Christmas can get stuffed. The most exciting time of the year is the week leading up to the start of the Six Nations. It’s a heady mix of excitement and trepidation as we ponder what the Rugby Gods have in store for us over the next month and a half. If you’re anything like me, this week will start quietly enough with the odd mention or two in work, before the butterflies properly kick in Tuesday lunchtime when the line-ups are announced. The fervour then builds over the next few days (to ridiculous proportions in my case) until you find yourself at Friday evening, or ‘Six Nations Eve’ as it should be called, wondering whether you’ll find a shiny trophy or a wooden spoon in your stocking come March 16th.
Having milked this metaphor for all it’s worth I should say I’m glad Wales face Ireland first up this year and not England (as has happened in recent times). Living in London in the build-up to the annual game with the Old Enemy is usually pretty tedious with every Jonny, Charlie or Toby coming out of the woodwork to give their humble opinion on how the Red Rose will ‘totally smash’ us on match day. The banter is, of course, all part of this wonderful tournament but I prefer having that to look forward to rather than it getting mixed up with the anticipation of the opening week. It’s sort of like having your Christmas pudding on the same plate as the turkey…I will stop now.
The first game is obviously of vital importance for every team as it sets you on your way for the rest of the competition. So how will this weekend’s fixtures turn out and what will the final table look like? Being the amateur rugby pundit that I am, I’ve obviously had a think about it. Here we go in alphabetical order:
England begin the tournament as joint-favourites alongside the French and rightly so given their performances during the Autumn (including that sensational win over New Zealand). First up for them are the Scots and I can’t see any other result than a comfortable win for the home side. It is the away games though that will be critical for English hopes. If they can get a win in Dublin or Cardiff then the trophy will likely end up draped in white ribbons. The more likely scenario is that they will be one win shy of their closest competitors. Another second place beckons.
Predicting how France will perform is a dangerous occupation given that the French are typically, well, French in the way they play – Gallic brilliance one minute, shrugged-shouldered indifference the next. However, they showed in the autumn internationals (dare I say it) a consistency that will worry the other teams. As with the English it will be the away games that will determine which side of the Channel the trophy will go to and, although I expect the French to come up short at Twickenham, I believe that elusive win will come for them against Ireland. If that happens, it will be victory for ‘Les Bleus’.
In a parallel universe Ireland boast three Grand Slams in eight years rather than Wales. Other than their historic clean-sweep in 2009 the Irish have built a reputation as being the ‘nearly-men’ of international rugby – consistently good but usually falling short. Is there evidence to suggest this could be their year? Well, the Irish certainly have some exciting young players coming through and they will be licking their lips at the prospect of playing a Welsh team that seemingly lack confidence. Their big games will be in Dublin against England and France. If they can notch up two wins there, they will be in contention on the final weekend. Unfortunately I think the French match will be this year’s ‘final hurdle’ which the Men in Green will again fail to clear. I expect them to finish a plucky third.
Italy are now in their fourteenth year of Six Nations rugby and have managed just nine wins in that time. The Azurri are always capable of ruining the tournament for one of the big boys but this year will probably be another shoot-out for the wooden spoon with Scotland. That match will take place at Murrayfield so a last-place finish for the Italians looks likely. ‘But they have three games at home’ I hear you cry? No doubt they will target the Wales game having beaten them at Rome before, but I don’t see history repeating itself here or indeed in the first match against France, although what a start to the tournament that would be!
As was shown last year with England, having an interim coach can strengthen a side going into the competition. So it is this year with Scotland who are under the temporary charge of the enigmatic Scott Johnson. This may well give Scotland an extra win on the board (with the game against Wales being the most likely fixture). Breaking into the top-three may well be a step too far though and even finishing fourth will be a struggle given the way the fixtures pan out. My guess would be a fifth place finish for the Scots but they have nothing to lose.
Wales do have something to lose as was always going to be the case given their status as current champions. But add to this a losing run of seven games, the worst showing in European club competition by Welsh teams in over a decade and the need for players to shine to book places on the impending Lions Tour and Wales could be looking at an almighty fall. However, there is resilience in this young side which will stand them in good stead and I expect them to win three games (along with England and Ireland). Of bigger concern to Rob Howley’s team will be a lack of tries (just three in the last four games) and the Welsh knack of beating teams by a couple of points could be their undoing this year. If this barren run of scoring continues expect Wales to finish fourth. If they can beat teams with a bit of a margin than they could finish as high as second but back-to-back championships is looking unlikely. Saturday’s match against Ireland is vital. Lose that one and we could be looking at a very glum tournament indeed.
Less excitement, more trepidation this week before the world’s greatest rugby tournament begins? Not a bit of it! Like every fan I’ll be expecting nothing else but a win on the weekend, and I’ll enjoy the days leading up to it just as much.