They say that football is a “funny old game”, but I am sure that most rugby fans will consider their sport to be equally as “funny” after an eventful Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year. A World Cup which saw an under-performing England unceremoniously dispatched by France, a courageous Welsh side win the hearts of the rugby romantics and an unfancied French side get narrowly beaten in the final by the hosts. For England fans it may have been memorable for all of the wrong reasons, but some of our Six Nations opponents have rather fonder memories of an entertaining tournament.
So, time moves on and rugby is again talk of the town; the sports pages are again dominated by this season’s RBS Six Nations. The January fasting season is over and rugby fans across Europe can now revel in the beer glugging paradise of the next two months, and it all starts this weekend……
My job now is to put on my best rugger cap and try to shed some light on this year’s tournament; who will be the winners and losers, the team to watch, young players making a name for themselves, old players going out on a high and every other cliché in the Oxford Dictionary of Sporting Bullshit.
As I am an Englishman this article will mainly be about the England team, so I apologise in advance to the Frogs, Jocks, Taffs, Paddies and Dagos for this rather xenophobic approach. Now, it seems logical to start by looking at the new squad that has been assembled by new temporary Head Coach Stuart Lancaster. There is no doubt that Lancaster is a breath of fresh air and has bought some much needed discipline to the England set-up, although some may question his experience of coaching at this level. Judging by his first squad selection, it is clear that he is not afraid to shake things up a little. Out go the old guard of messrs Easter, Cueto and Tindall – in come exciting prospects such as Robshaw, Farrell and Barritt. Has the new coach relied too heavily on youth? Only time will tell, although it is indeed a brave move to make the enigmatic Chris Robshaw captain for a tough opening encounter.
The opening fixture against Scotland will be a tough game and I am not expecting it to be a feast of flair rugby. In fact I think it will be like that blind date you have lined up for ages, and as you approach the restaurant to meet her you spy a heffalump roll out of a taxi and she’s got your name all over her! It will not be pleasing on the eye…… The Scots will want to make amends for their narrow defeat in the World Cup group stages and they too have made big changes within the squad since then. Their back line in particular looks like it could pose a threat with Lee Jones making his debut on the wing after a great season with Heineken Cup underdogs Edinburgh. I still expect England to win, but it will be a war of attrition in a brutally cold Murrayfield.
Next up is Italy in Rome – 17 wins out of 17 is how the stats read in England’s favour against their Italian counterparts. However, they are no longer the whipping boys of times gone by and they have earned the respect of the other Six Nations teams. The legacy of former coach Nick Mallett remains as the Italians will look to last year’s historic victory over the French for inspiration. England should again win this game, but the fantastic Sergio Parisse will try to rally his troops and cause an upset.
At this point I know what you are thinking – two wins from two, that isn’t bad, we could win this!
England’s first fixture at Twickenham is also their biggest test of the first three games as they come up against World Cup semi-finalists Wales. Although they will be without the mercurial Shane Williams who this week announced his retirement from the game at the end of the season. As one star fades another one rises in the Wales camp as Scarlets’ winger George North will hope to continue his red-hot form and Mr Reliable aka Sam Warburton will lead from the front throughout the tournament. This match will be no pushover for either team and I am going to put all of my egg shaped balls into one basket and predict a draw.
The penultimate game sees England travel to the Stade de France for a game against the tournament favourites. The French nearly caused an upset of Herculian proportions as they narrowly lost to New Zealand in the World Cup Final and their pack could be unbeatable going into the Six Nations. Their talismanic forwards Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy may prove too strong for ‘les rosbifs’ whose own pack lacks the international experience of teams gone by. I see this one going the way of the French as their forwards will be an overpowering force that is too much for the likes of rookies Corbisiero, Dowson and Botha. This could be a major lesson for the youthful England side and I am expecting to see smiles a plenty on the faces of those beret-wearing, garlic-munching buffoons.
The final fixture of England’s campaign could be make or break for the new England coaching regime and it couldn’t be much tougher than facingIrelandin front of an expectant Twickenham crowd. The usual suspects of Jonathan Sexton and Tommy Bowe will provide the firepower for the Irish and they will be out to prove a point after the narrowest of defeats to Wales in the World Cup. It is very hard to pick the winner of this match and I think it will be tighter than a pair of George Michael’s jeans that have ended up in the hot wash. However, I have faith that England will pull through this one by the closest margins (as a result, if you are a betting person I would lump on Ireland!).
Overall I have optimistically gone with three wins, a draw and a loss for England in this year’s tournament – but realistically anything can happen! The only tip I have is to dust off your wellington boots, as if you are not fine dining from the tail-gate of a brand new Range Rover in a muddy West Stand car park at Twickenham, you may well find yourself being forced to drink vomit from them in a pub with your rugger mates over the next couple of months.
by O. Mate