Friday, February 1, 2019

The Blagger's Guide Six Nations

February rolls around once again and with cupid for Valentine's Day and child filled streets for half term comes rugby into the public conscious. But, if you don't know your Adams from your Belleau, fear not; here's The Blagger's Guide to Surviving the Six Nations.

England
A woeful tournament last year was only salvaged by a big win against a poor Italy and a last gasp try against Wales, before an embarrassing result against the Barbarians. A mixed bag of an autumn where results didn't always match the performances, ended with a big win against a lacklustre Wallabies. Able to compete, but a very difficult game in Dublin could make or break them and someone's Grand Slam dreams will be shattered by Saturday evening.

Key Man: Without doubt England are a lesser team without bulldozing number 8 Billy Vunipola. Nobody is more important to them than Owen Farrell though; the ticking heartbeat of all England do in attack. His tackling will come under the microscope after a controversial autumn, but moving back to 10 will give him even more control.

One to Watch: Few have waited for their chance, nor deserved it as much as scrum half Dan Robson, but Sale youngster Tom Curry makes his Six Nations debut at 7 where England have had plenty of unanswered questions of late. 

Coach: A divisive character, Aussie Eddie Jones isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers. He has a reputation of his initial impact petering out and overstaying his welcome in the coaching role however and he needs a good tournament to silence the doubters.

What to Say: “England look to have got the backrow balance better than previously. If they can settle on a 9, 10, 12 axis they could compete.”

What NOT to Say: “We won a World Cup in 2003 you know.”

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us - Sparks

France 
2018 started with a heartbreaking defeat at the death to Ireland after 40 some phases and a Johnny Sexton drop goal that was longer than the Champs-Elysees. It ended with an uninspired defeat to Fiji. A few exciting young players have bolstered the squad, but France have a habit of making James McAvoy in Split seem stable.


Key Man: French rugby's Superman, hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado is very much a player who leads from the front. A cannonball of a runner and an all rounder as a hooker, Guirado is arguably the best number two in international rugby.

One to Watch: Tight head prop Demba Bamba stole the show at the Under 20s World Cup on the way to France lifting the title. At 20 years old, almost 20 stone and a little over 6 foot, Bamba is both one to watch and hard to miss.

Coach: With previous experience as assistant to Bernard Laporte and over seeing two victories against France during his tenure at Italy, Jacques Brunel is viewed as the man to bring in the French revolution ahead of the World Cup.

What to Say: “France have picked a team in French tradition; brutal hulking pack and flair behind. Questions remain over their discipline, temperament and coaching.”

What NOT to Say: “You never know which France will turn up.”

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
Personality Crisis - New York Dolls

Ireland
The team on everyone's lips. Ranked number two in the world and closing in on the All Blacks like Jaws on a skinny dipper. Grand Slam winners last year and followed it up by beating the All Blacks in the autumn. The team to beat and their final game against Wales in Cardiff could be a title decider.

Key Man: Despite the very capable and exciting Joey Carbery waiting in the wings, outside half Johnny Sexton is the current World Player of the Year and his game management is second to none.

One to Watch: Leinster fullback Jordan Larmour is electric and given game time is able to light up play with any touch of the ball.

Coach: Perhaps the best coach in world rugby currently, Joe Schmidt has rejuvenated Ireland and lifted them to one of the best teams in the world. His final Six Nations before he retires after the World Cup in Japan, he will be dreaming of even bigger things

What to Say: Ireland have depth all over the park and are two to three players - of international quality - deep in every position. Only two teams have completed back to back Grand Slams post war, but Ireland have a real chance.”

What NOT to Say: “Sure it's a big one for Ireland, but who are Germany and Canada playing this weekend?”

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
Higher Ground - Stevie Wonder

Italy
Two decades of Six Nations rugby has brought few tangible results to date. Domestic Italian rugby has been an era of instability during that time though. The restructuring of the club game in an attempt to make them and the national team more competitive has brought a few false dawns, but any pressure on replacing the Azzuri was lifted by a convincing performance against Georgia in the autumn. 

Key Man: Whilst many will still declare Sergio Parisse as Italy's great hope, but the talismanic 8 is starting to look every one of his 35 years. Benetton back row Sebastian Negri is in fine form though, works tirelessly and will be important to the Azzuri's campaign. So too will be Michele Campagnaro behind.


One to Watch: Lock David Sisi has 14 caps for England under 20s and will be recognisable to English club rugby fans for his time at London Irish and Bath. He's looked very impressive, in an otherwise below par Zebre team in the Pro14.

Coach: Irishman and London Irish stalwart Conor O’Shea has been charged with turning Italian fortunes around. Working more closely with the Italian clubs, there are signs of things changing for the game in Italy and Benetton are lighting up the Pro 14.

What to Say: Benetton are in fine form in the Pro 14 and sit second in their conference. With 18 players in the squad, they enter this tournament in some confidence

What NOT to Say: Parisse is the best 8 in the world.

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
Don't Stop - Fleetwood Mac

Scotland
The last ever winners of the Five Nations Championship, the turn of the millennium saw a downturn in fortune for Scotland. Murrayfield has become a fortress and Wales' trip to Edinburgh will be a difficult one. A championship win would come as a surprise, but it's not unthinkable for the underdogs. The Scottish backline of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour is perhaps the most underrated on the international stage, but Scottish coach Gregor Townsend will know their worth and has Darcy Graham - one of the Northern Hemisphere's most exciting prospects - available as cover.

Key Man: Plenty of players who will need to step up for Scotland. Stuart Hogg is an important spark, Finn Russell showed against England just how good he can be and the Gray Brothers work in the boiler house is vital. It's tighthead WP Nel that will be important to create the platform from which Scotland can play however.

One to Watch: Given the opportunity Adam Hastings can bring fans to the edge of the Murrayfield plastic seat. The latest member of Scotland's Hastings dynasty is unlikely to unseat Finn Russell at 10, but when given the opportunity expect him to take it with both hands.

Coach: Having had a little time to settle into the role, Gregor Townsend now needs to push Scotland to the next level and wins outside of Edinburgh will be key to that. Scotland will be looking to build on their demolition of England by snatching a rare victory at Twickenham and if France lose to Wales, Gregor will be confident of following suit and leaving Paris with a win.

What to Say: Scotland have been ravaged by injuries in the pack, but have better depth than they’ve had in a long time; especially at half back where they have had issues in previous years.

What NOT to Say: “They don't even have players good enough to play for the Lions.

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
Underdog - Turin Brakes


Wales
The tournament opener in Paris could set the tone for the Welsh campaign. Win and it could be all systems go for a title decider against Ireland; lose it and the trip to Murrayfield and visits of England and Ireland look much more daunting. Form suggests they are more than capable of ruining Ireland's party though and snatching the title from Rory Best's hands.

Key Man: No doubt about it, talismanic second row Alun Wyn Jones is the most important player to this Welsh squad. Such is the depth that every position has more than adequate cover, the Ospreys lock offers something that comes around once in a generation though and is irreplaceable in those terms.

One to Watch: With the Welsh selection policy all bar ruling Rhys Webb out of the World Cup in Japan, Wales needed more depth at scrum half. Cue Blues 9 Tomos Williams who is putting pressure on first choice Gareth Davies with his tempo, confidence and aggression.

Coach: Despite not always being the most loved character in Welsh rugby, Warren Gatland has been hugely successful since taking the reins. His first game ended Wales' 20 year run of defeats at Twickenham on the way to a Grand Slam. This is is final Six Nations and he will want to add to his impressive record.

What to Say: Wales are in great form and on a 9 game unbeaten run, their biggest since 1999.

What NOT to Say: GIVE IT TO SHANE!!!

If They Were a Song They Would Be...
We Stand a Chance - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers