Updated: Mar 29
It's always a bit risky predicting a competition with such a rich history of upsets, controversies and rivalries. Each game has become a final for each nation (barring Italy of course, sorry Italy). Also, with the current circumstances happening globally, each team has to face some severe adversity before even making it to the first fixture. Whether its England's coaching Covid crisis, the French domestic sides withdrawing from European competitions or the Italian injury crisis, this tournament will be far from the often predictable competition we've had previously. Also, it's only been two months since these sides last met two months ago at the ANC... There's bad blood, revenge and pride all on the line here... So, what are our predictions?
5. Italy's Game-plan Will DRASTICALLY Change
Over the last decade, we have come to expect one big game from the Italians each competition. They've beaten France, Wales and Scotland previously and have given England and Ireland some real problems in must-win games. Do I think they will win a game this year? No, probably not. Unfortunately, I think we should expect a much improved Welsh setup, an exciting and devastatingly attacking Scottish side and an ever-pragmatic English team. Every side will have visibly improved upon last year's tournament. Italy on the other hand have been a side undergoing a long term transition. Coaching outgoings, domestic side reformations and the retirement of their best players in Ghiraldini, Parisse and Zanni, has meant they can't rely on the erratic brilliance of their pack.
They've been slowly undergoing a major structural change, becoming a far more tactically versatile team especially in the 10/12 axis. Canna has become an irreplaceable asset and the depth at 10 with Garbisi and Allan is the best they've had in years. Also with Polledri and Steyn, they finally have some mean, disruptive loose forwards who can match the physicality of other nations. It's a huge shame that Italy missed out on capping Odogwu this Winter, and an even bigger loss that Minozzi has pulled out; I felt Italy were gearing for an almost Argentinian-like change. I think they will start to adopt a far more expansive, territory driven game; finally choosing to play in the right areas of the pitch. A common frailty for all the home nations is lack of depth and decisiveness in their back three, I can easily see Italy using the boot of Canna and Garbisi to drop bombs on Daly, Watson, Adams, Hogg and co. If they can create a disruptive, anti-Rugby game plan like they did under O'Shea, I think this could be the year for them to really turn up in each game.
4. England Will Lose Twice
This is a very spicy call... But I think this is the year that England come unstuck against the bookies underdogs. Although England have made it routine to win-ugly and suffocate their opposition, to many fans it has felt that a run of bad luck is on the cards. With the Covid crisis among the coaching staff, the selection of out-of-form backs and the reliance on dominant forwards' performances, you have to feel as though this English side is declining rather than improving.
If you look through the squad and highlight the players who are out-of-form and/or have had no game time in the last two months, you can pick from Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola. That's over half of the side that hasn't played in a couple of months/are grossly out of form at the moment. Regardless of the unbelievable class of players like Itoje and George, match-readiness is a very real thing; when push comes to shove and a game is in the balance in the final 20 minutes, are these players going to be able to match the fitness of their opposite number?
Also we've seen Eddie Jones' game-plan get found out before when we saw England finish 5th in 2018; this was down to stagnant team selection of out-of-form players, a 10/12 axis that got easily shut down, a lack of cutting edge in the back three and aerial anonymity around the park... Sound familiar?
I think England's game-plan of keeping the ball in play for just 32 minutes a match and trying to strangle the other teams territory game will be countered far easier this time around. England's kicking game is far too erratic and lacking real quality; Farrell's goal kicking has been dreadful, Ford is historically inconsistent kicking out of hand, Daly doesn't seem to be a preferred kicking option anymore and Slade is playing a far more abrasive role at Exeter so might have lost his edge. Against Wales in the ANC, we got a glimpse into how this strategy could go wrong. Halfpenny, Adams and Biggar aerially dominated England throughout and hurt them on the kick return, pinning England back consistently... So who do I think will beat England?
Scotland are in with a good chance; it's pragmatism against flair. Exciting, in-form running backs against a comfy England kicking-game could be fascinating to watch. It is at Twickenham though which has become a fortress again in recent years. Scotland also have some loose forwards who are happy to s***house their way into the bad books of their opposite number; with a lot on the line in the first game, could that distract England's excellent pack?
France, the favourites, have already brought England to the brink on a couple of occasions; this very much feels like a trilogy fight. We have seen that the French are the only side to match them in dominant collisions, we've seen Dulin, Ntamack and Jalibert rip apart their kicking game and we know Dupont, Thomas and Vakatawa are capable of game-changing moments. It's at Twickenham again, so you can't possibly bet against the men in white, but it has quickly become THE grudge match each competition.
What about Ireland? Comfortably beaten for two years in a row now, being beaten up by a hyper-aggressive England pack... Will they change the game plan? You'd have to think so. I'd like to see them really attack the outside channels; I know Slade is an excellent tackler, but I think he would be better to isolate than the very coverable Ford/Farrell combo. Throw Aki, Henshaw and Doris down his line, open some gaps on their inside and really stretch this England line; get those big forwards moving around!
We've also seen Wales give England a really hard time whilst being out of form themselves... It could be anyone's game to beat England this year, I'm predicting that two of the five will.
3. Scotland Will Come Second
Madness right? Absolute madness... Scotland are currently 100/1 to win the Six Nations this year and I think if you're a betting man, that's the bet to make. Their squad is the most rounded, deep and qualitative I've seen it in the last decade. They have flair in buckets with Hogg, Russell, Redpath, Harris and van der Merwe in the backline, they have huge forwards like the Gray brothers and Watson, and players picked purely on great form like big Gary Graham. We've seen them take apart France, grind out a close loss to England and completely outclass Wales, can they go all the way? I'm not sure... I think each match is a winnable fixture for Townsend's men, not something that I would have said even a year ago. If they can avoid any major injuries or Covid outbreaks, they have more than enough talent on the pitch to take apart any of these national sides. In honesty, I think they will narrowly lose the crown to following side...
2. France Will Win The Six Nations
Being an Englishman, I hate being negative or pessimistic, but I have to agree with the overall consensus that it feels like France's year. They will be sore after narrowly losing both the Six Nations and the ANC to England last year, but with selection now no longer dictated by the domestic sides, no serious injuries impacting their preparation and the side a year further into their Shaun Edwards education, you have to think that France have all the tools to win this tournament.
Not only do I think they will win the Six Nations, I firmly believe that they will absolutely scalp another top contender. I'm talking a 30 point winning margin against one of either England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Other than the odd defensive lapse, France should have done this on a couple of occasions last year.
Another mini-prediction, is that I don't think it will be a Grand Slam. I think France will slip up away against England or perhaps get beaten up by the Scottish again, but I think they should comprehensively put away the other sides.
1. Paolo Odogwu, Harry Randall, Dan Robson & Beno Obano Will Get Less Than 30 Minutes Game Time COMBINED
I thought we would save something special for the final prediction. If history has taught us anything, Jones does not like to give game time to players who aren't absolutely necessary to his side winning. Even if they are losing, he won't drastically change anything and prefers to stick to the players he knows and loves. Dan Robson has had around 20 minutes of game time in the last two Six Nations, players like Max Malins have only come on for cameo's when England have already buried the game and Beno Obano is constantly being dropped for no reason (he hasn't even got a cap yet).
I do think Odogwu and Randall will get on the pitch just to get them capped, but I can't see them anywhere near the starting squad for the big games against fellow contenders; heck, they won't even allow Willis near those games and he was the best player in the northern hemisphere last year.
Robson will only be called upon when Ben Youngs is literally becoming unwatchable and with Randall now in the squad too, you have to worry that he won't even get a sniff of international Rugby.
30 Minutes is what I predict they will get as a collective, and that sums up England's selection policy.
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