The Six Nations often produces some very physical rugby and this year’s instalment could be particularly hard. England have set out their team to dominate physically, France can match beauty with brutality, Scotland have an abrasive pack, Ireland’s relatively new second row has regenerated the team, Wales has a number of big backs and Italy’s forwards are always up for a scrap.
England v Scotland
England are the team most likely to replicate their improving form of the Autumn internationals. They are big and strong and winning the gain line has become a very important part of how they play. The coaching group is coming together. Their analysis of the All Blacks was very good and they fixed up the poor sweeping from the loss against Australia. They are also becoming more accurate at getting their big carriers onto the ball. Tuilagi’s absence will shift the emphasis slightly, but when decisions like this are made for you by injury, new goals can sometimes emerge. It will be critical how Twelvetrees goes, not just for the match against Scotland, but for the development of England’s game. I was in Scotland in October and I was very impressed with Scotty Johnson’s ideas and thinking. I am not sure they have the firepower in the backs to win at Twickenham, but the Scottish pack will stand up to the physical stuff. England should win, but I don’t expect a blow out.
Wales v Ireland
It’s one of the matches over the years where the away team has often done well and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland win in Cardiff. Wales have had a number of injury problems, they are low on confidence after a bad sequence of results and the coming and going of Warren Gatland with his ankle injury and Lions duties has not helped continuity. A couple of years ago Ireland looked like a side growing too old together, but they seem to be regenerating. Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan will start a Six Nations game for the first time together, there is a new captain in Jamie Heaslip and the odd new player like Craig Gilroy who has lifted the team and the crowd. The four provinces are now all coached by New Zealanders and that too is a form of regeneration. I am very interested to see how they go. Not so long ago Ireland were maybe a bit stale, but now they almost look like a new team on the rise. I think they can edge a tight match.
Italy v France
I would like to see Francois Trinh-Duc start the match for France, although Frederik Michalak is likely to continue at 10. He is more mature these days, but Michalak’s bubble can still burst halfway through a game. Trinh-Duc has been irresistible for Montpellier this season and the team’s success has been built on the direction of their first five and an aggressive pack. I like his kicking game. He is an optimistic player and his kicks frequently carry a try-scoring potential. France has so much talent out wide with Mermoz, Fritz and Fofana. It will also be interesting to see how they use Bastereaud. I would like to see Mermoz and Fofana in midfield together, but Saint-Andre tends towards the conservative and may want a banger in there. But then selection is always more of an issue when you have as many good players as France. I was really impressed by Italy against New Zealand. I have never seen them run the ball as much and hope they continue to develop their rugby and have a real crack at France. It reminded me of the development of Argentina during the Rugby Championship. It may take a while for Italy to find the balance between attack and defence that works for them, but Brunel is doing a good job. Two years ago Italy won in Rome, but history will surely not repeat itself on Sunday.