Ray North’s Six Nations Preview

by Ray_North on February 4, 2016

UnknownNo sooner have those of us of a Celtic persuasion stopped laughing at the demise of England in their own World Cup, than the season’s Six Nations Extravaganza is upon us. And I say extravaganza with optimism as last year’s tournament was excellent and this year’s tournament unencumbered by either a British Lions Tour or a World Cup around the corner should be thoroughly entertaining.

No more so, than because there is no real clear favourite, in my opinion four of the six teams competing can put forward a good case to be the pre-kick off favourites. As ever, injuries and venue will play a part, as will the often unpredictable wonderfulness of luck and being lucky enough to be on good form.

So, let’s have a look at the runners and riders.

Ireland – in recent years, Ireland have been the favourites and, indeed, last year, they lived up to that billing by lifting the cup, this year, though, the Irish team that will line-up will have a markedly new feel to it. Gone are O’Driscoll (ok he was gone last year as well), D’Arcy and Hayes, but, the man they’ll most of all is Paul O’Connell. Their World Cup was a real disappointment, indeed, from the moment their captain and talisman Paul O’Connell lay slumped on the ground, the spirit seemed to leave Ireland. Of course in the likes of O’Brian, the Kearney’s, O’Mahoney and Heaslip, they still have planted of seasoned internationals – but, is that enough? Big tournaments will be needed from Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray, who were both strangely muted when the going got tough in the World Cup, whilst their pack will now have to look towards Rory Best to lead them, and Rory, bless him, can have the odd shocker. Ireland’s season will be significantly shaped by how they perform against Wales on the opening weekend – and if it goes badly, I can see them struggling. Unknown-1

Player To Watch: Robbie Henshaw Nice centre, with a strong side step, good hands and a natural rugby brain.

Wales – the mood in the Welsh camp is one of optimism. Against the odds the injury ravaged squad made it through the pool of death in the World Cup and then did their usual thing by running one of the Southern Hemisphere Teams close before capitulating in the last five minutes. Although some of the injured players (such as Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny) are yet to return to international action, the players who stepped in for them in the World Cup did so well, that their absence is no longer a source of national lamentation. They are an extremely strong and experienced team with players like Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn-Jones now at the absolute peak of their game and others such as Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric and Jonathan Davies getting better with every season. Again, the crunch match could be against Ireland and a few more injuries will be problematic, but, I expect Wales to be strong.Unknown-2

Player to Watch: Gareth Davies Superb World Cup for the young Scrum Half who went from being third choice to being one of the stars, he will relish the Six Nations.

England – A new coach in Eddie Jones, a new captain in Dylan Hartley and a couple of new players in Paul Hill and Edward De Voto – this could be one of those seasons where England get off to a flyer and heady mixture of youthful exuberance and a desire to impress the new coach takes their performances up a level, or they could be confused and lacklustre. If Eddie Jones’ record with Japan and Australia are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that they’ll struggle. However, to really compete with the best in the 6 Nations, you have to be able to change your game plan to suit your matches and England sometime’s struggle to do that. A lot will depend on whether their scrum with young Paul Hill at only 20 being given a tough task to anchor a scrum against much more experienced operators, and their ability at the breakdowns with no obvious No.7 in the squad can get enough ball for the likes of Ford and the excellent Joseph to control the game. I have a sneaking suspicion that England will surprise one or two.
Player to Watch: Chris Robshaw Free from the shackles of captaincy and likely to be picked in his preferred slot at blind-side, this is a big season for the Quins skipper.

Scotland I think that every year I’ve been predicting the Six Nations Championship, I have been predicting that Scotland would be strong, and on every occasion they’ve disappointed. Will this year be the year they finally prove me wrong? Will this be the year that they finally deliver the performance that their excellent fans demand? Well, if the World Cup is any indication, then Scotland are finally going to deliver – they were robbed at the World Cup, a poor referees decision prevented them from being the only Northern Team in the Semi-final, players like WP Nel, Dave Denton, Johnny Gray and Stuart Hogg, have become truly international class whilst the likes of Craig Laidlaw and John Hardie have improved beyond measure. If they can get parity up front, which, if their world cup form is anything to go by, seems likely, then Scotland will do well. They face England first up in a mouthwatering Calcutta Cup clash at Marrayfield – personally, I can’t wait for this one, it really will be launchpad to success for the victor, whilst the loser will be crying desperately in their beer. Unknown-4

Player To Watch: Finn Russell This young fly-half really looked the business in the World Cup, controlled everything, the best half-back Scotland have produced in a decade or more, I’m predicting massive things form.

France Just as every year I’ve predicted that Scotland would do well, every year, I’ve used the same hoary old cliche about the French, ‘who knows which France will turn up.’ When actually, in recent years, it’s been fairly predictable which France would turn up, a France lacking in vision, technique, strength and pure bloody mindedness, all features which were once ubiquitous in any French rugby team. They rolled over for the All Blacks at the World Cup (they weren’t the only ones to do that), and hopefully, like an alcoholic who decides that the only way is up, the French will decide that that is one limp wristed performance too many, because, to be frank, the Northern Hemisphere needs a French team that is playing like, well, like a French team should.
And, the omens may be good, the old coaching team of Phillipe Saint Andre, has been replaced by the former Toulon coach Guy Noves, and he has already made a big decision in dropping the most un-French-like centre the world has ever seen, Bastaraud, and brought in some kids such as Jonathan Danty, Benjamin Fall and the Fijian born wing Vakawata – they have also appointed a new skipper in the shape of abrasive hooker Guirdon. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the French is the loss of their open side Thierry Dussatoir who has called it a day; his significant boots will be filled by the untried Yacouba Camara, who is well tipped by those who’ve watched him playing for Toulouse, but will find the going at the coal face of the breakdown hard when he steps up to Test Rugby.
I hope I’m wrong, but I fear for the French this year. images

Player To Watch: Laurent Picamoles The rugged Number 8 had a good World Cup, and now, without some of the more experienced players alongside him, he will have to raise his game to even greater heights.

Italy The good news for Italy is that they have Sergio Parisse back, fit and firing on all cylinders, and he is as important to the Italians as a cup of tea is to the morning. Italy did as well as they could in the World Cup, which means that they had their moments without ever really consistently looking as though they’re good enough to regularly go toe-to-toe with the elite. And, this year’s Six Nations will be the same for them – sure, at some point they will beat one of their traditional European cousins, and they’ll run a couple of the others close, but, still, they lack the all round depth and strength to do it for a full 80 minutes week after week after week. Castrogiovanni is still around, as is the effervescent Zanni, whilst the hooker Giraldino is rock hard and always good for an hour. At half-back, Eduardo Gorri is a super player, but, every Scrum Half needs a number 10, and the Italians are seriously lacking in options at outside half.
It’s another bottom or second bottom place finish for the Azzuri. images-1

Player To Watch: Michelle Campagnaro,a good strong centre with an eye for a try if he’s given a sniff.

Ray North’s Prediction:

1. Wales
2. Scotland
3. England
4. Ireland
5. Italy
6. France

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie East-West February 4, 2016 at 12:32 pm

1. Wales
2. Scotland
3. England
4. France
5. Ireland
6. Italy


Geoff Elliott February 4, 2016 at 8:19 pm

Well done Ray, that’s us jinxed then. Ireland away, and a visit to Twickenham is a tough schedule. If we come away from Dublin with a win then let’s see. You are right about Scotland v England on Saturday. What a top game that is.


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