A special mix of passion, power and prestige will cause an explosion, the ripple effect of which will be felt throughout the year, when the Six Nations gets underway this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Wales start the defence of their title with a tough tournament-opening tie against Ireland in Dublin while the Calcutta Cup will be on the line in Saturday’s other fixture when Scotland welcome England to Murrayfield. Sunday sees title favourites France kick-off their quest against Italy in Paris.
Ireland v Wales
Saturday, 05 February – 16:15
After snatching the title away from France down the finishing stretch in 2021, Wales start this year’s race, not in the inside track, but rather, the middle of the line-up. Injuries have gutted the Dragons to their core with talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau all unavailable. That’s 680 caps of experience lost! As a result, Wayne Pivac has turned to veteran flyhalf Dan Biggar to lead the team.
The daunting trip to Dublin first up compounds their problems. Instead of a favourable home fixture, they’re now set to lose ground on the title challengers right out of the blocks against a strong Ireland team and with a date with England at Twickenham around the corner (in Round Three), their chances of hanging onto the crown are slim (joint-fourth outright at 33.00).
With enviable depth, Ireland are firmly back in the title picture this year (second outright at 6.00). That they have to play their two fiercest title rivals – France and England – away from home are serious speed bumps, but not necessarily roadblocks. Overlooking a weakened Wales would be a mistake, one Andy Farrell won’t make, especially not first up.
A stellar Autumn Nations Series, an undefeated end-of-year campaign highlighted by a famous win over the All Blacks, showed Farrell’s plans are falling into place and they’ll kick-start 2022 in the same vein. I jumped on the line when it opened at 11.5. It’s now well-placed at 14.5, which I believe the hosts will sneak over.
Scotland v England
Saturday, 05 February – 18:45
Scotland will be backing themselves to underscore their status as the dark horses of the championship (joint-fourth outright at 33.00) with a statement win on Saturday. A team on the rise, they finished 2021 with massive wins over England and Tonga, in significance and scoreline respectively, and a loss to the Springboks would’ve done little to dim their spirits.
Moreover, top feeder team Edinburgh have been on a special run and are leading the way in the United Rugby Championship, so the bulk of the key players are in good form. More importantly, the Scots’ recent efforts against England will see them resume their Calcutta Cup rivalry with added confidence.
They’re 2-1-1 in their last four against Eddie Jones’ men including claiming their first win at Twickenham since 1983 last year. England did win the last Murrayfield meeting, though, a hard-fought 13-6 triumph in 2020. The loss of captain Owen Farrell is a big one, but they beat the world champions without him during their flawless Autumn Nations Series campaign.
The star of that win, Marcus Smith, is the face of the new generation, several of whom have earned maiden call-ups. That fresh balance of youth and experience and the way they closed out 2021 make them one of France’s biggest championship threats (third outright at 6.50) and should see them edge Scotland on a wet afternoon, despite their lengthy injury list.
France v Italy
Sunday, 06 February – 17:00
The luckless Azzurri have been handed the worst possible opening assignment. France look destined to capture their first Six Nations title since 2012 and are tipped to do so at 3.30. That’s a bet I took with conviction. By no means will it be a walk in the park, but Fabien Galthie’s Les Bleus tick all the boxes and have the added benefit of home ground advantage in the all-important showdowns with Ireland and England.
They laid down a serious marker over the course of 2021 and finished the year in the most spectacular way possible by annihilating the All Blacks. That they’re bolstered by the return of World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont further strengthens their chances, as does the painful lesson they learned after falling at the final hurdle in last year’s championship.
Italy, sadly, are no-hopers once again and set to hold onto the wooden spoon. When it comes to Sunday’s big line (34.5), it’s not as cut and dry as many would assume as 11 players including captain Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Pierre Bourgarit and South African-born Bernard le Roux missed the start of training camp due to Covid.
They are all back in camp but it’s hardly ideal preparation, so the French could struggle to get going. Italy scored very few points throughout 2021, so even if Les Bleus battle to find their groove early on, I see them pulling away eventually.