DUBLIN, IRE – The 2017 Six Nations is finally here to the dismay of cardiologists across the world. The Championship has produced some incredible action in its long history, and we can only hope we get some more of that heart-stopping play. Get ready for Saturday’s and Sunday’action with all three match previews and check out who our expert panelists chose below.
Scotland vs. Ireland
William Hill Favorite: Ireland 1/2
Vern Cotter has done nothing short of remarkable for the Scottish rugby program.
The Scottish have been slowly but steadily moving their way up to becoming a formidable dark horse in World Rugby, beating a solid Tier 2 side in Japan over the summer in a two-test series and scoring victories over Argentina in Georgia before a nine-point defeat Australians during the autumn test period.
Scotland will be a stiff challenge for Ireland come Saturday, especially at Murrayfield with so much at stake in this first round match.
In terms of Scotland’s personnel, Gregg Laidlaw is a top-level scrum half with a boot to match, and he enjoys his country’s highly physical style of play. Fullback Stuart Hogg is one of the best line-breaking backs in the world and the wingers Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser have been huge for the Scottish attack. The Gray Brothers are a big part of a large forward pack that has been hurt by the scratching of WP Nel due to a damaged invertebral disc.
There’s a reason why pundits across Europe and the world have changed their tune when talking about Scotland: they are a great team.
On the other side of the ball, I believe Ireland have the most to fight for in this championship out of all six teams. The Irish are beginning 2017 off the back of a southern hemisphere grand slam; famous wins over South Africa in Johannesburg, New Zealand in Chicago, and Australia in Dublin sealing the best year for the Irish since their Six Nations grand slam in 2009.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has a lot on his plate following his squad selection two weeks ago, and now with perpetually-injured Johnny Sexton and Munster forward Peter O’Mahony ruled out, he has even more to deal with.
There is a definite lack of depth at fly-half, with Ian Keatley having to be on standby with Sexton out. That is in no way saying that Paddy Jackson isn’t competent, especially after his performances in South Africa and in Chicago, but Schmidt has taken a bit of a gamble.
On the other hand, though, Ireland is full of big and bright talent. Rory Best has been a stalwart over his 100 cap career and Jamie Heaslip has his 91 caps. It’s also hard to believe that CJ Stander and Tadgh Furlong are still so early into their Ireland careers. Apart from the fly-half situation, Ireland have a solid set of backs led by center Robbie Henshaw and in-form wing Simon Zebo.
Scotland and Ireland have played 121 times through their history. Out of that both sides have won 58 matches and lost 58 matches with five ties to show for. There’s no doubt that Saturday’s match will be huge for both side’s campaigns.
France vs. England
William Hill Favorite: England 1/6
England start their defense of last year’s grand slam championship with a big opening test with visiting France at Twickenham on Saturday. The English have been on a drastic rise in world rugby since their group stage exit in the 2015 World Cup, rattling off 13 straight wins in test matches.
Many of those 13 tests haven’t been close matches, either, especially their matches down in Oz. Eddie Jones’ England put Australia to shame in three tests and have set themselves up to do amazing things during this championship. There’s a swagger around English Rugby that has undoubtedly invigorated the program, bringing in new players to feature for the red rose.
Wasps winger Elliott Daly is making his first ever start for England after impressing in both the Premiership and the Champions Cup. Maro Itoje has burst onto the scene and become one of the best loose forwards in the world. Former Leinster man (and now Worcester Warrior) Ben Te’o is on the bench along side capped players like Jamie George and James Haskell, so it’s easy to see the positive transition the English are making.
The first thing that makes the England so daunting is that the English forwards are a big unit with the likes of Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole, and Nathan and Hughes controlling the scrummaging and the breakdown. Courtney Lawes and Joe Marler are veterans of the program and will make yet another big impact this championship.
And with all of that in the front eight England’s backs are, in my opinion, better than their forwards. Ben Youngs has been one of the only highlights for Leicester and his partnership alongside George Ford is a tried and tested unit. Plus, the international and domestic form of Jonathan Joseph and Mike Brown makes for a hugely explosive backline that, if anything, lacks slightly in their defensive structure.
On the other side of the ball, the French are trying to open a new era in French rugby and bring a Six Nations Championship back to France for the first time in what seems like forever. The French bring in several positives from their November series tests against Australia and New Zealand, matches in Paris that ended with the Australians and Kiwis taking slim 25-23 and 24-19 victories, respectively.
Head coach Guy Noves knew he needed some audacious squad choices and has brought in young players of his own to bring about the next class of French Rugby. The matchday squad has made for a few surprises, most notably in the selection of Baptiste Serin, a 22-year-old scrum half plying his trade for Bordeaux.
France’s lineup for Saturday’s match is strong, yeah untested in terms of overall cohesiveness. The scrum-half fly-half pairing with Serin and Lopez will have its first ever test against a well worked pairing opposite them. Sebastien Vahaamahina and Yoann Maestri are still working out the kinks in the second row. It will be interesting seeing how this trial by fire affects the French as a whole.
Even so, the French also have a great amount of veteran talent, led by no other than #8 Louis Picamoles. His pairing in the back row alongside Damien Chouly and Kevin Gourdon brings a physicality to the French that had been slightly lacking in their losses to Australia and New Zealand. Camille Lopez can be spotty at times, but is fantastic when he’s in form. Fickou and Lamerat are both great centers, and the two have good enough defensive intelligence to work well against the English.
Italy vs. Wales
William Hill Favorite: Wales 1/5
Sunday’s match between the Italians in the Welsh might not be the most attractive matchup of the weekend, but could have major implications for the paths of both sides in this championship.
The Italians, who beat South Africa for the first time during the November test series, have looked increasingly better under Conor O’Shea, although not yet to the point where they can be considered low-level Tier 1 contenders.
O’Shea’s Italians have faced much criticism over the last two years following poor performances in the championship, sparking relegation rumors to Italy into a “play or be gone” situation. The coverage was only exacerbated by their 19-17 loss to Tonga only week after their victory against South Africa.
To say that an opening weekend victory would be big for Italy is an understatement.
O’Shea has gone with a fully veteran side for Sunday’s match up with no uncapped players making it into the squad.
The Italians have made six changes, however, to the side that beat South Africa. Edoardo Gori returns once again to scrum half and half and will pair up alongside Carlo Canna to form a partnership that is still relatively new. In the forwards, Maxime Mbanda, Abraham Steyn, George Biagi, and Andrea Lovotti i’ll move into the forward pack to play alongside Sergio Parisse and his 122 caps.
Wales, however, are tricky case. With Warren Gatland taking charge of the Lions duties for the tour to New Zealand later this year, the Welsh are in a sort of limbo. Following a disappointing 2016 international season (despite their victory against South Africa in the fall), the Welsh are in big need of something positive to start off this Six Nations campaign.
For the Welsh, head coach Rob Howley has made five changes from the side that beat the Springboks in an attempt to start the campaign on the right foot.
Ospreys’ fly-half Rhys Webb gets another star in the red-number 10 jersey, the only change in the backs for the Welsh. Samson Lee, Nicky Smith, Jake ball, and Sam Warburton move into the starting side for the welsh forwards, Smith beating Rob Evans for a spot in the back row.
With the way this championship is shaping up, whoever loses this match might just go on to be the not-so-prized receivers of the wooden spoon.
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