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GUINNESS SIX NATIONS ONES TO WATCH XV

In his Autumn Nations Predictions blog last year, Charlie picked his players to watch from each team in the Nations Cup. After receiving good feedback, and hot on the heels of his recent Guinness Six Nations 2021 Predictions blog, we are thrilled to welcome Charlie back to share more wisdom.

Hi Everyone. My players to watch for each team in the Nations Cup got some good feedback, so I thought I’d include a similar feature for this article in a starting XV format. These players are not the big names we expect to have strong performances, but some slightly lower profile members who I think could really make a mark this tournament.

Without further ado, here are my picks:

With the loss of Mako Vunipola to injury and Joe Marler for family reasons, Baby Rhino becomes England’s only senior loose head in the squad. His power and athleticism is frightening and his highlights reel impressive, but making a 20-minute impact off the bench is very different to leading the line through a tournament. If he can step up to the mark, I see him quickly taking on Tendai Mtawira’s mantle of best loose head in the world.

A veteran test player, the sheriff has been out for some time with injuries. Wales’ set piece has struggled hugely in his absence, and his return in February could shift the balance of their fortunes with his leadership and experience.

Ferguson has significantly improved as a player in nearly every area of his game. His scrummaging is powerful, he carries well in the loose and is even prone to the odd comedy try. Along with his partner Sutherland, he is becoming pivotal to a weapon Scotland have long been seeking in the tight.

Henderson could be the missing link for Ireland. While his Leinster counterpart James Ryan (deservedly) claims more plaudits, his success has come at the omission of Henderson due to their playing similarities. However, I believe the pair could be integral to matching the physicality of England and France this tournament. Look out for him smashing rucks, tackles and carries alike for 80 minutes.

After announcing himself to the international rugby scene in the early 2010s, poor form and injuries have gradually phased big Richie Gray out of the Scotland team, with his brother Jonny becoming one of their most important players. However he is back to his galavanting self in the Pro14, and I would love to see him recapture the international form that saw him picked for the 2013 British and Irish Lions Tour.

This guy’s got a big future. He was part of the second-string French side that nearly dismantled England last December and is waiting for his opportunity to establish himself as a regular starter. Intelligent, strong, athletic, there’s not much this guy can’t do and this is being shown increasingly for club and country. As a natural open side, he will struggle to displace Ollivon, but I can still see him slotting in alongside the skipper and Aldritt to form a formidable back row this year.

With the injuries to star player Jake Polledri and the dependable Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri will be tasked with bolstering the Italian back row this tournament. A native Zimbabwean, he has followed in the footsteps of compatriot David Pocock to represent his resident nation in international rugby. A hard tackler and break down menace, Negri’s performances could prove vital to Italy’s success this tournament.

Sam Simmonds has been the best number 8 in Europe for over a year and…. Wait he’s not in the squad? Not even the f**king SHADOW SQUAD??

Navidi has been sorely missed by the Welsh team. His industrious carrying and relentless tackling make him a thorn in the side of any opposition. His work rate and physical presence will provide firepower to a team who have looked sub-par up front this last year.

Since the retirement of Greig Laidlaw following the 2019 World Cup, Ali Price has been Townsend’s first choice scrum half. Whilst always a live wire, Price has added a maturity to his game at Glasgow that is seeping into his international form. The service he provides Russell will dictate Scotland’s tempo this tournament and I see him stepping up to the challenge.

Whilst hardly an unknown player, I feel that George Ford was not awarded the praise he deserved in 2020. Owen Farrell will always dominate the headlines, but Ford was one of England’s best players with his game management and pass variety providing the platform for the team to operate on. A big factor in England’s success, watch out for his quiet brilliance.

Wheels. This kid has them. After burning Premiership defences for fun with Gloucester, Rees-Zammit has made the step up to test rugby with relative ease. He has not shown his full abilities yet, and I’m itching to see a chance for him to really stretch his legs this time.

I’ve always been a big fan of this guy and I really hope he can rediscover his form from a couple of years prior. Often referred to as a simple crash ball twelve, Aki combines his Samoan power with better hands, pace and feet than people give him credit for. A strong ball player and stronger defender, Ireland look assured in midfield with his presence.

After turning down white for blue, Bath centre Cam Redpath could be set to make his Scotland debut this tournament. A well-rounded centre with good skills to accompany his athleticism, Redpath could prove a serious asset to Townsend’s ambitious back line.

Eligible for both England and Italy, Eddie Jones has not missed the opportunity to snaffle up in-form Odogwu for his first cap. While he is unlikely to displace tried and tested starters Jonny May or Anthony Watson, his scintillating Premiership form indicates we could be in for some very entertaining cameos off the bench.

This guy is silk. He’s quick, composed, has great positional sense and an absolute canon of a right boot. Making his debut last year, he marked it with an 85m clearance kick and a win over the English, and has just kept on improving. Expect another strong outing from the tidy youngster.

There you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. If you disagree feel free to let me know your thoughts.

Charlie

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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