kicks the ball out of a ruck. The player can only hook it in a backwards direction. With the rule changes explained, time to preview the action.
Can the new Wales faces deliver?
A fascinating weekend of action beckons. Scotland travel to Wales whose side is missing several established stars from their lineup. It is an opportunity for Scotland to continue their progressive upturn in form. Their Autumn international series was very impressive; ran New Zealand extremely close and then put Australia to the sword thanks to sublime expansive running rugby.
The Gregor Townsend effect continuing the impressive work of Vern Cotter from last season. They are capable of creating try scoring opportunities from anywhere in the back field with the likes of Hogg, Seymour, Jones in the ranks. If Wales do not execute an effective kicking game, Scotland are more than capable of running up a score.
Wales are supposedly in a transitional season with injuries to the likes of Sam Warburton but with the form of the Scarlets contingent coupled with the emergence of quality back row options, this will be a difficult contest for Scotland. Navidi’s performance at seven will be keenly watched given the likes of Davies and Tipuric are waiting in the wings for their chance to impress.
The half-back battle should be compelling viewing as well. Dan Biggar’s injury has opened the door for Rhys Patchell to feature this weekend. A player who has worked tremendously hard in recent seasons to give this opportunity.
A player who will look to unleash his three quarters containing Parkes and an exciting back field to open up if given the opportunity. Finn Russell is a proven international fly-half, astute game management tactician and his ability to unlock defenses seen to good effect last November against Australia.
Given the personnel changes for Wales, the issue of continuity comes into the equation but there is sufficient coverage in the pack to take this contest to Scotland whose front five can at times be exposed in the scrum set piece and defensive maul. Exciting contest beckons with both teams looking to create line breaks out wide. Slight edge to Scotland but will not be surprised if Wales win courtesy of the threat of Evans and Adams out wide.
France look to youth
Brunel has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the French national side by selecting Matthieu Jalibert at ten and Geoffrey Palis making his debut at fifteen. This will either go incredibly well or massively horrific. Two rookies in pivotal positions in the side. Jalibert is sharp, pacy and incisive and his cameos with Bordeaux Begles this season have being on point but this is international rugby and the speed goes up a notch.
Palis comes into the international side after a horror eight months out of the game due to a knee injury. Castres domestic league form has being assisted in no small measure by Palis whose ability to hit the line and create try scoring opportunities have being to the fore. Risky selections but Brunel has decided that France have little to lose.
Jalibert will be aided by the form of his half back partner Machenaud whose has played at an extremely high level this season for Racing 92. His European Cup exploits catching the eye; his unerring kicking game will allow the youngster to settle into the contest.
The French back line has physicality in the inclusion of Vakatawa and the finesse of Thomas whose try scoring exploits for club and country particularly last November were standouts. This is France, there is no easy game against Le Bleu particularly in Paris but the bench looks inexperienced and leadership.
Ireland and Joe Schmidt have key questions to answer. The decision to omit Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo from the squad have being well documented but particularly in the second row, it is a massive opportunity for Leinster Rugby’s James Ryan to stake his claim to the international player. A player with massive upside, leadership and work rate. Ryan will be expected to call the line out with confidence.
The back line depth chart looks strong even without Zebo. Earls and Stockdale have played outstanding rugby in recent weeks and deserve their starting berths. Rob Kearney slots into the full back role. Competition is high in the back division when you consider the likes Jordan Larmour and Fergus McFadden are in reserve. Aki and Henshaw will provide the physicality to create and defend.
This is such an intriguing contest. Ireland will look to unsettle the debutantes in the French side while the hosts will look to test Ireland’s line-out early doors. The scrum battle will be fascinating to watch. Ireland’s record in Paris is pretty poor but hopes are high here of a result. A scrappy encounter but Ireland Rugby’s experience in the key positions with Sexton and Murray dominating the half back battle will swing the contest to the visitors.
England march on Rome
Conor O’Shea’s structural changes in the Italian national game are starting to bear fruit evident in the improved performances of Benetton Rugby and Zebre this season in Guinness Pro 14 competition. These sides have being well organized and have notable scalps.
The national side is a work in progress though. The November series was a mixed bag truth be told. A nine point victory over Fiji was a decent start but the failings in attack and defensively were exposed in reversals to South Africa and Argentina. Work rate cannot be faulted but the execution can be critiqued.
It is an extremely difficult assignment for Italy this weekend as England will be keen to start the tournament in a positive fashion. No genuine weak links in the squad despite the injury to Billy Vunipola. Squad depth competition is alive and well. Hartley leads the side but is under serious pressure from Jamie George for the starting hooker position.
The phenomenal Maro Itoje will lead the second row or back row depending on where he is selected, his work rate setting the tone. Farrell and Ford will look to control with a precise kicking game and their passing game could be potent with the likes of Joseph, May, Brown in the ranks.
Sergio Parisse will look to set the platform from the eight position but after a spirited show for three quarters, the tackle count will start to effect Italy. England to win with a bonus point try but the opening round of the tournament will expose areas of improvement.
For Italy, this is another season of potential progression and with a trip to Ireland in round two, the squad depth could be exposed. Canna and McKinley need to provide the leadership and points to keep the scoring ticking over but the general attacking game plan needs further refinement.