The commencement of the 2018 edition of the Six Nations heralds the return of international rugby, Eddie Jones, centuries-old gripes against the English, fantastic Italian hair, warm pubs and industrial amounts of Guinness to our lives.
It also means the return of a conflict as old as time itself, for as night turns to day and day turns to night, from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, Ballymena to Brighton, pubs in February and March will erupt in to wholly preventable arguments as to which TV’s will show the rugby and which will show the football.
Upon arrival on the cold shores of Britain in early 2014, I sought to integrate and ingratiate myself with the locals by deciding to watch Northern Hemisphere rugby for the first time in my life.
Expecting to have to subject myself to ‘thrilling’ 6-3 victories, whispers of the existence of outside backs and standing ovations for the fourth scrum reset, I instead discovered the best rugby crowds in the world and a fascinating mix of playing approaches, with personalities and characters abound on the field and in the coaching and commentary boxes (Stuart Barnes the notable, tedious exception).
Of course, it helps that the first two editions I witnessed (2014 and 2015) were thrilling in nature, with the final day shootout of 2015 living long in the memory. There were tries raining down on every match in unprecedented fashion as Wales, Ireland and England desperately tried to boost their points differential. The valiant loss is increasingly becoming unacceptable and obsolete up here.
It is one of life’s simple pleasures to sit or stand in a warm, preferably fire-lit pub, pint in hand while it’s freezing cold outside, watching and listening to a packed Millennium Stadium, Murrayfield, Twickenham or Lansdowne Road sing and roar and be deathly silent for kickers.
That’s before we even mention the gloriously petty airing of grievances for perceived historical slights, most of which involve heavy geo-political overtones, all-in brawls, biased refs and French eye-gouging.
The home straight to next year’s World Cup is slowly coming over the horizon, and every Test match counts towards building confidence for that, so here is my slightly informed, slightly biased preview of each team.
There’s honestly not much else than can be said about this Eddie Jones England team – they win, they execute the basics superbly, have pace and are deserved favourites. They also have likeable players (blasphemy I know) in Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw, Jonny May and Anthony Watson. This is of course heavily outweighed by the fact that any squad with the colossally annoying Mike Brown, Joe Marler and Dylan Hartley is beyond remittal. Injuries the main worry.
They sacked their coach a few weeks ago and their president is under police investigation – a pretty quiet month for French rugby standards. They don’t make it easy to not use the “which French team will show up” cliché, but they will either ruin one of the home nations title aspirations with a gritty win, or there’ll be a player-led revolt by week three. Probably both.
For the first time in recorded history there is an expectation that Scotland could possibly win a sporting tournament. My personal favourite to watch, the Scots have gone to the next level under Gregor Townsend after the fine rebuilding job undertaken by Vern Cotter, and they boast arguably the most exciting player in world rugby, Stuart Hogg.
Came within a whisker of beating the All Blacks a couple of months ago and have made Murrayfield a relative fortress. Despite the shellacking at the hands of England last year, they’ll be more mentally steeled this year.
Always seem to be perpetual favourites or thereabouts, Joe Schmidt’s men have been through it all in the past five years, with the only potential downfall being depth in case injuries strike.
Talisman Johnny Sexton is not getting any younger or less concussion-prone, and his presence is key whenever they play. Alas the IRFU also have the perfect model in central contracts while monitoring the workload of players. All four provinces performing strongly.
Give in Warren, give in. Forget these fanciful notions of “expansive rugby” and “passing more than once in a phase”, just sign Jamie Roberts, George North and Alex Cuthbert to 20-year deals ensuring they can never be dropped, and re-name the sport ‘Warrenball’ in Wales. We know it’s what you truly desire. In all seriousness they will struggle mightily without Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies spark.
As much as I like and admire Conor O’Shea, this will probably be the 19th year in a row that Italy disappoint, despite how cool and funny the no-ruck strategy was against England last year. One win will be a success.
Winners Prediction: Ireland (in bold)