February is my favourite month of the year. It ends the flagellatory dross that is Dry January and ushers in the opening weekend of rugby’s premier annual tournament, bringing with it the first signs of spring.
As winter gradually morphs into its balmier brother, so too will the darling buds of northern hemisphere rugby hope to blossom into Word Cup winners over the next two months.
Should they fail, only a few finetuning warm-up games remain in August before the sport’s biggest tournament gets underway in Japan in October. Now there’s a thought to stir the blood and warm the cockles of your heart on this cold, dark January evening…
Irresistible Irish Still The Team To Beat
Grand-slam winners last March, the aptly-named “Green Machine” has only gone from strength to strength since that famous Paddy’s Day triumph at Twickenham.
The Irish made light work of the southern hemisphere this autumn, claiming a pulsating victory over New Zealand in which the men in green prevented the All Blacks from crossing the whitewash and kept the opposition to single figures. For context, the last time that happened was July 1998, a time when Google didn’t exist, David Beckham was the most despised man in Britain and Peter Stringer still had some hair.
Boasting the strongest pack, the classiest half-backs and the tournament’s stand out finisher, Ireland have a simple but effective game plan and a fixture list that’s been kind to them.
If they can get past their noisy neighbours on Saturday in what promises to be a colossal opening clash in Dublin, it’s hard to see anything other than a repeat of 2018’s all-conquering antics for Schmidt and co.
Remind yourself of the moment Jacob Stockdale scythed through the All Black defence in November with a gloriously worked training ground move.
Prediction: Grand Slam Glory
Warren’s Wales Aiming For The Top
Wales are in terrific shape heading into this year’s campaign, having won nine on the spin in the run-up to the tournament. Their autumn performances were hugely encouraging, with victories over South Africa and - perhaps more significantly - bogey-team Australia, proving that Gatland’s men possess the firepower and bottle to beat rugby’s best on their day.
The opening game against France in Paris on Friday night will set the tone for their tournament as Wales, more so than any other team (Gatland himself admits as much), thrive off early momentum. A win at the Stade de France could send the men in red on their way to securing a third grand slam in what is their Kiwi coach’s swansong year at the helm.
Sir Ian McGeechan, a man who not so much knows his onions but has a PhD in them, is backing Wales to go all the way. My reservations lie, as always, in their strength in depth. With an already sizeable injury list, featuring big guns Faletau, Halfpenny, Lydiate, Ball, Davies and Williams, the fear is they’ll have run out of bodies by the time they face Ireland on the final weekend.
More Questions Than Answers For England
Despite Eddie Jones’ ‘bold’ assertion that this is his strongest squad yet, England are still further away from being the finished article than their Celtic cousins. Question marks remain over the balance of their backrow, what their best midfield combination looks like, who should make up the back three and the wisdom of assigning your gobbiest hotspur the task of reasoning with officials.
A few decent – some might argue fortunate – autumn wins put some desperately needed gloss on what was otherwise a rotten 2018 for the men in white; a year in which they finished 5th in the Six Nations, suffered back to back defeats to a South African side in transition and got mullered at HQ by a scratch Baa-Baas side.
With time running out in a World Cup year, Jones and England have much to prove this campaign. Testing trips to Dublin and Cardiff in their opening three fixtures ensure it will be a gruelling start. The return of the Vunipola brothers is a welcome boost, but if their team is slow out of the blocks it could be a tough February for supporters of the Red Rose.
Scotland Squad Stretched Thin
Head honcho Gregor Townsend believes Scottish rugby has never been in a better place, and who can argue with him. Their transformation from also-rans to title challengers under his tenure has been quite remarkable.
This meteoric rise has been reinforced further by the appearance of two Scottish club teams in the quarter finals of the European Cup for the first time. Townsend and his men have bought a feel-good factor back to Scottish rugby with last year’s demolition of England a moment to savour for the Saltire faithful.
However, there are some big names missing from the team sheet this year (most glaringly in the forwards) and with their abysmal away record in this competition, it could be a challenging backend of the tournament for the Scots.
Frantic France Still Searching For Consistency
The conundrum that is French rugby continues to bemuse and perplex both punters and pundits alike. The French domestic league is the envy of all egg-chasing enthusiasts, and yet the national side can often come across as 15 Jean-Lucs playing together for the first time.
Inconsistency is still the bane of Gallic rugby – they convincingly beat Argentina in the autumn before capitulating against Fiji a week later – and they are a long way behind their traditional rivals.
A host of unfamiliar faces in the squad smells like a panic move at this stage by head coach Jacques Brunel, but may yet prove the injection of new blood that the festering Les Bleus carcass badly needs.
Italians Playing for pride
It must be tough being an Italian rugby fan at this time of year: the Azzurri haven’t won a Six Nations fixture since 2015. And despite Benetton’s rise from the doldrums of the Pro 14 and some tangible progress under Conor O’Shea, they still have a way to go if they are to record that long overdue victory in a tournament that’s only got more and more competitive in recent years.
Still leading the side is talismanic skip Sergio Parisse, who recently reached the unenviable milestone of his 100th Test defeat. Despite, this he still remains as good a number 8 as any on his day and Italy will be hoping the veteran can inspire his teammates to cause an upset or two over the coming weeks. Sadly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Round One Guinness Pint Predictions
France v Wales – Wales to win by 7 points
Scotland v Italy – Scotland to win by 30 points
Ireland v England – Ireland to win by 4 points
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