It is that time of the year again, the time when there is experimentation with partnerships, skilful foot-work, and violent collisions. Sadly, it is not the first Big Cheese of second semester, it is the start of the 2016 Six Nations. With the squads having been released last week, numerous questions spring to mind: can anyone beat England? Or can England beat anyone? Too bold? Too young? And where is Brian O’ Driscoll?
There are five words to describe England’s squad: Eddie Jones, bold, young, and uncapped. England have fully undergone a ‘Jonesification’; the new squad includes 10 inexperienced and uncapped players, including Luke Cowan-Dickie and Elliot Daly. England needed to do something dramatic after their disastrous World Cup, but will it be effective – especially since there is a distinct lack of experience, proven to be vital for a successful tournament?
England face Scotland first on February 6 and in truth there are only two outcomes. The new look and inexperienced England team will either hit the ground running and breathe new life into English rugby, or their inexperience will get the better of them, forcing them to concede penalties and ultimately allow Scotland to take control.
The Scottish squad, in theory, should do well this Six Nations, and the team Cotter has picked is a mix of exciting players and the go-to guys. The second row defensive machine of the Gray brothers is on fantastic form, with a stellar club season behind each of them. New squad members like WP Nel and John Hardie are also on sterling form. However, this is where Scotland will start to struggle as a number of other key players are recovering from injuries, or just have not hit top levels of form this season. For instance, Hogg has yet to find his form (even in his preferred position as fullback) while Scotland’s other backs are in trouble as well – Bennett and Visser have leg injuries. Scotland could dazzle us, but the squad still consists of strong forwards and troublesome backs.
The Irish are the favourites to win, but like Scotland face a host of injury problems – and even worse is that this will be a championship without any of the old Irish legends, namely Brian O’ Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. The team has some very notable exceptions; Leinster front-row pair Cian Healy and Mike Ross, Ulster’s Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy, and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony are all ruled out through injury. Even so, the squad is pretty much that of Ireland’s World Cup Campaign, and still includes a combination of backs that any Lions coach would die for. Replacing Paul O’Connell as captain is experienced hooker Rory Best, and all eyes are going to be on Ireland to see how they cope without their legends. However, their versatile and very able team have the best opportunity to shush their critics.
Warren Gatland cannot be feeling optimistic if he is already calling Ireland the favourites to take this year’s championship, but has he any right to dismiss his own team? Well no, not really. All the old stalwarts are lining up: Alun wyn Jones, Jamie Roberts, Sam Warburton, George North, and Dan Lydiate are all fit, hardly a second-choice team so far. Wales’ favourite, Halfpenny, is injured, but it is not doom and gloom because Biggar is back with his shuffling shoes ready. Wales, like in the 2015 tournament, has the right balance between experience and youth, and even though some players may not have been firing on all cylinders all season, the Six Nations always brings out the fire in the Welsh. There may not be a Moriarty included in this years’ team, but it does not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that the Welsh are certainly contenders for the championship.
Image courtesy of: Paddy McCann.