CASTRES, FRANCE – A record 114million-billion-zillion American Football fans are coming down after Sunday’s Super Bowl; rugby fans in the southern hemisphere are banking up expectation ahead of the opening round of Super Rugby – but, in Europe, the excitement is already ramped all the way up to 111 as the RBS Six Nations kicks off.
And a World Cup year adds a little spice to an already special competition. So, let’s look ahead to the tournament’s opening three matches – and we’ll also see what RWU’s (almost) infallible Six-Pack has to say.
WALES v ENGLAND
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Friday, 8.05pm (local time)
On Friday, all roads lead to the Millennium Stadium, where the RBS 6 Nations kicks off with a fiery Welsh bang under open skies in Cardiff – after England coach Stuart Lancaster refused a request to close the Millennium Stadium roof.
Wales start as favourites, but it’s unlikely that they will dole out a hammering of the 30-3 size they inflicted on England the last time the two sides met here.
The pre-match mind games started on Monday, when Wales coach Warren Gatland revealed his squad for Friday’s match on Twitter, 48 hours before he needed to.
There were no surprises on the teamsheet, which sees captain Sam Warburton win his 50th cap. Adam Jones may have retired, but this is, fundamentally, the same side that played England here two years ago. It’s even closer to last year’s side: Jones – his replacement Samson Lee is the only new addition to the team – and fly-half Rhys Priestland are the only non-starters from Twickenham 2014.
Gatland’s early announcement was a clear statement to Lancaster’s England. It said: You know who we are. You know where we’ll be. Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.
But the stoic Lancaster has refused to rise to the bait. He has more pressing concerns, not least a long injury list.
Remember, this is a World Cup year. This is not a time for tinkering. Unlike Gatland, Lancaster has no choice. Injuries have forced his hand. Only nine of Friday’s starting line-up were in the side that beat Australia in November.
Lancaster has recalled tighthead Dan Cole, who has played just eight games for Leicester in 11 months, while Tom Croft is on the bench despite not making the original 34-man training squad. Wasps’ skipper James Haskell is rewarded for an impressive season so far with a recall. Harlequins’ Nick Easter is also in England Six Nations colours for the first time since 2011. Easter’s period in the international cold is as nothing compared to Danny Cipriani, who is on the bench as cover for fly-half George Ford.
Entering the Millennium Stadium cauldron for the first time in a Six Nations are England’s Ford, his Bath colleague Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Dave Attwood and George Kruis.
Of all the England players, inside centre Luther Burrell faces arguably the toughest night in Wales as one half of a new-look midfield partnership. He’s not a perfect 12, but in the absence of the injured Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, his job will be to make ground, break tackles and release Joseph, whose electric performances this season made his recall inevitable.
Expect Burrell to make some serious mischief as a dummy runner if Ford flicks out a cut-out pass to his club team-mate at 13. Burrell has to do all this amid the distraction attentions of the in-form Jamie Roberts.
Make no mistake, though: this may be a weakened England – but it is not a weak one. Cole, Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Tom Croft are all British Lions; Haskell and Easter have been there, done that; Ford and Joseph have big-game temperaments; and Burrell’s not averse to a bit of bosh. Wales may start as favourites, but it will be close.
Expect the scrum to be a major battleground. It has decided the past two matches between the sides. In Wales in 2013, Steve Walsh repeatedly pinged England’s props. In London last year, Romain Poite penalised the Welsh for scrum infringements – and sent Gethin Jenkins to the sinbin. The man with the whistle this year is Frenchman Jerome Garces. How he referees the scrum is likely to be key.
What the Six Pack Say: This was the one match of the opening round that divided what we laughingly call the ‘RWU experts‘. Blaber, Harrington, Yeats and JWB all believe Wales will win at home, but Lloyd and Hall have predicted England will slay the Dragons in Cardiff.
ITALY v IRELAND
Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Saturday, 3.30pm (local time)
Historically, Ireland have not handled the “pre-tournament favourites” tag well – but this is Joe Schmidt’s second Six Nations, and his debut one went pretty well. Ireland won that.
In fact, his first full year in charge of the men in green must be regarded as a success. They only lost one Test, to England on their way to winning the 2014 RBS Six Nations.
This year, of course, there’s no Brian O’Driscoll. The centre to rule them all signed off his rugby career holding the now-retired old RBS Six Nations trophy aloft at the end of a tense and emotional evening in Paris last March.
But, Ireland have proved that they can handle life without him.
Their preparations were briefly disrupted on Thursday, when the playing surface at Carton House in Kildare was deemed unsafe after temperatures plummeted to -7C overnight. The day’s training was rescheduled for Thursday afternoon.
The delay was bad news for Jamie Heaslip, who had not trained fully since coming into camp with a shoulder injury and needed to come through the session in order to prove his fitness for trip to Rome. Schmidt in the end decided not to risk the influential number 8, who has been left out of the squad, with Jordi Murphy taking his place.
Up front, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross are likely to link up with Rory Best in Rome, while Cian Healy was expected to return to full training on Thursday.
Scrum-half Connor Murray, too, has recovered from a neck injury that has kept him out of action for a month, and will start, with Eoin Reddan on the bench.
Murray’s ability to run a game direct from the back of the scrum could prove invaluable, especially in the absence of Racing Metro’s Jonny Sexton at 10. Sexton will not complete his mandatory concussion stand-down period of 12 weeks until after Saturday’s match. He is expected to return in time for France’s visit to Dublin in round two of the competition.
Murray will link up with Munster team-mate Ian Keatley, with Ian Madigan likely to come off the bench later.
But Ireland should expect a vicious Italian storm on Saturday. Coach Jacques Brunel has said that his side’s three home fixtures this year have given them the chance to make amends for a dismal 2014.
After Saturday’s game against the defending champions, Italy will face England and Scotland away before hosting France and Wales in their final two matches next month.
Brunel’s side suffered 10 defeats in 11 Test in 2014. Their only victory came against Samoa in November. But the coach said that six or seven of those defeats could easily have been victories.
Given their injury concerns coming into the tournament, Ireland are probably delighted that their first match is against Italy. But they maybe shouldn’t be too grateful to the Celtic rugby gods.
The pack Brunel has chosen has been around so long that their names have become cod-Latin – Marco Bortolami, Martin Castrogiovanni, Quintin Geldenhuys, Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni, Mauro Bergamasco could have been something Julius Caesar said when he conquered Britain in 54BC.
But, at 35, there’s still plenty of life in the oldest pack dog Bergamasco, and Parisse is only 31. So expect plenty of brute force and no small amount of low cunning and high brilliance from the forwards.
It’s squad depth and the halfback pairing where Brunel has the greatest concerns. Italy haven’t had a truly world-class playmaker since future Toulon coach Diego Dominguez swapped Argentina for Italy – and he retired in 2004. Tomasso Allen, who was known as Tommy when he played representative rugby for Scotland as a youngster, shows promise but hasn’t yet found his feet.
In the end, Ireland should have too much firepower for Italy – but expect a few scares along the way.
What the Six Pack Say: No contest. Ireland all the way.
FRANCE v SCOTLAND
Stade de France, Paris,
Saturday, 6pm (local time)
French preparations for the tournament were thrown into disarray by news that a mystery killer had beheaded 36 of the team’s cockerel mascots in two raids on a farm in Gaillac, in the south-western Tarn department.
For years, farmer Mado Delpech, 84, has released a cockerel on to the pitch before each France game in the Six Nations. But not this year, following the two fowl raids on her property.
South African-born scrum-half Rory Kockott will make his first start in the red – yes, really, red – jersey of his adopted country, following three lively performances as a replacement in the autumn internationals.
He is one of seven changes to the starting line-up that lost 18-13 to Argentina in November – and, with Camille Lopez keeping the number 10 jersey, the 14th different starting half-back pairing chosen by Philippe Saint-Andre in his three years as France coach.
The contained-to-the-point-of-dour Kockott has yet to convince the French rugby public – who like their players to wear their hearts on their sleeves – that he is more than an international mercenary.
Unlike Kockott, the French have taken fellow South African Scott Spedding to their bosoms after he broke down on live TV when he was told that he had made the France team for the first of November’s internationals against Fiji.
Spedding and a third South African – Bernard La Roux – all start, as does Stade Francais prop Rabah Slimani. He’ll pack down at tighthead, with La Rochelle’s Samoa-born prop Uini Atonio on the bench. There’s no place in the squad for Montpellier’s grizzled warrior Nicolas Mas.
Five wins in the past seven Tests have given Scotland an injection of confidence ahead of the competition – but whether that will translate into a first Six Nations’ title is another question entirely.
It’s Vern Cotter’s first RBS Six Nations match, but his side have not won in Paris since they lifted the last Five Nations’ crown in 1999. Their last win over France was in Edinburgh in 2006. And their win-rate since 2007 has been one match per tournament.
Safe to say it’s not a great recent record. And it’s one the Scots say they are determined to correct.
Second-row brothers Richie and Jonny Gray will again form the boiler house in their fourth consecutive start for their country together, with Rob Harley, Johnnie Beattie and New Zealander Blair Cowan – man of the match against Tonga – in the back-row.
And the front row has bags of experience. Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford pack down with Euan Murray in an 1-2-3 club that boasts 181 international caps.
According to the players, coach Cotter has injected a new belief in his team. But the fixture list is surely against his side. After opening their campaign against France in Paris they will also have a trip south to Twickenham for the Calcutta Cup, and their final match is at home to pre-tournament favourites Ireland.
What the Six Pack Say: Sorry, Big Vern. The Six Pack has unanimously voted for a French victory – as you can see…
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