Read on for our look ahead to a feast of rugby over the next few months in our “Six Nations Preview 2021”.
Title photograph by Simone Ramella – Flickr | CC BY 2.0
Rugby In The Spotlight
We might forgive you for thinking the appetite for the 2021 Six Nations might have been diminished. Especially with the last one only ending at the end of October! Well, not a bit of it! The anticipation levels are as high as ever!
To temper this enthusiasm, however, the recent news that the former England hooker Steve Thompson and seven other former players are starting a claim against rugby’s governing bodies have cast a shadow over the game. They claim that they have developed permanent brain damage due to repeated blows to the head. To exacerbate this, every member of the group has recently been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia.
It remains to be seen whether this action will have a serious effect on the game. Football is already in the middle of a debate about whether the authorities should outlaw heading. There are quite possibly major rule changes afoot. Consequently, we should be aware that the game as we know it at the moment might not be around for much longer.
France And England Favourites
Right, with all that out of the way, let’s get on with the serious business of predicting how the 2021 Six Nations is going to go!
If we use the Autumn Nations Cup as a reference point, we can see that two teams would appear to be favourites. Those teams are England and France. France only missed out on the 2020 Six Nations on points difference although it’s hard to say that England didn’t deserve it. They outclassed France in the second half of their match-up in Paris, but had just left themselves too much to do after a poor first-half display in which they went in 17-0 down. They nearly blew it against a marauding Welsh side in the most entertaining and pulsating game of the series, but managed to hold on and win 33-30.
Let’s have a look at how the fixtures fall this year. The way the Six Nations match-ups work, I notice that England always have the ‘blue’ teams (France, Italy and Scotland) at home or away depending on the season. This year, they have them at home. This means ‘Le Crunch‘ is on gameday 4 at Twickenham and the game could go a long way to deciding who finishes first. Now obviously and rather ominously, Ireland and Wales will be lying in wait at their respective fortresses and it will be one hell of a task to come away from there with two wins.
France are the ultimate conundrum when it comes to their rugby team. Never was the term “mercurial” more aptly deserved. Now, however, shock horror, it looks as though they have also acquired a hard-nosed consistency. Defence coach Wales’ very own Shaun Edwards has given them a completely new complexion. You just had to watch the way their third-string side gave a first-choice England side all they could handle in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup back in December. France’s away games this year are in Ireland, Italy and England.
Wales In Turmoil
Wales! What can we say about them? Wayne Pivac’s record in charge doesn’t make for great reading: played 10, won 3. Everything seemed to be so rosy when Gatland left and it really did look like they were on the verge of something great. Now, 10 games on, having lost seven out of their last eight and without a win against a major side since a one-point over France in Ōita in October 2019, they look a shadow of the side that won the 2019 Six Nations and ranked as the number one side in the world in August the same year.
Quite why is maybe more related to goings-on off the field as opposed to on it. I’m not going to use the lack of game time over lockdown excuse because look at what Argentina did to the All Blacks a few weeks ago after not having played for 13 months! As significant as Gatland’s departure has been the loss of other non-playing staff such as Sam Warburton, Robin McBryde and Byron Hayward. Shaun Edwards has also gone (see paragraph six) and this has been felt particularly hard. Additionally, Stephen Jones’ influence on the attacking unit has so far not borne fruit.
The men at the top are new to the job as well, of course. WRU members Ryan Jones, Martyn Phillips and Gareth Davies have all recently departed. Rather worryingly, Ex-Performance Director Jones has not even been replaced.
Pivac has a clause in his contract that means his role can be reviewed after the Six Nations. He is certainly under pressure now to deliver in the next three months!
Ireland And Scotland Evenly Matched
Ireland and Scotland, while both formidable opponents, are probably going to end up fighting for third and fourth place. It’s incredibly finely balanced fixture-wise as Scotland have England and France away, but are at home to Ireland. Who will finish third is very hard to predict, but I’m going to have to go with Ireland. Scotland are maybe the more fluid attacking unit with Hogg and likely Russell returning, but Ireland look a good grinding side that will cause everybody problems.
Italy will be making up the numbers and, while it’s good an even number of competitors means no-one has to have a “rest” weekend any more, it’s also true that Italy provide little or no opposition. They are now merely a “whipping boy” you play against to boost your points-for tally (minus 134 in the last edition!). It’s been five years and 22 matches since they last won a Six Nations game. Statistics like these make you wonder whether they should be able to continue in the competition. Maybe a way around this would be for the bottom team to play off against the next strongest European contender. That step would make sure they’re worthy of a valuable place in the Six Nations set-up.
My predicted final standings (for what it’s worth):
If you would like to read more about the 2011 Six Nations, may we recommend this very comprehensive feature on Rugby World?
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