6 Nations 2018: Combined XV

6 Nations 2018: Combined XV

Now that the dust has settled on the 6 Nations for another year it is time to start looking at the top performers and pick my Team of the Tournament, much as I did last year. I found it much harder to pick a line-up this year due to a combination of injuries and drops in form so I am sure some people will disagree with some of my selections. If you think I’ve missed someone feel free to let me know in the comments.

Loose-head prop – Rob Evans: This was probably one of the hardest positions to pick as there was nobody that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Mako Vunipola understandably looked tired and was not at his best this year and while I nearly picked Cian Healy I have instead gone for Rob Evans of Wales. Evans gives that extra dimension in open play and even over a month later I still remember him playing a key part of what would have been a stunning try for Steff Evans had Alun Wyn Jones’ offload gone to hand. Wales appear to be lacking depth at prop currently but I can see Evans having a long run in the squad.

Hooker – Guilhem Guirado: Honourable mentions to Rory Best for captaining Ireland to the Grand Slam and Leonardo Ghiraldini who carried well and put in solid performances for Italy, but my selection at hooker has to be Guirado. The French captain may have missed the last round and struggled at times in the lineout, but he was relentless defensively. He was a tackling machine, second only to Jonny Gray in the tackle count over the first 4 rounds (69 tackles, 31 against Ireland) and also chipping in with a couple of turnovers. If he had been there in Round 5, I can’t help but wonder if the French would have ended the tournament with a victory.

Tight-head prop – Tadhg Furlong: Much like on the other side of the front row, I found it difficult to pick a standout performer at 3. In the end, a moment from Ireland’s victory over England cemented Furlong’s place in the team despite coming off injured a couple of minutes into one game and missing the next due to injury. An absolute wrecking ball, it was his deft hands to put Bundee Aki through the gap for CJ Stander’s try while making it look like the ball was going to the looping Johnny Sexton that impressed me so much. If a guy can bulldoze right over you or slip a silky pass like that, you don’t want to be the one defending against him!

Second rows – Jonny Gray & Cory Hill: If Guirado is a tackling machine, then Jonny Gray is a master. The Scottish lock finished top of the tackle charts with a whopping 100 tackles (20 per game on average!) and played a big part in keeping the Scottish pack on track despite all the players missing from the front row due to injuries. His partner was much harder for me to pick. Had Iain Henderson stayed fit he could have got the nod, as could France’s Sébastien Vahaamahina who was a nuisance at the breakdowns and in the line outs but gave away too many penalties. Instead I went for Cory Hill. I could have picked either Hill or Alun Wyn Jones as they both had solid tournaments, but Hill’s performances stood out more in my memory, perhaps due to his try against Italy.

Blindside flanker – Aaron Shingler: I am not just picking him to prove a point about Warren Gatland’s selections, I genuinely think Shingler had a great tournament and has probably been one of Wales’ best players this season. Despite being rested against Italy and dropped to the bench for the final game, the Scarlet finished the tournament with the most line out steals. He also showed his ability in the loose that makes him such a key player for the Scarlets. Seb Negri was one of Italy’s stars in this tournament, John Barclay had a strong tournament at 6 other than his match against Wales and Peter O’Mahony was his usual disruptive self at the breakdown, but Shingler gets my vote. I can’t help but wonder though how things might have been had he not put boot to ball following his break against England.

Openside flanker – Dan Leavy: With Sean O’Brien missing the tournament and Josh van der Flier going off injured in the first half of Ireland’s tournament opener against France, some people likely thought that the Irish could be in trouble. However Dan Leavy came on and the men in green never looked back. Along with O’Mahony and Stander, he caused a nuisance at the breakdown and also seemed to give the back row more balance after his introduction against France. Even with Jamie Heaslip having retired, the strength in depth of the Irish back row is incredible and I don’t envy Joe Schmidt having to pick from Stander, Leavy, O’Mahony, O’Brien, van der Flier and Jack Conan – and they’re just the names that come to mind immediately!

Number 8 – CJ Stander: Sam Simmonds was wonderful against Italy, but injury and England’s drop in form limited him for the rest of the tournament, Moriarty’s lack of game time this season showed before Taulupe Faletau’s return and most of the number 8s who started frequently could be described as solid but not spectacular. CJ Stander eventually got my vote here when I saw his 96 carries put him second on the all time list (only his tally from last year has been higher). The Munster back row may not have set the world alight in the same way as last year, but his tireless work rate helped the Grand Slam Champions set the platform to their success.

Scrum half – Conor Murray: Is there a scrum half in international rugby who does what Conor Murray does better? He may not be as much of a threat in open play as Gareth Davies or Rhys Webb, but his tactical kicking is a big part of Ireland controlling the game and it is rare you see him throw a poor pass. Murray topped the charts for passes (542) and kicks from hand (43) and was level with Greig Laidlaw at the top of the assist charts (4) as well as scoring 2 tries and finding success with a couple of kicks at goal. Honourable mention to Maxime Machenaud who was top points scorer this season with 50 points).

Fly half – Johnny Sexton: Let me just start by saying, I am not a fan of Sexton so he may not always get the credit he is due on here. That said, I think this was a really good tournament from him whereas none of his rivals really stood out. Finn Russell, George Ford and Tommy Allan had their moments but were also incredibly inconsistent, while Wales couldn’t decide who they wanted at 10. Sexton however managed to keep himself largely free of injury and play consistently well despite the changing personnel outside him. He needs to work on his kicking off the tee to be considered one of the very best in the world, but he controls his back line so well and his tactical kicking is usually so effective. If I needed any other reason to pick him, I just needed to watch his 45-metre drop goal to win the game against France. It takes balls to attempt it and talent to make it. Also as an aside: if you haven’t yet a video of it set to the Titanic music, you’re missing out!

Inside centre – Bundee Aki: If I was picking on just 1 game, Owen Farrell would have got the nod for his display against Wales, however his performances dipped along with England’s results. Hadleigh Parkes was my initial pick, however when I thought a bit more I decided to pick yet another of the Champions. He may not have stood out in the way some players selected have, but for a man who only made his international debut in the Autumn Tests and had to start with 3 different 13s (Henshaw, Farrell and Ringrose) and have a further 2 players (Earls and Larmour) spend time in the position throughout the tournament, he was incredibly consistent and still managed to chip in with 2 tries and a couple of assists. The more time he spends in the Irish team, the better this guy is going to get!

Outside centre – Mathieu Bastareaud: Huw Jones so nearly got the vote here but he did have a couple of quiet performances, so instead I have gone for Toulon captain Mathieu Bastareaud. He may have missed the first 2 matches through suspension, but I would argue his performances in the final 3 games made him France’s player of the tournament! He was a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown and his physicality in attack opened up space for the men around him. With a number of players already injured and then more being exiled from the squad after Round 2, getting Basta back for the remaining games was vital. I can’t help but wonder how the Ireland and Scotland matches may have finished had he been there…

Wings – Jacob Stockdale & Keith Earls: It looked like Teddy Thomas would be getting selected after 3 tries in the first 2 weeks before being dropped from the squad. Jonny May and Sean Maitland can maybe consider themselves unlucky after scoring 4 and 3 tries respectively, but in the end I couldn’t not pick the Irish pair. Stockdale is an obvious pick here having made the most clean breaks this year (11) and more importantly broken the record for the number of tries in the tournament in one season (7) on the way to picking up the award for Player of the Championship. His record of 11 tries in 9 Test matches is just incredible and Ireland will be hoping he can continue this try-scoring for right through to the World Cup. Earls may not have been able to match his teammate’s scoring exploits, but he put in an incredible shift in each match both in attack and defence and even moved into the outside centre position following Robbie Henshaw’s injury against Italy. It was defensively that Earls’ impact was really felt as he was often the man working hardest to get back when a team broke against the Irish, while his tap tackle on Elliot Daly saved what looked a certain try. There’s clearly some talent coming through out wide for Ireland but I fully expect Earls to remain a key part of the Irish squad through to the World Cup.

Fullback – Matteo Minozzi: Stuart Hogg finished with the most metres made (479) and Rob Kearney looked back to his best on the way to beating 18 defenders, but Minozzi was one of my easiest selections any position. Despite Italy missing a couple of key players in the backs, Minozzi still became the first Italian to score 4 tries in a 6 Nations campaign. He was fully deserving of his spot on the shortlist for Player of the Championship despite Italy failing to win a game. He looked such a danger throughout the tournament and will surely be one of the players Conor O’Shea builds his team around over the coming seasons.

 

Find my thoughts on each round of the tournament here:

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 5

The 6 Nations is over for another year following a last round that didn’t quite live up to the thrill of some of the recent final weeks. With their title already confirmed, Ireland completed their Grand Slam with an impressive performance over a different looking England squad. This result, combined with France’s 1 point loss in Wales left the defending Champions 5th in the table, behind all but Italy, who were denied a shock result against Scotland by a late Greig Laidlaw penalty.

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The final standings from the 2018 6 Nations – From http://www.sixnationsrugby.com

Italy 27 – 29 Scotland

After all the hype I have given him throughout the season, I am so glad Jake Polledri performed when finally given his chance by Conor O’Shea. The former Hartpury flanker has been one of Gloucester’s stars this season and did not look at all out of place on his international debut. He and Seb Negri (a former Hartpury teammate) gave the pack some much-needed physicality and repeatedly made ground with the ball. Polledri’s break for Tommy Allan’s second try especially stands out in my mind: pushing away Ryan Wilson, getting away from Greig Laidlaw and drawing Staurt Hogg before passing back inside to give his fly half an easy finish. Though they may not have got the result, there was clearly plenty for O’Shea to be proud of and it is clear this Italian team is building with young stars like Matteo Minozzi. One Italian who did have a quiet tournament though was captain Sergio Parisse. He is still clearly a highly talented player but he is nearing the end of his career and I will not be surprised if he announces his international retirement following the World Cup next year. He has been a talisman for the Azzuri for years but I would argue that Maxime Mbanda would create a better back row combination moving forward, with either Negri or Polledri moving to number 8. What about Parisse then? His experience both internationally and at a high level of competition should continually be utilised by O’Shea, but I think he would benefit from following a similar route to fellow centurion Alessandro Zanni and moving into the second row. The tight 5 appears to be an area lacking depth at the moment, moving Parisse to lock would immediately upgrade the position while also allowing Parisse to adapt his game and be less expansive. It would be a shame to hold Italy back by selecting a player on reputation rather than history, but at the same time Parisse has given so much for Italian rugby (he is the first player to lose 100 Test matches) and I think he has earned the right to go out on his own terms rather than fade away. It will be interesting to see if Conor O’Shea tries this in the Autumn Tests.

On the subject of talismanic players, I will be very interested in Greig Laidlaw’s place in the Scotland squad moving forward. He is a clear leader and one of the senior players in the squad, having been a large part of Scotland’s resurgence over recent seasons. But will he be a starter much longer? Laidlaw is one of the most accurate goal kickers in international rugby but he has a limited range, while Finn Russell has also developed into a high percentage kicker and Stuart Hogg has a huge boot. As a scrum half, he dictates play well but does not provide the same quick ball that Ali Price has when given a shot. Italy were arguably the better team in this match but Scotland looked much more dangerous once Ali Price came on for Russell and Laidlaw moved out to fly half – where he started his international career. Russell is a quality 10 but when he’s off form he really seems to struggle in this team and there is no other out-and-out fly half that looks an option for Scotland at the moment. I think it would benefit Gregor Townsend to start Price and Russell with Laidlaw on the bench to cover both halfback positions. This would allow Townsend to adapt his substitutions to the match situation while also allowing more options for the other 2 backs on the bench.

England 15 – 24 Ireland

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2 brains really did prove better than 1 as the joint effort from myself and Phil Alder topped the EOTB Championship, but congratulations must also go to Gez Williams who had the top-scoring team for a solo manager – From http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

Eddie Jones made some much-needed changes to his starting lineup for the final round and put out what on paper looked a strong team, yet they were still dominated by the Irish. 3 losses in a row does not look great for England but I don’t think the panic button needs pressing yet. I would argue that the poor England performances are due to more to fatigue than anything else. Ireland’s players are centrally contracted to the IRFU whereas the England players are all contracted to their individual clubs. This means that the England players are being asked to play more minutes against top quality opposition, whereas Ireland’s stars are getting significantly more rest. This will never show more than following a Lions Tour, half of the England players have played a season and a half with limited rest! England’s player base is significantly bigger than the other Home Nations. The RFU need to take advantage of this by either rotating the players in the national team much more (giving more players international experience but possibly effecting chemistry) or by coming to some agreement with the clubs to limit the playing time of England’s key players. I can imagine many of the England regulars will be given the summer off by Eddie Jones, but then again he may decide to take them to South Africa to ensure the losing run does not continue against a Springboks team that are surely about to improve under Rassie Erasmus.

When England beat Wales in Round 2 it was built on a stunning defence that shut out the Welsh following a strong attacking start. Fast forward a month and England were at the mercy of the Irish defence. Despite CJ Stander not hitting the highs of last year and Sean O’Brien missing the entire tournament through injury, the Irish dominated the breakdown in much the same way that Scotland and France did in recent weeks, winning a number of penalties and turnovers. They also stripped the England players in the tackle a number of times. Even when they were beaten, they still managed to recover, with Keith Earls’ tap tackle on Elliot Daly saving a guaranteed try. Any team would have struggled to beat the Irish with their defence in such fine form!

Wales 14 – 13 France

A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing. – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

I was disappointed but not wholly surprised to see Wales revert back to type as the tournament went on. Despite Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe both performing well on the whole when given the shot at 10, Dan Biggar was straight back in the starting lineup against the big teams. Not just that, but Aaron Shingler (arguably one of Wales’ best players this season) was left on the bench in favour of Justin Tipuric, who did not seem anywhere near the form we know him to be capable of. Wales were back to their usual self against France and it should have cost them the match. A strong defensive performance is important (they did very well to limit Mathieu Bastareaud’s impact on the match) but I don’t think Wales will reach their potential until they start focusing on the more expansive attack that I don’t think will be given a real chance until Warren Gatland moves on. I hope Gatland proves me wrong and gives Patchell the shot he deserves.

When the commentators are suggesting Lionel Beauxis should be brought on to improve the French performance, you know François Trinh-Duc is having an awful game! The Toulon fly half had not been having the best of seasons with his club and was only brought into the squad after Matthieu Jalibert was injured and Anthony Belleau was dropped along with a host of players following a night out. He had a game to forget against Wales, with a missed penalty (which would have won France the game) the least high profile of his errors. Nobody in blue came out of the Liam Williams try looking good, but I doubt even Trinh-Duc knows what he was trying to do when he came over and completely missed the ball! His missed touch-finder from a penalty was enough to piss off any forward and his forward pass to Benjamin Fall under no pressure was inexcusable! France really missed the injured Camille Lopez this 6 Nations, it will be interesting to see how the French perform once they have him and Jalibert available again.

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 4

Congratulations to Ireland whose victory over Scotland wrapped up the 2018 6 Nations with a week to spare, winning their record 11th Test match in a row. They will be hoping to end the tournament with a Grand Slam on Saturday at Twickenham against an England team reeling from back-to-back losses to Scotland and now France. Meanwhile making 10 changes to the starting XV was not enough to deny Wales a bonus point victory over Italy, which leaves them 2nd in the table, a point above England.

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Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland

Injuries have forced Ireland to test their depth at 13 this tournament, but things are looking very good for them there. Jared Payne will always be an option but still hasn’t played since the Lions tour, while an injury to Garry Ringrose led to Robbie Henshaw playing for the first 2 rounds until his own injury. Chris Farrell put in a man of the match performance against Wales, but injury ruled him out against the Scots and Ringrose was back just in time to take back the 13 shirt. You wouldn’t have thought the Leinster centre had just returned from injury with the way he played as he nullified Huw Jones for much of the game, while in attack he made a number of breaks. He is the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll’s 13 jersey both for Leinster and Ireland and when 100% fit will likely be one of the first names on the team sheet. The quality available in the centre means that Keith Earls can remain as a winger, opening up the depth in the back 3 despite the retirement of Tommy Bowe.

28-8 is not an accurate representation of the game. Though Ireland were arguably the better team, the match would have been a lot closer were it not for some timely errors from Scotland. The opening try was gifted to Jacob Stockdale through a horribly overthrown pass by Peter Horne, while Huw Jones did everything right to break through the Irish defence, only to get the pass horribly wrong when he and Stuart Hogg had a 2v1 against Rob Kearney. Hogg and Horne also both sent passes to Blair Kinghorn – who impressed on his first start – too high, denying them opportunities. There was a lot to be happy about in the Scotland performance, especially considering the number of players they have still missing or just returning form injury, but there is still improvement needed if Scotland want to be winning away from home and pushing for titles.

France 22 – 16 England

Not a stunning performance from France but they did what they had to in order to get the win. Their attack may not have been too flashy, but defensively they were very solid. Mathieu Bastareaud had another good game at 13 and fronted up well against Ben Te’o, while the entire team took a leaf out of Scotland’s books and caused England untold agony at the breakdown. They really need to cut out the stupid mistakes though, as Hugo Bonneval’s blind pass back infield almost put his team in trouble, while Lionel Beauxis gave England one last chance to win it at the death when he failed to find touch with a clearance following Luke Cowan-Dickie’s overthrown line out. If the French can continue to build as a squad while cutting out these stupid error, they will become a formidable team again.

Following Ireland’s bonus point victory over Scotland, it didn’t take a maths genius to calculate England’s hopes of winning the 6 Nations relied on bonus point victories in booth their remaining games. Yet England continued to kick their penalties at goal rather than touch, leaving them needing 4 tries in the second half. Barring a monumental collapse, that was not going to happen in Paris. As someone who has felt Dylan Hartley’s time in the 2 shirt has reached an end I hate to admit but there was no leadership from the players out there. Owen Farrell would have been my shout for the captaincy but did not appear to thrive in the role, while fellow starters Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care have all been club captains (Robshaw even has plenty of experience as England captain). Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes were also starters with over 50 caps, while Mako Vunipola and George Ford are also highly experienced internationals. Between the lot of them they should have been able to adapt to the game better. Hughes’ early injury would have been a blow to their plans but injuries happen and an international team should be prepared. I don’t want to come down too hard on this team as many have not had an ideal rest period following the Lions Tour due to the level of competition in the Premiership. It’s no real surprise that Elliott Daly and Kyle Sinckler looked two of the better players considering they have just had a chance to rest while recovering from injury and coming back from suspension! With the chances of victory gone I would love to see Eddie make a few changes against Ireland and rest a few regulars to give players like Kyle Sinckler, Denny Solomona, Don Armand and Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to start.

Wales 38 – 14 Italy

Job done for Wales who got a bonus point win despite 10 changes to the starting XV, but that really doesn’t give a real idea of the game. They scored 2 tries in no time but one was poor Italian defending (more on that below) and the other came from an interception. Other than that, there was not much for the time to write home about in the first half and they can consider themselves lucky that Liam Williams only saw a yellow card for his hit on the impressive Matteo Minozzi. Wales have a habit of underperforming after making a high number of changes against a weaker team and this was no exception, and it was more poor play from the Italians that helped the Welsh to the win. Warren Gatland needs to be very careful when selecting his teams against supposedly weaker opposition, otherwise he could get left with egg on his face when a ‘lesser’ team turns them over and gets the result.

“The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level.”

I wrote the above following Bundee Aki & Robbie Henshaw’s tries against the Italians in Round 2, unfortunately, they do not seem to have sorted this yet and were once again weak either side of the ruck against Wales. The opening try from Hadleigh Parkes was another pass from the back of a ruck to a centre running out-to-in running line. The defence were too busy looking in at the ruck again and though they managed to attempt a tackle this time, their positioning was all wrong and led to Parkes spinning out of the contact and dotting down, while the attempted tackler had to go off with a head injury. Cory Hill’s try was also far too easy for international rugby as the Italian forwards were too slow to come out of the scrum and wrap around tot h far side of the ruck, making it easy for Hill to push over for a killer score while Wales were at a numerical disadvantage. There have clearly been some signs of improvement from the Italians when you consider the massive rebuild Italian rugby as a whole is currently going through, but they need to sort out such a glaring defensive issue soon or they will struggle to win many games.

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Super Saturday’s fixtures to see out the 2018 tournament

6 Nations table and upcoming fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 3

So most rugby fans are probably waking up with a hangover today. I’m sure plenty of England fans will have been drinking to forget the day’s action, while the Scots will probably declare a national holiday following their Calcutta Cup victory – which I can imagine many fans in other countries celebrated too! Elsewhere in the tournament, France’s victory in Marseille all but assures Italy will finish with the wooden spoon, while Ireland are now the only team able to win the Grand Slam following their victory over Wales.

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France 34-17 Italy

We are far from having a great French team right now but there are certainly some good signs going forward. Mathieu Barstareaud may not look like your conventional centre but deserved the Man of the Match award in this game. His physicality in attack brought good ground and made space for the men outside of him – just watch Hugo Bonneval’s try again and see how important his part is in that. Remy Grosso looked very dangerous on the left wing and I look forward to seeing more of him in the current weeks. While I don’t think he was better than Bastareaud in this game, Yacouba Camara impressed me at 7 and I think he will do a great job helping the team get front-foot ball. While these guys impressed against Italy, I am still not being won over by Lionel Beauxis at 10. He has undoubted quality but no consistency, then will occasionally do something that nobody seems to expect (not in a good way). Sebastien Vahaamahina continues to concede penalties and I’m surprised that he has not yet received a yellow for persistent offending. It may be indicative of the numerous changes Jacques Brunel is making each week but there was very little resembling teamwork from the French team and it cost them inside the Italian 22 and stopped them earning a bonus point.

Much like the French, Italy are another team in the middle of a rebuild and with an number of relatively new players. I talked about Tommaso Boni and Sebastian Negri following Round 1 and they have continued to impress throughout the tournament – Negri especially growing into his role within the XV. Another player who has really impressed is fullback Matteo Minozzi. The Zebre 15 may look tiny next to many of his fellow players, but has looked electric in the 6 Nations and followed up his try in Round 2 with another on Friday night. As well as that he appears to have a good rugby brain judging by his recognition that a kick downfield was a better option than trying to run the length of the field following a turnover on their own line and recognised the opportunity for a quick 22-dropout, only to be cynically stopped by Benjamin Fall (who should have really received a yellow for this). He also has very good tackle technique when covering a break wide, as showed when he shepherded Grosso towards the touchline and then took him low around the legs to take him into touch. However like the French, I have not been impressed by the men controlling the game for Italy. Marcello Violi often seems to take his time behind the ruck and this gave the French defence time to reorganise and in some cases counter-ruck to turn the ball over, and I don’t think Tommy Allan has done enough with the number 10 shirt. With the wooden spoon 99% confirmed for another year I think O’Shea should restore Edoardo Gori to the starting lineup (provided his late injury wasn’t serious) and look at Carlo Canna or Ian McKinley at fly half.

Ireland 37-27 Wales

Considering Ireland lost 3 British and Irish Lions heading into this game (Furlong, Henderson and Henshaw) this was arguably their best performance in the tournament so far. Chris Farrell may have been making his 6 Nations debut on only his third cap, but he looked assured from the off against the Welsh. A starting back row of O’Mahony, Leavy and Stander (with Conan on the bench) shows just how strong the Irish are in this area that they can deal with missing Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier. Jacob Stockdale has been so impressive for the national team and continues to score tries at an average of about 1 per game, while Keith Earls could have had a couple of tries had the forwards not got white line fever. Johnny Sexton had an awful day off the kicking tee, but some of his play with ball in hand was sublime and helped remind me just how good a player he is. They have 2 huge matches to come at home to Scotland and away at England, but if they continue in this vein the Grand Slam is a real possibility.

“I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.” – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

We got the first look at Wales with some of their stars coming back this week as Liam Williams and Dan Biggar returned to the squad for the first time in this year’s tournament. It wasn’t great viewing. Dan Biggar is a very good fly half so this is nothing against him, but his playing style does not easily fit with the Scarlets-esque style of play that Wales have been going for in recent weeks. Once Biggar was replaced by Gareth Anscombe the Welsh attack appeared much more dangerous. The general consensus between my mates and I was that dropping Rhys Patchell from the 23 the moment Biggar was back was a giant kick in the ball-sack considering how well he had played on the whole both for Scarlets and in the first 2 rounds of the tournament, it seems clear now that he will not get a fair shot at the Welsh squad while Gatland and Howley are in charge. Biggar’s big features for Wales (besides his experience) are his goal kicking – which is dealt with by Halfpenny anyway – and his work under the high ball which is already covered by Halfpenny and Williams. Patchell and Asncombe bring more to the Welsh game so I think the team would benefit from one of them starting, with Biggar on the bench able to come on and help see a game out with his territorial kicking or to take over goal kicking duties if Halfpenny is removed.

Scotland 25-13 England

Let’s start witht he positives here: Scotland were great! Finn Russell bounced back from a couple of bad games to win the Man of the Match award against the Auld enemy. John Barclay and his pack dominated their opposite numbers and stopped the England backs getting front-foot ball, while often winning turnovers when England did make ground. Huw Jones is a player that I have rated ever since he came on the scene for Scotland and he just seems to get better as he gets more international experience. With an eye for the gap and a great combination of pace and strength he has almost everything you want in a 13. I would argue that Jones is quickly becoming one of the best outside centres in the world and I look forward to watching him more over the next few seasons.

*Sigh* As an England fan, I’ve put off writing this for as long as I can. It is not easy having to relive last night, but it needs to be done. I can’t remember the last time that I was so disappointed by and England loss. I have no problem with England losing to a team that were better on the day, but they did not seem up for it at all! I hate to accuse the players of this as I doubt it was really the case, but it was as if the players were going through the motions and not playing with any heart! The first half especially was embarrassing and looked as if the players thought they were still in a training session against Georgia rather than a 6 Nations match. Support men were too often too far behind the man with the ball and when they were there they just leaned onto a ruck like you expect in junior rugby rather then clearing the man out or creating a strong bridge (something drilled into the minds of us Pistol Shrimps by Mr Mike Gledhill). If you want one moment that summarised the England performance, you just need to look at the final seconds of the game. Anthony Watson – who did a wonderful job of reminding me why I’ve never been sold on him defensively – reached out a lazy hand to catch a pass a bit far in front of him, only to knock the ball on into touch. Minimal skill, minimal effort… another England error. Hopefully this will be the kick up the ass that gets the team going again, it will be interesting to see what changes (if any) Eddie Jones makes for their trip to France. Personally, I would love to see Te’o brought in at 13 as his physicality will help the backs if the forwards are struggling to generate quick ball, while also replacing Watson with the more well-rounded Jack Nowell. Hughes looked good on his return but if Sam Simmonds is available for Le Crunch I would find a way to get them both in the starting lineup by playing 3 specialist back rowers and moving Courtney Lawes to the second row or the bench. I would also replace Richard Wigglesworth on the bench with Dan Robson as much like Biggar for Wales, I don’t think his playing style suits what England are trying to do, whereas Robson could easily push for a starting place if given fair chance. It wouldn’t surprise me though if Jones goes for the same 23 again with any changes being due to players returning or being unavailable through injury.

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France coming off a rare win, England with an equally rare loss… Le Crunch could be a huge match!

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 2

The Grand Slam dream is over for Wales in 2018 as they leave Twickenham with a losing bonus point following a tight, enthralling and controversial encounter. Following their victory against the Italians, Ireland and England are the only teams still able to go unbeaten but they cannot start eying up their Round 5 showdown yet as they each have 2 more games to win first. Meanwhile Scotland got their 6 Nations back on track with a win against the French, who currently join Italy as the only winless teams after 2 rounds.

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Ireland 56-19 Italy

I wonder how Ireland will react to the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will likely be out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Though I was not sure about the balance of the midfield in Round 1, I thought he and Aki were starting to work better and rebuild on their chemistry from Henshaw’s Connacht days. With Henshaw out, they have a couple of ways that they could replace him against Wales:

  • Dual Playmakers – take a leaf out of England’s book and copy the Ford/Farrell axis by playing either Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery in the centre. This would improve the distribution options in the backline and as it is something that Ireland have not really done recently, the extra playmaker may help to catch out a Wales team expecting 2 physical centres.
  • Safe options – bring in either Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell or Fergus McFadden as Aki’s centre partner. This would allow the Irish to continue with the same sort of gameplan, and while Farrell and Scannell are in the squad as centres, McFadden’s international experience (he has 33 caps compared to the combined 19 caps combined for the 4 players mentioned as options so far) could give him the advantage, though Farrell’s physicality could be crucial against Wales’ strong midfield.
  • The returner – Garry Ringrose is close to a return from injury and if everyone was available and fully fit he would probably be the 13 of choice. However I see this as an outside bet as coming into a clash against Wales is a big ask for someone who has just returned from injury. I think Joe Schmidt would do better in the long term allowing him to ease himself back in during the tournament with Leinster.
  • The switch – as well as just being a damn good winger for Munster and Ireland, one of Keith Earls’ best features is his versatility as he is comfortable at either wing or centre. Earls moved into the 13 position following Henshaw’s injury and while the defensive organisation did drop off a bit, 2 weeks of preparation would likely see to this. This could lead to a start for either Andrew Conway (who was man of the match against Fiji in the Autumn Tests) or the exciting Jordan Larmour, whose footwork against Italy was one of the highlights of the match. An improving Welsh team would be a big step up in quality for Larmour’s second cap, but the thought of him and Steff Evans attacking each other all day is mouth-watering.

I think that either McFadden or Farrell are the more likely options for Joe Schmidt, but it will be very interesting to see what the Kiwi chooses to do.

As with most Italy matches at the moment, there are clearly positives to take – they scored 3 tries against a team ranked in the top 4 in the world – but again there were negatives and clear areas to work on. The defence was bamboozled by some of the attacking lines from England in Round 1, but this week they were leaking some very disappointing tries. Obviously it is hard to defend effectively against interceptions like for Jacob Stockdale’s try and Robbie Henshaw’s second, but Henshaw’s first and Bundee Aki’s try were far too easy as they crashed over from close range taking the ball direct from Conor Murray on out-to-in lines. The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level. Scotland scored a similar try against France this weekend through Huw Jones, so I am sure they will be making notes on this Italian weakness ahead of their Round 5 fixture.

England 12-6 Wales

Whether at 10 or 12, you can always rely on Owen Farrell to put in a huge performance for England. Against Wales, Farrell was part of a miserly defence and shut down a number of attacks with well-timed tackles to cause knock-ons and also brought an end to Shingler’s attack and popped up with a key turnover deep in his own half to stop another Welsh advance. With ball in hand, he controlled the game so well, from his kick to set up Jonny May’s opener that got better every time you saw it, to his command of the phases in the build-up to May’s second and his willingness to take the big hit from Ross Moriarty as he floated the ball out to Joe Launchbury. It wasn’t just Farrell who controlled the game well, as George Ford pulled the strings well inside him while Danny Care looks to have really improved his box kicks and made almost all of them contestable for the chasers. Steff Evans is not the best in the air and Anthony Watson rightly dominated the air on that wing, while Jonny May also had some luck in the air on the left wing. England’s kicking game combined with their resolute defence won them the game and deserves a lot of credit. When even your Welsh mate is saying that, you know how well they’ve done!

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Things are levelling out between the teams in the fantasy league, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

Looking at the game as a whole, England probably deserved the win, but Wales could have very easily come away with the victory. They chose to kick a couple of penalties to the corner rather than go for goal and combined with Rhys Patchell’s miss, this could have been enough to put the scoreboard in their favour. They also created some great chances, with the tackle of the tournament from Sam Underhill the only reason Scott Williams didn’t get a try, while a questionable decision to kick from Aaron Shingler stopped another attack. And then of course there’s that TMO decision. The TMO decided that the try should not stand as though Steff Evans played the ball with his knee rather than his hand, Gareth Anscombe did not clearly ground the ball. Wrong on both parts! Anscombe clearly grounded the ball but actually Scrum V proved that the ball did in fact go forward off Evans’ finger. So the TMO got the right decision for the wrong reasons, though I would argue if we look at clear and obvious evidence then the try should be awarded – and that’s coming from an England fan! To lose a goal kicker as accomplished as Leigh Halfpenny so close to the match, it was always going to make things more difficult for Wales but the team stepped up well and came so close to a huge win at Twickenham. What they really need to work on though is their kicking game, as Gareth Davies continually kicked too long which made it easy for Mike Brown to win the high ball. They are so close to getting the results despite the number of players missing, Ireland will have to be very careful in Round 3.

Scotland 32-26 France

Gregor Townsend made a very brave call by replacing Finn Russell midway through the second half and moving Greig Laidlaw to fly half. Laidlaw started his Scotland career at 10 and played there on occasions for Gloucester, but he has very much become a 9, yet his performance after being shifted from 9 to 10 was exactly what Scotland needed. The Glasgow centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones looked much better than last week and the back row had a much better balance, but despite this, Russell struggled for the second week in a row, misjudging a number of kicks from hand and giving the French easy territory – though he did not seem disappointed whenever they showed him following a poor kick. He was also at fault for the first France try as he allowed Teddy Thomas to beat him to the outside 1v1 then fell off with a weak tackle attempt. Laidlaw controlled the game so well from 9 and 10 and was perfect off the tee, while Russell’s removal allowed Stuart Hogg’s monster boot to earn Scotland the territory whenever the French gave away a penalty outside Laidlaw’s range.

In the early scrums it looked like France were going to give the Scots a torrid time as the French front row got an early advantage over their less experience rivals, however they failed to capitalise on this and gain dominance at the set piece, while they continued in the same vein as last week by giving away a high number of penalties, especially as the half went on. Without the pressure of kicking, Lionel Beauxis had on the whole a good afternoon, however a few times when he was put under pressure we saw flashes of the fly half who once tried – and failed – to kick a ball passed to him on the volley, as he flicked on an awful pass to his captain and also put fullback Geoffrey Palis under heaps of pressure when he slipped a pass to him rather than clear under pressure on their own try line. Baptiste Serin and Louis Picamoles both looked assured from the bench and I will be interested to see if these performances help them get a starting spot for the game against Italy, but right now the French attacks are far too infrequent and they do not have the fitness to make it through the full 80 minutes. Their fixture with Italy on the 23rd is really looking like the battle for the wooden spoon. Right now, I would predict a French victory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians pulled off the win.

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The match between France and Italy decide the wooden spoon

Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1

The 6 Nations finally kicked off in shocking fashion on Saturday in exciting fashion as Wales and Scotland both tried to emulate the style of their most competitive teams of the moment (the Scarlets & Glasgow). While it worked for Wales, an error-strewn performance from the Scots saw them come crashing back down to earth after a fantastic Autumn series. In France, controversy was the word of the day with a few questionable calls from medical ‘professionals’ but karma proved a bitch for Les Bleus as Johnny Sexton nailed a 45m drop goal on the final play to earn the Irish the win. On Sunday a relatively inexperienced Italian team recovered from 2 early Anthony Watson tries to stick close to England until late in the game when 3 tries in the last 12 minutes gave the scoreline a more one-sided feel.

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Wales 34-7 Scotland

This Welsh performance was probably the most beautiful I have seen them play in years! With so many players out injured, Josh Adams was the only non-Scarlet in the starting back line, while half of the initial pack also play for the Pro12 champions. This Scarlets presence was clear in the way they played with open attacking rugby rather than the Warrenball tactics we have become used to. Leigh Halfpenny has been much maligned in recent years as not bringing enough to the attack, but contributed 2 tries as well as 14 points with the boot, while Stef Evans – who did not have the best of Autumns with Wales – finished wonderfully to earn the bonus point and would have scored a contender for try of the tournament much earlier in the game had the offload from Alun Wyn Jones been better. The midfield trio of Patchell, Parkes and Williams looked incredible both in attack and defence, while Adams looked at home on the wing in his Test debut. In the back row, Josh Navidi and man of the match Aaron Shingler were spectacular and outplayed their opposite numbers. A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.

Scotland’s inaccuracy was their undoing at the Principality Stadium. The intent to play good attacking rugby was there but too often the ball was going to floor. While the main focus of the talk on Scotland’s injuries was towards the front row, they were also missing defensive linchpin Alex Dunbar, while other regulars at centre over recent years Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott were all unavailable or not selected having recently recovered from injuries. Huw Jones’ centre partner for this match Chris Harris had only 21 minutes of international rugby against Samoa under his belt and the lack of chemistry showed, while Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failed to have much of a positive influence on the game. Meanwhile, captain John Barclay was outplayed by his Welsh rivals and failed to adapt to the way the ruck was being refereed and was penalised multiple times for clearly putting his hands on the floor beyond the ball and bringing himself back. A player of his experience should know that it is illegal and change what he’s doing the moment the referee pings him.

France 13-15 Ireland

Remind me never to go to a French doctor. In France’s last 6 Nations game, they abused the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols to get a competitive advantage in the scrums, leading to them scoring the winning try. After all the furore from fans, there was no way they would try that again in their very next match in the competition, right? Right? Wrong! Debutante Matthieu Jalibert went down just before half time following a collising of knees with Bundee Aki. It was clear that the physio attending to him was giving all his attention to the fly half’s knee, yet when he limped off it was announced that his removal had gone down as a HIA, meaning that as long as he passed that (there was nothing in the replays to suggest he took a knock to the head) he would be able to return to the pitch. It looked like a less-than-sneaky attempt to give Jalibert a chance to walk off the knock and continue. And then with just minutes left in the game and the score at 13-12, it got even worse! Replacement scrum half Antoine Dupont came away from the back of a French scrum but suddenly went down without any contact. Again the physio’s looked at the knee while the call comes to Nigel Owens that the match doctor has called a HIA. Had Dupont been going off injured, then France would have seen out the game without a specialist scrum half, yet the call for a HIA allowed Maxime Machenaud to come back on. Listening over the ref’s mike I got the feeling that Owens didn’t believe what he was being told but he had no choice. This is disgusting cheating from the French 3 times in their last 2 games! The investigation after the 2017 incident found the French at fault but things were very much swept under the carpet, there is no way that can happen again. As I am writing this I have read that Dupont is out with a torn ACL while Jalibert is also out for about a month with a knee injury. Nothing to suggest either of them is suffering from concussion or any other head injury. If France are found guilty of such abuse of a system in place for player welfare they should be thrown out of the tournament! At least that way we can get Georgia into the tournament.

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I’ve taken an early lead in the Eyes on the Ball Championship, feel free to join with the league code 1323867-57794

It will be interesting to see how other teams fare against the French, but on the whole I was not impressed by Ireland’s performance. Despite having 68% possession and territory, they did not manage a single clean break according to ESPN’s stats. The French gave away so many penalties and yet they were not clinical enough and clearly preferred to take 3 points rather than go in search of a try. In my tournament preview I said that I don’t think there will be a Grand Slam this year, in which case bonus points could prove crucial. If Ireland continue to rely on the boot of Johnny Sexton rather than getting tries, I can see them falling short against someone and losing the title due to a lack of bonus points.

Italy 15-46 England

Considering how inexperienced many of the squad were and the quality of players missing, I was impressed by how well Italy stuck in the game against England following Watson’s early brace. Tommaso Boni at 13 was especially impressive and I would be interested to see if he could play beside Michele Campagnaro when he recovers from injury. What is great to see is that like the Italian Pro14 teams, the national team is improving, but they are not yet the finished article. Former Hartpury flanker Seb Negri made ground but very few others did on a regular basis and again I feel adding Jake Polledri to the 23 would make them more dangerous. They also need to find a way to improve in the front row. With props like Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italian scrum used to be one of the most feared in the tournament but in recent years it has become an area that teams can attack to win penalties. The Italians need to improve here to get the backs more front-foot ball and better field position.

No offence to Anthony Watson, but I do not agree with the decision to award him man of the match. Other than his 2 tries – the first of which especially was a relatively simple run in – he did very little else to impact the game. Sam Simmonds, on the other hand scored a brace of his own and provided the assist for Jack Nowell with a perfectly executed draw and pass. He finished the game with 75 metres off 13 carries. Per ESPN’s stats, he also finished top of all players in the game for clean breaks (3), defenders beaten (6) and tackles made (22 – 7 more than his closest competitor Chris Robshaw). His pace provides something different at 8 to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and even when one of them is back, I think he is doing enough to suggest that he deserves a spot on one of the flanks.

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Wales’ trip to Twickenham will be the pick of Round 2… which I will be watching deep in enemy territory

Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk

6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com

Previewing the 2018 6 Nations

Previewing the 2018 6 Nations

We’re now less than a week away from the start of the 2018 6 Nations and people all around the country are planning where their group will be watching the matches, while those watching at home are also adding a few crates of lager (other drinks are available) to their weekly shop. The squads are named, the players have been in camp since the last round of European matches finished and the web is full of reports over who is or isn’t available and who has said what about their team’s chances.

I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re likely already looking forward to the tournament, but I thought it was time to have a look at some of the main storylines coming into this tournament to add to the hype:

Missing in action:

I can’t remember the last time we were starting a 6 Nations tournament with so many players missing! England and Scotland have about a million props missing between them through injury or suspension and they are certainly having to test the depth in those positions. While the Scots aren’t stretched too thin beyond this, England are also missing Lion Ben Te’o, first and second choice number 8s (Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes) and may also be without Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown against Italy, while James Haskell and Joe Marler are suspended for the first 2 rounds. Wales seem to be losing players at a rate of at least 1 a day over the last week, with fly halves Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar both out for the start of the tournament, Jonathan Davies out long term following his injury in the Autumn, Rhys Webb having likely played his last Wales match for the foreseeable future and the back row missing Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and captain Sam Warburton. Even the back 3 is beginning to look a little sparse, with Liam Williams, Hallam Amos and George North all doubtful for at least the first round. Ireland haven’t been as unfortunate as their Home Nation counterparts, but they are still missing quality players like Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, while Jared Payne still hasn’t played since suffering headaches on the Lions Tour. The fallout from a Lions Tour is always going to stretch selection somewhat, but this year it seems worse than ever.

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The 6 Nations injury list grows by the day

The teams on the continent have not escaped either, with Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto – 2 of the few Italians playing for top teams – both out injured, while France are missing Camille Lopez following his horror injury against Northampton and Wesley Fofana for the tournament, with Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin also missing from the opening rounds through injury and Mathieu Bastareud suspended for their opener. Even crazier considering this is the decision of new head coach Jacques Brunel to leave out some of their better performers in recent tournaments: Louis Picamoles, Scott Spedding and Baptiste Serin, though Serin has been called up as cover for Parra’s injury.

With so many big names missing, even die-hard rugby fans will be excused for wondering who some of the players on show are this year. It will be interesting to see how things continue as the tournament goes on, as squad depth could be the difference between the title and fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.

Building for 2019

Believe it or not, we are already over halfway through the current World Cup cycle. After this tournament, we have only 1 more 6 Nations and then the Autumn and Summer Tests for players to prove they belong on the international scene. As such, so many players missing could be a blessing in disguise for coaches, as it allows them to give international experience to players they may have been considering for 2019 earlier than expected.

Injuries to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes have seen Zach Mercer promoted from apprentice to a fully-fledged member of the squad. If he can carry on his stunning U20s and Bath form in the 6 Nations, I can see him rising quickly through the England ranks.

James Davies has finally been called up to the national team and hopefully he will be given the chance. An Olympic silver medallist with Team GB’s rugby 7s team in Rio 2016, Cubby is a nuisance at the breakdown and excels in loose play. I have seen him move to wing for Scarlets and play half a game out there following a red card before. There are a lot of big names ahead of him in the Welsh back row, but I expect him to shine if given the chance. Meanwhile in the back line, Rhys Patchell will likely be given the chance to start at fly half following Biggar and Priestland’s injuries. He has been a big part of the Scarlet’s rise in the last couple of seasons and his familiarity with the Scarlets style of play may benefit him as Wales look to expand their game. Worcester’s Josh Adams is currently the top try scorer in the Premiership this year and should be given the start for Wales despite playing outside the country. Like Davies, he has a lot of more established names to compete against, but when picking on form he surely has to be included.

François Trinh-Duc’s loss of form for Toulon saw him omitted from the French squad, which combined with Lopez’s injury leaves Les Bleus with just 2 caps of experience at fly half. Jacques Brunel has opted to go for 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert and Anthony Belleau (21). Throwing a young fly half in at the deep end will not always work well (Jules Plisson probably still has nightmares about Courtney Lawes) but if he can come through unscathed, the talk is that Jalibert can become a real talent.

The Irish brought in a number of inexperienced players during the Autumn Tests, many of whom really impressed and earned places in the 6 Nations squad. But right now all the hype is about Leinster back Jordan Larmour. I have not seen him play yet but if the hype is to be believed then he is going to be a star in the future. This year’s 6 Nations may be a bit too early for him, but much like Marcus Smith with England, he will benefit from being around the squad during this time.

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The opening round of fixtures – From http://www.sixnationsrugby.com

As a Gloucester fan I was disappointed to see Jake Polledri cut when Conor O’Shea trimmed his Italy squad. I understand that Test rugby is a big step for someone who was playing in National League One this time last year, but his performances for Gloucester have been so impressive and I think he would have impressed for Italy. The England fan in me did a little dance when I saw his omission as with their back row issues, facing Polledri and Sergio Parisse could have been a step too far for England. Hopefully he is drafted back into the squad at a later date.

The Three-peat?

England are coming into this year’s tournament off the back of 2 consecutive 6 Nations titles, with the 2016 title also including a Grand Slam. Despite a high number of injuries, they will still be hoping to become the first team to win the title three years in a row in the 6 Nations era (France were the last team in the 5 Nations – winning 4 in a row from 1986-1989 but even this included joint titles in ’86 and ’88). They have 3 away matches this year, which is less than ideal, but they are at home for key clashes against Ireland and Wales.

France historically do well following a Lions Tour as their players are fresher, however French rugby is not in a good state and considering the players missing I will be surprised if they make the top 3.

If I was to be a betting man, I would be picking Ireland to win the tournament without the Grand Slam – possibly with bonus points proving the decider – with England finishing second. I can also see Italy playing better than for most of last year, but likely still finishing with the wooden spoon.

I am a fan of doing Fantasy Rugby and have set up a league for this year’s 6 Nations on the EPSN website. It is open to all and just for a bit of fun, so feel free to create a team and join the league. You may even get a congratulatory shout-out if you finish top! The league PIN is 1323867-57794