Of course Irish fans want one team only to run in as title contenders when the Six Nations kicks off, but there can be up to four potential victors in a given year. Even Italy, when they started in 2013 with that famous win over France, looked hotter than ever. England are without doubt second favourites and Wales, well they’re just always a threat in this tournament year on year. Scotland have that Vern Cotter fella in charge, maybe you’ve heard of him. Yes it’s not plain sailing for Ireland by any means.
England travel to Cardiff this evening in the opening game of the tournament against Wales. Both sides will be out to prove points of their own with Wales looking to make amends for a shaky 12 months (thanks in no small part to a nearly all Welsh Lions tour) and England have the memory of Wales giving them an absolute hiding last time out in the Millenium Stadium. Probably the best chance Stuart Lancaster has of gaining restriction is in the back line where Luther Burrell, Mike Brown and Jonny May can front up to the Welsh if not like for like then damn close. George Ford at out half will be exciting for those of us who don’t rate Farrell for everything he supposedly is too.
Warren Gatland came straight out with some typical behaviour by announcing his team two days early. There’s nothing wrong with it but God does the man only love attempting to stir at all opportunities. The team is a little less of a stir with two changes from the side that finally overcame a SANZAR side on November by beating South Africa and when one of your returners is George North you’re in good stead. The greatest Achilles’ Heel for Wales will be that they have an eye to the World Cup more than ever. When the tournament is hosted in the UK, you find yourself with four teams having “home” advantage and so four of the Six Nations sides can’t avoid how important this autumn will be. Gatland has won numerous Grand Slams/Six Nations titles with Wales and of course the first Lions tour in an age; you can’t begrudge him desperately wanting a World Cup under his belt. For that reason alone, expect England to be in with a better sniff than expected for this one.
Scotland are in a good place under the tutelage of Vern Cotter with two from three in November and the one loss in that being a one point game against the All Blacks until the final five minutes. Like Italy, Scotland have always had the talent but rarely across the squad and at the same time. They aren’t completely whipping boys as the Italians sometimes find themselves to be but they are certainly hot and cold. With the Gray brothers in the second row, Greig Laidlaw pulling the strings and a back line boasting wonder winger Tim Visser Vern Cotter is picking from a pool that is certainly below what he has been used to at Clermont but a damn sight better than Scotland ten years ago.
Then of course we have France and the grand master of the insane that is Phillipe Saint-André. Shockingly enough, we find a surprisingly level and strong first XV picked for Les Bleus for tomorrow’s game. Guilhem Guirado in the front row, Pascal Pape in the engine room and of course the ever threatening Yoann Huget and Teddy Thomas on either wing. France have a legacy, akin to the All Blacks or Munster, that they have let slip through their grasp of late. What once was a team that was to be feared and sold themselves off as unpredictable have now become all too predictable in a very negative way. They brought a huge game to the Irish last year in this tournament but for the rest before that they were sloppy and near embarrassing. But never has a selection under Saint-André seemed so…right. France will likely win, and it would be worrying for Ireland if they were to do so convincingly, but recent history would suggest we should be keeping a closer eye on what Phillipe is up to rather than what the players do on the pitch. Weird.
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