Jonathan Fitzpatrick takes an in-depth look at the opening round of fixtures in this year’s RBS Six Nations.
France vs Italy, Stade de France, 2:25pm (GMT)
Guy Noves has named his first starting XV as French coach, and there’s real excitement around his selection. The debuting Jonathan Danty forms a potentially excellent combination alongside Gael Fickou, Paul Jedrasiak is a real prospect in the second-row, while former sevens star Virimi Vakatawa starts on the wing despite not being involved in 15-a-side rugby for two years.
Perennial underachievers, France have been poor and rudderless for the last four years. They have no shortage of talent, but they have never hit their potential as a team. Noves should have been appointed as head coach years ago, and his old school approach flatlined in his latter years at Toulouse. However, he is still a huge improvement from Saint Andre.
Jacques Brunel has also named four debutants in his team this weekend, as a new era of Italian Rugby begins. Familiar faces include the lively Eduardo Gori, Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, and Alessandro Zanni, while the ever present Sergio Parisse will lead Italy once again.
Italy have their ups and downs as a side. They’ve shown improvement over the years but they haven’t developed into a consistently performing outfit. Spirit and determination has rarely struck the right balance of a decisive gameplan, and they haven’t progressed over the last decade as many expected.
A side in transition against a new look France, there is a significant gulf in ability between the two sides on paper. Italy’s squad could develop into a more successful unit than their previous stalwarts, but France have more proven talent and experience at their disposal. This game could be the beginning of a revival in French rugby.
Prediction: France by 18-20 points.
Scotland vs England, Murrayfield, 4:50pm
England’s first XV under Eddie Jones is hardly the revolutionary vision fans expected. He has stuck with the majority of Stuart Lancaster’s squad, making few changes. No Maro Itoje, Elliot Daly or Matt Kvesic in the 23, while Jack Clifford is confined to the bench. Owen Farrell is handed the 12 shirt inside George Ford, and Ben Youngs is dropped in favour of Danny Care. It’s Dylan Hartley’s first game as captain as a new era dawns, and we can expect a more ruthless England to take to the field Saturday evening.
The most puzzling selection must be that of James Haskell as openside flanker. Chris Robshaw faced huge criticism during his tenure as England’s 7, and Haskell is not the groundhog flanker England are craving. It’s the same backrow preferred by Lancaster last season, with the numbers on the backs of Robshaw and Haskell simply exchanged.
England may be amongst the favourites to lift the Six Nations trophy, but Scotland will not fear the English side set to visit Murrayfield. Vern Cotter has made huge strides with Scotland, and that stretches beyond the near upset of Australia in the Rugby World Cup. They’re playing with much more confidence, and are the more settled team as Cotter looks forward to his second Six Nations in charge.
The backrow battle will be the most interesting facet of this match after highlighting Jones’ selection. John Barclay and John Hardie will fancy their chances at disrupting England’s ball and causing them a headache at the breakdown, while Scotland’s backline looks dangerous should their forwards put them on the front foot.
Murrayfield is a nasty place to travel and Scotland are seeking a marquee victory in this campaign. England have a lot to prove however, and will be hugely focused on getting back to winning ways. Eddie Jones will have them well drilled, and well aware of the pressure they’re under. Scotland have it in them to cause an upset, but England should have enough to secure a narrow, hard-fought victory. The closest game of the weekend, even with the Ireland-Wales encounter.
Prediction: England by 3-4 points.
Ireland vs Wales, Aviva Stadium, 3pm
This is the standout fixture of the opening weekend. Ireland have a point to prove, and Wales need a win to set them on the path to Six Nations success. Clashes between the two nations have been quite heated in recent years, and with so much riding on this game, this match-up will be no different.
Ireland are chasing an unprecedented third title in a row, and Joe Schmidt has chosen to stick with his tried and trusted where possible amidst somewhat of an injury crisis. Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney are the latest casualties, as Tommy O’Donnell joins the debuting CJ Stander in the backrow. Simon Zebo is given the 15 shirt, while Nathan White and Andrew Trimble are the other starters.
Entering back into Schmidt’s system could be a good thing for Irish players who are on the verge of regaining their confidence, as they return to what has been an extremely successful environment over the last two seasons. If the likes of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray can play with a steely confidence, Ireland will be difficult to stop. The selection of Gareth Anscombe at full-back will give Ireland’s kicking game merit, as the Welsh back three selected will not be the most responsive to Ireland’s aerial challenge.
The major talking point from Warren Gatland’s line-up is the selection of Justin Tupiric and Sam Warburton together on the flank. A formidable combination that have wreaked havoc for Wales in the past. The selection of the pair indicates the ambitious nature of Wales’ gameplan. A fast-paced plan that looks to prevent Ireland from getting clean ball. They will also target the lineout as an area of advantage. Stander is in excellent form and O’Donnell has had a strong return from injury, but Ireland will miss the hardened experience of both Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien in this battle.
A lot of the game will hinge on whether or not Ireland can contain the Welsh flankers and withstand Wales’ brute force and tempo. However, Wales tend to start slow in the Six Nations, and an opening fixture in Dublin is an unenvious task.
Ireland come into this game as underdogs with many expecting them to falter. Underestimating the home side is dangerous though, and Rory Best and co. will aim to impose themselves early on and rattle Wales. If they can get an early lead, Wales will find it hard to chase and Ireland can win ugly.
Verdict: Ireland by 5 points.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena