Thursday, 31 January 2019

Six Nations 2019: The Total Flanker Preview

Come on folks, it's that time of year again and what you really need now is a wise and insightful guide to the forthcoming seven weeks of Six Nations action.

That may be what you need, but unfortunately this is what you get - my somewhat biased, prejudiced and, frankly, ill-informed preview of what to expect over the next couple of months as the giants of the northern hemisphere (plus Italy) lock horns for bragging rights as to who can regard themselves as the top dogs of Europe.

Despite Ireland starting clear favourites in many people's heads (and deservedly so), my feeling is that potentially this could be one of the most difficult Six Nations to call. The championship is rarely predictable - after all, who honestly foresaw England finishing a horrible 5th last year - and in 2019 it will feature teams ranked 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the world, which suggests a more competitive competition than ever.

Turning to the participants in alphabetical order:

Who knows? By the end of last year's Six Nations England looked rudderless, lacking in focus, tactically inept and physically drained. Was it a just case of post-Lions fatigue exacerbated by a brutal club schedule, or was it a case of the 2 year Eddie Jones "dead cat bounce" just petering out? England have a talented squad but, bar a handful of players there still remains major uncertainty around what the best England XV looks like and, while a positive result in Dublin is not impossible, it is highly unlikely. Hope springs eternal that England can win the championship but anything below 2nd would, for me, be disastrous.

"You never know which France will turn up" remains a well worn clichĂ©, although to be fair in the last few years the French team has been more reliant on perspiration than inspiration and has been distinctly lacking in joie de vivre. That said, the inclusion of Romain Ntamack in place of Mathieu Bastareaud for the opening fixture against Wales suggests that coach Jacques Brunel starts the Six Nations opting for the rapier ahead of the bludgeon but, such is the lottery that is French selection, that could all change the following week. Difficult away fixtures in Dublin and Twickenham mean that I'd expect no more than a mid-table finish from the French but, to be honest, who knows?

Deserved favourites. Joe Schmidt has built a formidable squad over the last few years with hardly any weaknesses. John Mitchell's comment that Ireland would try to "bore the shit" out of England should be taken as the compliment it was intended to be. The Irish team has mastered the basics of rugby to such an extent that any mistake is a collector's item and a team that makes no mistakes is a very difficult team to beat. It's not boring, it's just ruthlessly efficient and mightily effective. As with any team they are of course beatable but, much like against New Zealand, the opposition now need to play out of their skins to do so.

Wooden Spoon certainties. It is difficult to know how Italy can make progress. Italian club teams are improving, as is the national team, but not enough to make an impression on the championship this year. Traditionally Italy start well, but a first-up trip to what is rapidly becoming Fortress Murrayfield is a daunting opener, leaving their best hope for a victory being at home to the Welsh in round 2. Talisman Sergio Parisse will attempt to carry his team once again in the twilight of his stellar career, but sadly I suspect the results will be all too familiar.

In with a shout. No doubt that the Scots are the most improved Six Nations team over the last couple of years and their home form, in particular, has been very impressive. Both Ireland and Wales travel to Murrayfield this year, which could well give the bookmakers something of a headache, and I can see Scotland winning at least one of those games, as well as a regulation home win against Italy. Injuries could really test the squad's depth, however, and I would be surprised if Scotland derived any joy from difficult away trips to Paris and Twickenham.

Gatland's final fling. I have to admit I don't really know what to make of Wales. Much is being made about a successful November but the jury remains out as far as I am concerned. I do confess that I am green with envy over the Welsh openside flanker production line - where they seemingly churn out quality number 7s at the same rate as they used to produce world class number 10s - but the rest of the pack merely looks competent and it has been a while since we have seen fireworks from the Wales backline. Warren Gatland is right, however, when he says that a victory in the opening match in Paris could set them on their way, because subsequent home fixtures against England and Ireland are, although difficult, still winnable. You just never know...

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