Six Predictions For The Six Nations
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With the tournament opener less than two weeks away, here are six predictions for this year’s six nations.
England’s winning streak comes to an end
It’s been a hell of a run for the men in white since Eddie Jones took the helm just over a year ago. And while there’s no doubting the impact he has made since England’s shambolic World Cup performance, it’s instructive that Jones chose not to face New Zealand this year; he knows this squad are not world-beaters yet. And with half of their starting pack likely to either be absent or severely short of match fitness for at least the opening round, it’s hard to see their winning streak continuing past the six nations.
A big upset on the first weekend
I have a feeling about round 1 this year: all three games look like potential banana skins for the favourites. Wales, at their lowest ebb in a decade, face Connor O’Shea’s fast-improving Italy, who will be full of confidence after their first victory over a Southern Hemisphere team in November. The defending champions, decimated by injuries, face the unpredictable French. There’s no particular reason to expect a French revival but with the depth of quality in their playing ranks, it could come at any time. And Ireland, coming off the back of a historic but imperfect season, risk getting caught cold by Vern Cotter’s ever-improving Scotland, who have added a real match-winner to their line-up in the form of centre Huw Jones. Expect the unexpected in the opening round.
High tackle controversy dominates
With the new laws coming into force just weeks before the tournament, this one is almost guaranteed. We have seen in recent matches a serious lack of consistency in how the laws are being applied by different referees, and it will likely take a season or so for a consensus to emerge. Given the huge impact that a red card has in the game of rugby, it’s almost certain that controversial decision(s) will play a role in deciding the tournament’s fate.
Bonus points make no difference
There has been much talk of whether the bonus point system will be a good thing for the six nations. My own view is that it might keep some games interesting for longer, but it’s unlikely to make any difference to the results, given that points difference rankings tend to match those of tries scored. Expect this to be a much-discussed, but largely irrelevant, addition to the championship.
A rare wooden spoon for Wales
Wales are in absolute disarray. Beating a poor South Africa side at the end of 2016 should not be mistaken for form after a torrid season in which they they were whitewashed 3-0 by the All Blacks and hammered by Australia. And since then they have been hit by an injury crisis, with Gethin Jenkins, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau, Rhys Webb, and George North all doubtful for part or all of the championship. Long-time head coach Warren Gatland is on sabbatical with the Lions, and long-time captain Sam Warburton has just taken the unusual step of relinquishing the armband. And with the usual wooden spoon contenders Italy and Scotland looking to be on an upward curve, Wales will have their work cut out for them to avoid the unwelcome award.
Ireland make it three championships in four years
If Ireland can get through their opening matches away to Scotland and Italy without a slip-up, they will have a great chance. The November internationals showed that they have completed the post-BOD & POC transition and are ready to kick on and win silverware. And, especially in comparison with favourites England, they have been very lucky with injuries coming into the tournament. Ultan Dillane is the latest to receive good news that he will likely be available, meaning the only real concerns are Sean Cronin, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne. It’s a rarity to have so many front-line players available, and with the best coach in the game and a favourable schedule (with England and France coming to Dublin), Ireland should make that advantage count.
Of course, this could all be proven wrong, and Italy and Scotland could flatter to deceive, while England shrug off their injuries to continue their unbeaten run.
You never know – and that’s one of the things we love about the Six Nations.