Six Nations Preview: England, Italy, Scotland

 

This weekend marks the return of the RBS Six Nations, which declares itself to be “Rugby’s greatest championship”.

While our southern hemisphere counterparts may not agree with this, as there’s is a more free flowing, easy on the eye brand of rugby, the Six Nations is certainly a more competitive championship.

Comparisons could be drawn between the rugby championship and Six Nations with the Premier league and La Liga respectively. The Six Nations and the Premier League far tougher than their respective counterparts, but are much more competitive as they can be won by at least 4 teams in a given year.

On the other hand, La Liga and the rugby championship are much more free flowing but are much more predictable as they are dominated by a limited number of teams (the All Blacks and either Barcelona or Real Madrid).

The Six Nations is an extraordinarily competitive championship, this year it is no different.

A strong autumn from each of its six teams, combined with a strong finish for all the major clubs in the Champions Cup means fans can look forward to a riveting competition.

Throw into the mix bonus points, the fact that this is a Lions year, and the knowledge that these will be the last round of international fixtures before the seedings are finalized for the World Cup draw, meaning that every try turnover and line out steal will be crucial.

England

Coach: Eddie Jones

Compared in recent weeks to Donald Trump, the pragmatic Australian has restored bit of grit to English rugby. Jones has led this side to 13 straight victories, and has high hopes of surpassing the record of 18 recently set by the All Blacks. He’s also not afraid to engage in a bit of sledging (see his comments about Johnny Sexton’s parents).

Captain: Dylan Hartley

Calling Hartley controversial is like calling the cookie monster a biscuit enthusiast; it goes without saying. The skipper is fresh from his latest suspension, a six week ban for an assault on Sean O’ Brien, an offence which brings his total time missed through suspension to 60 weeks. Despite this, he’s still considered the favourite to lead the Lions in the country of his birth in the summer.

Key Man: Owen Farrell

Owen Farrell is versatile, strong and dependable, not to mention deadly accurate from the kicking tee.  He can play at 10 or 12 and – having recently turned 25 – his best years are ahead of him. He has successfully bounced back from a disappointing World Cup to be one of England’s key players.

One to watch: Ellis Genge

With a host of looseheads unavailable through injury, Genge may be thrown in from the start for the first time.  He will be put under pressure at scrum time, but will be more than capable of holding his own. Genge is like a marauding buffalo when given an opportunity in the loose.

Verdict: 2nd

England will be in the mix coming up to the final day, but injuries to key members of the team, especially in the pack (the ‘Bash Brothers’ aka Billy and Mako Vuinopola , Joe Marler, Joe Lauchbury and Chris Robshaw to name a few) will take its toll.




Italy

Coach: Conor O’Shea

Conor O’Shea is best known in this part of the world for his time as an RTE pundit. The former Harlequins manager is faced with the unenviable task of trying to turn around the fortunes of the Azzuri. A win over the Springboks – their first over one of the southern hemisphere big three – would suggest he has them moving in the right direction. Their subsequent loss to Tonga a week later suggests a lot more work is required.

Captain: Sergio Parisse

The Italian equivalent of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll rolled into one. Had he been an All Black he would have had two World Cup medals in his pocket. Parisse is an all-time great.

Star Man: Sergio Parisse

See above. It sounds clichéd but realistically he carries the hopes of his team on his broad shoulders. About time someone else stepped up to the mark.

One to watch: Carlo Canna

Canna takes over from the hapless Kelly Haimona, and will more than likely assume the kicking duties. He should be entrusted with the reigns to try to get his team moving forward.

Verdict: 6th

It’s hard to see Italy beating anyone else, especially with how the bar has been raised in the last few months.  The Italians will look to build consistency and to avoid demoralising defeats in the latter rounds.

 

Scotland

Coach: Vern Cotter

The Montpellier bound Cotter has left a positive legacy behind him at Scotland. He has transformed the brand of rugby Scotland play to a  free flowing “total rugby” style. Results were slow to follow but positive results in the last 18 months show that the fruits of his labour are evident.

Captain: Greg Laidlaw

Sharp at the breakdown, tactically astute and a decent place kicker. Provides his team with good direction going forward. Also Scotlands fourth  highest points scorer of all time

Star Man: Stuart Hogg

Simply electric with ball in hand. If given space by opposition defences he will wreak havoc. Burnt the Irish defence last year with one of the best individual scores you will ever see.

At this stage he is favourite for the Lions full back test spot.

One to watch: Huw Jones

Huw Jones was picked up by the Western Force on his gap year, after he was deemed too small to make it at England school level. Now plying his trade with the Stormers, he scored a brace of tries in a one point defeat to Australia in  November. A potential Lions bolter- you heard it here first.

Verdict: 4th

Have the potential to finish better but could also do worse. Scotland will really be targeting their opening day fixture to kickstart their tournament. If they win they could really gather momentum and have a good tournament. A loss, however, would be a big blow, as they have a difficult set of fixtures ahead of them.

 

Michael Keaveny