The wait is over for Northern Hemisphere rugby fans, with the 2017 Six Nations Championship kicking off this weekend. Arguably the most competitive tournament in the championship’s history, there may well be a lot of shocks to come over the next few weeks and with a Lions tour to New Zealand on the horizon, the stakes are high for the four home nations with a number of their players looking to get one over on opposing players who come June may be competing for the same spot in the test team.
Scotland v Ireland
What better way to start the championship than a meeting between two old Celtic rivals. The most exciting and intriguing game of this opening weekend, Scotland will look to do what they have failed to so often in recent years, and get their campaign off to a flyer in front of a passionate Murrayfield crowd. In their way however stand an Ireland side who many are tipping as favourites for this season’s title, and having shaken off the poor form that cost them in last season’s tournament with victories over all three of the Southern hemisphere giants in 2016, Joe Schmidt’s side will be in confident mood ahead of the big kick-off. Impressive performances from both Scottish (Glasgow & Edinburgh) and Irish (Munster & Leinster) clubs in Europe this season means that many of the players involved in the two respective squads will come into the match with real confidence and with both nations playing an expansive and attractive brand of rugby in recent times, there should be no lack of try-scoring opportunities. With young Glasgow Prop Zander Fagerson replacing the injured WP Nel for the Scots and Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson stepping in to fill the void left by Jonny Sexton’s injury absence, much may depend on the performances of these two especially when replacing such key players for their respective nations. The battle at set-piece time should be an interesting one with both sets of forwards evenly matched, whilst the battle at half-backs will be equally exciting with both Conor Murray and Greig Laidlaw potentially vying for the Lions scrum-half berth. Ireland will look to the likes of CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien to punch holes in the opposition defence before freeing up the ball for the backs to have a go out wide. For Scotland, front-foot ball will also be key as they will look to get Finn Russell running at the line with the same conviction he has done for Glasgow of late. With a new midfield partnership for Ireland in Henshaw and Ringrose at centre, Scotland may look to exploit the pair’s inexperience as a partnership, although the Scots will have to be alert and aware of the threat posed by Conor Murray, both with his kicking and passing game. A match that could go either way.
England v France
The reigning Grand Slam champions begin the defence of their title stretched to the limit by injuries particularly amongst the forwards, and will expect a typically bruising encounter first up against Guy Noves’ French side. With key players such as the Vunipola brothers, Chris Robshaw and George Kruis missing from the pack, the onus will fall on their replacements to bring the same intensity and application that saw Eddie Jones’ side go through 2016 unbeaten. Up against a France side who always seem unpredictable, Jones will be desperate for his side to get off to a fast start at Twickenham to avoid giving Les Bleus any hopes of stealing a surprise win. Having surprised many by picking Elliot Daly over Jack Nowell on the wing, the England coach is once again proving he will not accept complacency amongst his players despite their excellent run last year. France come into the tournament with not many giving them a chance and their chances would not have been helped by Wesley Fofana being ruled out through injury but in Toulouse centre Gael Fickou they have another exciting talent who is finally starting to fulfil his potential. Amongst the forwards, England can expect a tough battle in the scrums with French Tight-head Uini Atonio in particular adding considerable bulk to the French pack, whilst Northampton Number 8 Louis Picamoles will be one to watch as always with ball in hand, with Wasps’ Nathan Hughes given the responsibility of providing ball-carrying momentum for England. Given the focus often being more on size than skill in the French Top 14, Jones may be hoping his players can come through this weekend relatively unscathed, especially with the injuries mounting up. England will start the match as clear favourites but will need to match the French up front, and hope that half-backs Youngs and Ford can pull the strings as effectively as they did last season and that Owen Farrell is accurate as ever from the kicking tee.
Italy v Wales
The opening weekend concludes in Rome where former Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea gets his first experience of the Six Nations as a coach with Italy looking to secure their first win over Wales in ten years. O’Shea may be encouraged by the Azzurri securing a maiden victory over South Africa in the autumn but their record in the Six Nations over the last few years makes for grim reading. Having finished bottom of the pile last year, the only way is up for O’Shea’s Italy and with a fixture list that offers up three home games this year, Italians are optimistic that they can restore some pride this season. Opening up against a Wales side short on confidence also offers up an opportunity, but despite that Wales will start the game as clear favourites and with bonus points being introduced for the first time this year will look to gain maximum points from what is on paper their easiest fixture of the lot this year. With Welsh coach Rob Howley including seven uncapped players in his squad for the tournament, Welsh fans are hoping that the fresh faces inject some energy into a team that recently has looked too predictable. Despite calls to include some of the young players in this game, Howley has gone with the tried-and-trusted once again, resisting the temptation to throw Ospreys fly-half Sam Davies in ahead of regional club-mate Dan Biggar. With Sam Warburton having been relieved of the captaincy to concentrate on his own game, the Cardiff Blues flanker starts once again at blindside flanker with Justin Tipuric continuing to excel on the openside. Alongside them Gloucester’s Ross Moriarty fills in for the injured Taulupe Faletau and will be expected to carry on from where he left off after impressive performances in the autumn. Elsewhere in the pack, Alun Wyn Jones takes the captaincy whilst Ospreys’ Nicky Smith has beaten Scarlets’ Rob Evans for the Number One jersey. For the Italians, captain Sergio Parisse will once again look to inspire his team and in fly-half Carlo Canna Italy may have finally found an outside half good enough to marshal a backline effectively. With the Welsh talking about evolving their game to play a more expansive style, it is perhaps a surprise that Sam Davies hasn’t been given a chance from the start in this game especially with Rhys Webb returning at scrum-half, but he could well play a significant part late in the game if Wales are in sight of a bonus point victory. To do that however Wales need to make sure victory is in the bag first and foremost and with Jonathan Davies and George North under pressure to keep their places, big performances may be needed this weekend to stave off the threat from others for their jerseys. Whilst Italy may be encouraged by recent Welsh performances that they can spring a surprise, recent history suggests Wales should target a bonus point victory to start their campaign and although they will likely need a fast start to keep a passionate home crowd quiet, they should have enough to get off to a winning start.