New Year. New Six Nations. And ‘The Championship’ promises to be a little different in 2017 because of (if for no other reason) the introduction of bonus points. Whether the extra point for scoring four tries or losing by less than seven points will provide a remedy to last year’s bore of a tournament remains to be seen, but it will certainly shake things up a little.
But while, on this now traditional ‘Six Nations Eve’, we tend to look forward to the matches and battles that lie ahead, allow me to take you back twelve months and the eve of the 2016 edition. This time last year, and off the back of a northern-hemisphere lock-out in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-finals, I wrote of how Europe’s top international teams had been ‘found out’: they simply weren’t as skillful, speedy, inventive or just plain good as their southern hemisphere counterparts. The 2016 season (including that year’s Six Nations) was the time for our teams to stop the glorified arm-wrestling of previous tournaments and, instead, to play a bit of rugby. Alas, a classic Six Nations was too much to hope for. But that’s not to say that the 2016 season (as a whole) didn’t alter the order of world rugby, for indeed it did. Twelve months on from fears that the north might be shut out from the top table of international competition by the new ‘Big Four’ of The Rugby Championship, the pendulum of power has shifted. And, in summary, these are the events that brought us here:
– Off the back of a workmanlike yet uninspiring Grand Slam, England whitewash the Wallabies in their own back yard to make a proper statement in the Eddie Jones era
– They follow that up with four wins out of four in the November Internationals, including victories against the Springboks, Pumas and Australia (again), to end 2016 unbeaten and second in the world rankings
– Meanwhile, Ireland pull off a stunning victory against the All Blacks in Chicago. It’s their first ever against New Zealand and ends an unbeaten run of 18 matches for Steve Hansen’s men
– South Africa tumble down the world pecking order with four losses in The Rugby Championship followed by a winless November series (and losses to England, Wales and Italy)
– Argentina don’t fare any better: a good win against Japan in Tokyo is followed by reverses to Wales, Scotland and England.
So, with the gauntlet thrown down following RWC2015, the northern hemisphere sides made good progress last season in closing, if not eradicating, the gap between them and the once seemingly unstoppable giants of the south. Well, most of them did.
The exception, we would argue, is Wales.
Now, before you scream into your laptop, tablet or mobile phone, “But we beat South Africa!”, the fact is everyone beat South Africa last autumn. I was at that game on November 26 with a group of friends including some Springbok supporters. The guys in green were adamant they had never seen a worse South Africa team than the one playing that day. Credit to Wales for despatching them the way they did (with some lovely skill from Faletau and Tipuric) but it wasn’t a headline victory. The performances (or part of them) against New Zealand last summer showed encouraging signs of progress only to be undone with an amateur-hour display against Australia a few months later, and some narrow victories against Argentina and Japan. No, 2016 for Wales can be summed up as ‘unconvincing’.
Which is why Welsh fans are right to be worried ahead of this year’s Six Nations. Compared to their competitors, they seem to be going nowhere particularly fast. The night before last year’s opening matches, Wales were ranked fourth in the world (and the best placed of all the European teams). As of today, they’ve gone down a place to fifth. Not so bad on first viewing, but during that same period England have risen six places while both Ireland and Scotland have risen two places. In doing so, they’ve properly shaken things up to the point where, for the first time in a while, Wales will not go into the Six Nations as one of the favorites to win the title. It’s not that the Welsh are going backwards, but neither are they going forwards.
This ‘middle of the road, middle of the pack’ scenario is a dangerous one for Rob Howley and new captain Alun Wyn Jones. They have two rivals noticeably ahead of them and, behind them, a Scotland side ready to knock them over. The last thing you need in a situation like that are trips to Paris and Rome with both sides on the continent showing improvement. A bottom-half finish (for the first time in six years) is a very real possibility.
Adding to the pressure is the looming British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Four years ago, the Welsh made up the majority of the original squad with 15 players. Although there are plenty of English and Irish fans who think they’ll get more than their fare share this time around (because of the ‘Gatland factor’), expect Wales to have half the representation they did in Australia if things go awry. The pressure is two fold for the men who pull on that Wales shirt: to prove that both they and their nation are still at the forefront of European rugby.
So where are the positives for the Men in Red? Well their new (and fiercely competitive) captain will certainly not allow them to underperform. We expect Wales to at least be competitive in matches. Secondly, the fixture list is not that bad for them. The Italy game is being painted as a ‘banana skin’ but it also presents an opportunity for notoriously slow-starting Wales to get an early win on the board before welcoming England to Cardiff. The much lauded ‘momentum’ seems more attainable than in previous years. Scotland away looks to be the ‘kicker’ for the Welsh: the difference between a good and bad tournament. Win that one and an almighty clash against Ireland at The Principality Stadium is a mouthwatering prospect. Fortunes away to France very much depend on whether the French are still in it by that point.
Conversely though, if the Welsh lose to Italy this Sunday (in what will be Conor O’Shea’s first Six Nations match in charge of the Azzurri) then the tournament looks very bleak for Welsh fans.
What will the final table look like? On balance, we expect the standings to reflect current rankings with England pipping the Irish to the post thanks to those bonus points, Wales keeping the Scots at bay (for now) and the Garibaldi Trophy contingent bringing up the rear.
Then again, as 2016 showed, a lot can change…
2017 SIX NATIONS FINAL STANDINGS (RED RUGBY PREDICTION)