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GUINNESS SIX NATIONS 2021 PREDICTIONS

Hello there, you gorgeous people. Just when you thought lockdown couldn’t get any worse, here I am with another rugby nause predictions blog. At the time of writing (25th Jan), the Guinness Six Nations are due to go ahead as planned, so until the rugby world implodes I will write as if it plans to keep on spinning.

After last year’s effort saw me only predict Italy correctly (give the man a medal), I seriously upped my game for the Autumn Nations Cup towards the tail end of 2020 with 8/8 placed correctly. I’m hoping to keep this rich form going, and after my partner pointed out my recent blog was in fact longer than her dissertation proposal, I’m aiming to do it in significantly fewer words. So take your banana loaf out the oven, say yes to the second bottle of gin and enjoy me making a fool of myself nearly a year on from my first predictions outing.

Here are my 2021 Six Nations predictions:

Serving as my only correct prediction from last year, it almost seems redundant calling Italy’s finish in the tournament nowadays. It has been years since they won a tournament fixture and I don’t see this year being any different. However, their team is better than I and many others gave it credit for in an international context.

While they remain the Six Nations’ whipping boy, the one off Nations Cup tournament in November exposed the disparity between the quality of the European tier 1 nations and their most successful tier 2 counterpart, Georgia. While the teams did not face each other directly, there was plenty of evidence to show that Italy are still an elite level rugby nation, just not in comparison to the giants they frequently share the field with. With a solid front row, Jake Polledri bullying defences and the control of Garbisi and Allan in the back line, Italy have a foundation to build a strong team in the near future. In the meantime, I don’t think anyone is predicting anything but a wooden spoon performance this time.

I’ll try not to make this list a ‘pick where they finished last year’ event, but this is a scenario I struggle to look past. Wales are not in good shape and have shown little sign of improvement over the last year.

Wayne Pivac has had the misfortune of inheriting an ageing core of significant players without a plethora of young stars knocking down the door to replace them. He cannot be blamed for this, however the squad difficulties seem to be accompanied by a lack of tactical dynamism that has rendered the outfit fairly uncompetitive against top sides over the last year, particularly in the late stages of 2020. The return to fitness of players like Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies will always boost the squad, with the likes of Nick Tompkins and Louis Rees-Zammit also beginning to step up and spearhead the new era Pivac is trying to usher in. Nevertheless, I don’t believe significantly better than the likes of Ireland or Scotland, and without the tactical pragmatism of Gatland to get the most out of them I can’t see them having a strong outing.

I’m not sold on Ireland under Andy Farrell. They haven’t been bad, in fact they’ve looked very competent for the most part and brilliant in flashes during his short tenure. However, I have seen little evidence to suggest they remain a team who can regularly compete for Six Nations titles, as we have come to expect of them over the last decade.

The Schmidt era of Irish rugby was defined by abrasive physicality and meticulous tactical game management; a simple system which he took a scalpel to over and over to find a perfect formula the players all knew inside out and were able to implement against all manner of opposition (including two victories over New Zealand). Much of this successful team makes up the current Ireland squad, but what made it possible was the world-class brilliance of its halfbacks, Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Neither player is near the level they were when dismantling the All Blacks, and this decline is illustrated plainly in their lack of direction in tough games over the last year.

Furthermore, the games against England last year showed that they have the potential to get bullied by aggressive packs, and this weakness will need addressing if they are to regain their footing at near the top of elite international rugby. Their back row remains strong and the likes of Iain Henderson returning should help bolster their engine room in tough fixtures. They could easily finish higher, but I’ve got a feeling they’ll perform slightly below what is expected.

Aye, it’s the first dodgy pick alert. I will be totally unsurprised if Scotland finish lower than this, but I’ve got an inkling they might prove to be somewhat of a wildcard. Gregor Townsend’s tenure has been successful overall, yet the side strangely seem to over and underachieve simultaneously each year.

On their day, they have shown they have the talent and flair to skittle anyone. They humbled England in Murrayfield before holding them to a scintillating draw at Twickenham the following year; France would currently be Grand Slam champions without their big upset, and victories over Wales have punctuated a period of memorable games for the side. However, for all these victories they have not had a realistic crack at the title in this time, and while they have pulled off some shocks they have often failed to win key games that could have compounded their success.

While I don’t necessarily see this as the year they break free and challenge for the title, I think they are poised to establish themselves as an elite force in the tournament. The outstanding ability of their back line finally seems to be mirrored in their forward pack; Rory Sutherland has been a revelation at loose head, the Fagerson brothers bring powerful carrying into the mix and the line out menace of Richie Gray returns to accompany his workhorse brother Jonny in the engine room. It’s a pack that finally looks like it could provide the service required to set the likes of Finn Russell, Cam Redpath and Stuart Hogg alight. Watch out for the Scots this year, there might be something brewing.

My top two have swapped so many times that I almost had to flip a coin to decide, and even then I’ll just change it again.

England were the best international team that played in 2020, winning the Six Nations and the Nations Cup with relative confidence (save a nail biting finish against France in November). Following a slow start, they kicked on to develop a less attractive but flawlessly effective system of physicality and tactical kicking that saw them overwhelm most teams. The experience of Ford, Farrell and Youngs guided the midfield whilst the ferocity of Itoje, Underhill and Vunipola dominated the battles up front in nearly every game. So why aren’t I predicting them to win?

For all England’s power and kicking accuracy, I worry that they lack dynamism in open play. Good rugby teams are built on solid fundamentals of the game, the 85%; the defence, kicking, fitness and set piece. Great rugby teams have that 85%, then add to it with small percentages that take them from competent to outstanding. England may have the best foundations in the world right now, but are slightly deficient in those pieces of electricity and magic that would make them a truly world class team.

Regardless, they are still one of the best teams in the world and could very easily prove me wrong by retaining the title. But if we are looking at that 1% or 2% extra magic on top of great foundations, then look no further than my top pick.

My prediction of France to win the title last year was one of risk and optimism based on a lot of unknown variables I thought might come together successfully in a short space of time. While they just missed out, it was a closely fought race that they will feel unlucky to have come second in. This year, the prediction is made with significantly more confidence.

France are a superb outfit quickly on their way to becoming potential world beaters. Enough has been said about the abilities of Antoine Dupont (in my opinion the best player in the world) and his halfback partner Romain Ntamack that I won’t go too deeply into it. Even with the latter missing the first couple of rounds with a broken jaw, Matthieu Jalibert is an outstanding deputy and the team will benefit from a fresh Ntamack later in the tournament. Outside of this heralded pair, you have an underrated second row of Willemsen and Le Roux, classy loose forwards Ollivon and Aldritt, on top of back line operators like Bouthier and Thomas, not even mentioning the terrifying threat of Vakatawa.

It is a team brimming with star quality, coupled with a rock solid defence engineered by Shaun Edwards and a fitness not often witnessed by French teams in the past. If this team comes close to reaching their potential, I see them being a dominant force in international rugby for years to come. They are my pick for the 2021 Six Nations Champions.

Final table:
1. France
2. England
3. Scotland
4. Ireland
5. Wales
6. Italy

And that’s it! I hope those who are still reading this enjoyed themselves, if you disagree feel free to let me know your thoughts. I’ll be back with another blog on Friday featuring my ones to watch XV. Until then, stay safe out there everyone!

Charlie