Please, God, don’t let this be the year England get the hat trick. They’ll be insufferable.
The Six nations kick off today, and it looks worryingly like England have it sewn up. With a deep squad, Vunipola and Itoje back from injury, and some good results in the Autumn tests, the men in white look set for another tilt at the title. And they’ll do so in a kit that, with its mixes of blue and white and black and red, looks more than a little like recent Saracens’ strips.
So – the English stand a good chance. What of the other home nations? Ireland have been doing well, but have yet to adjust to losing O’Driscoll, O’Gara, and O’Connell. The Chicago match against the All Blacks was an astounding display, and Best and O’Brien acquitted themselves well with the Lions. Depriving the English of the Grand Slam in 2017 was nice as well. But Ireland remains a team lacking the killer instinct- they’ll hold England close, and are dead certs for the top three, but I can’t see them winning.
On to the other Celtic nations. Scotland could have a very interesting tournament. Coming out of an Autumn season where they lost to the All Blacks by a stunningly narrow margin, and handed the Australians’ backsides to them on a silver platter, Gregor Townshend’s men have every reason to be confident. They have problems with depth, lacking the English ability to rotate excellent players throughout the starting XV, but beating Australia without Stuart Hogg showed that, when they need to, Scotland can get by without their stars.
Then there’s the emotional factor – Scottish rugby has been in the doldrums in recent years, and this year marks a welcome recovery. As coach, VerneCotter set a firm foundation which Townshend has now built on. This year’s Scotland squad go into the tournament knowing that, if any year is going to be Scotland’s chance, this is it. And with the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield this year, and the knowledge that a Scottish victory might be the only thing standing between the English and a Grand Slam, we can expect the Scots to play out of their boots on February 24th.
Full disclosure: I support two teams – Scotland and Wales. One of them looks set for a good year. The other… well. There was a time when Wales in the Six Nations was a genuinely terrifying prospect; the 2012 and 2013 victories were things of beauty, and the 2013 Lions Tour was made by Welsh coaches and players. But since then, Wales have failed to deliver – they have come close, but always fall at the last minute. Ageing players, a style of play (“get the penalties and have Leigh and Dan kick them”) which their opponents have become wise to, and a coach past his best all combined to make Wales the tragic lead in 2017, and they look set to reprise the role in 2018. They’re the old warhorse, standing in the middle of the pitch wondering where everything went wrong.
They did knock the English out of their own World Cup, though. At Twickenham. In the group stages. That counts for something.
France. At their best, unbeatable. At their worst (and most other times), unbearable. They’re the Buccaneering, Scrotum tearing, arrow forming giants of Continental rugby, and they take great pride in the fact that no one, not even their coaching staff, knows what they’re about to do. I always worry about making predictions about French rugby, as it’s impossible to know how they’ll play until they come on to the pitch. They are inconsistent, shockingly good on occasion, and shockingly bad as well. In fact, I’m not even sure they have a coaching strategy- the players just mooch in the changing room for a while before the match, drinking Armagnac and smoking Gauloises, on the basis that “if we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. C’est la vie, non?”
France could come fifth. They could come second. They could come first. Who knows.
“But there are six nations! Why would France’s worst case scenario be coming in fifth?” Because Italy are the Sixth Nation.
The Azzuri are a lovable bunch. Plucky, speedy, and with an absolute banger of a national anthem, they’re also the Six Nations equivalent of the kid who’s only on the school team because his dad’s a teacher. Their contribution last year was mostly comedic, as they confused the English in the ruck and forced James Haskell to think about the rules of rugby in more depth than “Hit things. Catch ball. Run into posts.” Will they win? No. Will they come in the top three? Stranger things have happened, but almost certainly not. Will they play like men possessed? Of course they will. And we’ll love them for it.
We have three weeks until the tournament starts. Then we have five weeks of international rugby, old rivalries, and some sarcastic refereeing from Nigel Owens. And we’ll see the great power of the Six Nations. In Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin, Paris, and Rome, we’ll see fans united by one thing.
Respect for the game? Perhaps.
Wanting to see the English lose? Definitely.
Gird your loins; ready your livers; apologise to your DoS – the Six Nations are coming, and TCS are going to be covering it every step of the way.