Is there a better annual international sporting tournament than rugby’s Six Nations? If you can find one, please let me know, as this is a competition boasting long-standing, intricate rivalries, fierce rugby and entertainment aplenty for even the most casual sports fan. It’s a spectacle that acts as the perfect sporting chaperone, from its traditional commencing in the bleak midwinter, right through to its conclusion in the midst of spring, with all the promise and good cheer the season brings. On a more serious sporting note, with the World Cup looming, the stakes really couldn’t be any higher for any of the teams involved in this year’s main event with regards to perfecting tactics and teams prior to the big quadrennial showcase.
To help me analyse the tournament, who better to recruit than my two most immediate predecessors in the role of Saint Sport Editor: former Editor-in-Chief Andrew Sinclair and current News Editor Seoras Lyall. Below lie our best individual efforts at tackling the most pertinent questions the competition poses. Let the debate commence!
Firstly, your predictions for tournament winner:
Andrew Sinclair: It is exceptionally difficult to look past Ireland. After winning the Grand Slam in last year’s competition, Joe Schmidt’s side went on to win their first series in Australia for 39 years and then secured their second win over New Zealand in as many years during the Autumn Internationals. Factor in that this year is a World Cup year, and Ireland are your favourites. Wales have moved away from the more traditional “Warrenball” style common for much of the Gatland reign and are now playing a more expansive style and could well be Ireland’s biggest challengers (the two teams play each other in the final round of the tournament). England are the best of the rest as Scotland probably have too many first-choice forwards out injured to mount a real challenge, but Eddie Jones’ side don’t quite look where they did when he first took over and will probably finish third.
Seoras Lyall: Like Andrew, I must admit it is very difficult to look beyond Ireland as winners this year. They are a team full of confidence and have a host of world-class talent, including World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton. However, it would be reckless to completely rule out the Welsh, who on paper have a strong squad. Meanwhile the English have been haggard by injuries including the “likeable” Owen Farrell. The loss of Hamish Watson is a huge blow for Scotland, however the recalled John Hardie was gigantic in our 2015 World Cup campaign. For the last couple of years, we’ve had a genuine chance of winning it. Our backline is electric, but I fear that all it takes is something like Ali Price’s loose pass against Wales in the opening game of last year for it all to unravel.
Harry Dean: I’m going to go against the wind here and plump for Wales. Their intervening six years since they last won the Championship can be best characterised as hit-and-miss, yet entering his final year in charge of the nation, Warren Gatland’s years of experimentation and tinkering seem to be finally paying off as he boasts a dynamic team freed from the shackles of the much-derided “Warrenball”, and who enjoyed a very impressive Autumn Series. They’ll also have the advantage of playing England and Ireland, perhaps their closest rivals for the title, at a raucous Principality Stadium. Despite this, I also believe the top teams are too evenly matched for anyone to register a grand slam this year.
Who will end up as Player of the Tournament?
AS: Given that I’m tipping Ireland to go all the way again, it would only make sense to tip an Irishman to be the player of the tournament. Jonathan Sexton, the mercurial fly-half, won World Rugby Player of the Year last year and despite Eddie Jones’ comments about his relationship with referees, Sexton is a master of controlling the game, making the right decisions and kicking the points when they matter. His game-management skills will be vital in ensuring Ireland win it again, so he’s a strong candidate. However, I’ll plump for a forward and say CJ Stander. The massive South African-born Number 8 is a force to be reckoned with at the breakdown and his carrying and tackling will be essential to Ireland having success up front, which is essential in providing Sexton and Conor Murray a base to work with.
SL: For single-handedly influencing a team’s results I would have said Matteo Minozzi: the Italian Stuart Hogg. However, his injury ends his country’s hopes of avoiding the wooden spoon. Once again, I’ll agree with Andrew that you could essentially pick any Irishmen out of their starting XV and pronounce them “most influential player”. Yet my vote goes for Finn Russell. On his day he is the best 10 in the world. If he produces five performances akin to the Calcutta Cup last year, who knows what the final table will look like?
HD: When you think of “French Flair”, a burly front-rower doesn’t exactly immediately spring to mind. However in a France team riddled with fair-weather flakiness, their skipper Guilhem Guirado is perhaps the one member of the bunch you can rely on for a consistently high standard of play. His mobility and presence at the head of the scrum makes him one of the best hookers in the game and my (admittedly left-field) pick for player of the tournament. If Jacques Brunel’s men are to cast aside memories of a pretty dismal autumn over the next few weeks, you sense that their captain will have to be on his best form.
What game are you most excited for, and why?
AS: Ireland against England in the opening round or Wales against Ireland in the final round. I think England’s game with Ireland will be massive in shaping how the tournament plays out. England did look much improved during the Autumn Internationals but a victory over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium would not only be a shock, but it would blow the competition wide open. As for the Wales game, it is in the last round of the tournament and could well be a title-decider if both sides are unbeaten through the first four games.
SL: The prospect of a Wales-Ireland final game decider for the title is mouth-watering, however we anticipated a similar situation last year with Ireland going to Twickenham and that was barely a footnote. Few sporting spectacles can match the anthems before Wales-England at the Principality Stadium under the roof. Scotland-Ireland in the second match day will certainly be an excellent litmus test of both sides and a taster of what is to come at the World Cup later this year. Is it too much to dream of Scotland beating England at Twickenham for the first time since 1983 to win the Grand Slam?
HD: As an unashamed England fan, it’s impossible not to look beyond that first clash of the tournament. A fixture in Dublin, where we’ve won just once in the tournament since 2003, against (in my eyes at least) the best team on the planet, is impossible not to get excited for. The game will likely define England’s tournament: win it, and the Championship will be well within reach. Losing it (and losing it badly), however, could usher in another underwhelming spring for the Red Rose much akin to last year’s shambles.
What’s the one thing you would change about the tournament, and why?
AS: Promotion and relegation. I am of the camp that believes the only way to make rugby a more integrated global sport is to give Tier 2 nations more regular exposure to the top teams in a competitive setting. Georgia have been the best of the rest in Europe for some time now and I think them getting the chance to replace the side who finish bottom of the Six Nations would be massive for the game there and for European rugby in general. Even a promotion-relegation play-off in the summer between say Italy and Georgia would be massive and would drive an increase in standards across the board.
SL: I agree with Andrew that it would be interesting to see the introduction of a promotion/relegation system. It only stands to spread the game of Rugby and would integrate Tier 2 nations into competitive action. One can look at how Argentina has improved since being invited into the Rugby Championship as a comparison. I am also still somewhat hesitant about the bonus point system.
HD: Has the introduction of bonus points really changed that much? It was intended to encourage attacking play but there has been no traceable improvement on that front. It may have had its flaws but the old system of 2 points for a win, 0 for a defeat was simple to understand and almost always likely to produce a competition that went down to the wire. It’s a real shame the governing authorities went along with the rest of the rugby world in adopting bonus points, after all the beauty of the Six Nations for me was always in its quirky unique ways. Regardless, the new system could just as easily produce a humdinger this year that makes me look suitably ridiculous.
Finally, where’s your favourite St Andrean spot to saviour a tournament clash?
AS: As a proud Englishman, the pubs of St Andrews aren’t always the best place during the Six Nations! In order to avoid the curmudgeonly answer of saying my flat, I’d go with Molly Malones, formerly known as the Blue Stane. It’s got a proper pub atmosphere and a good amount of big screens to ensure you can sit comfortably and still watch.
SL: I will be interested to see if Molly Malone’s will offer a free pint if Ireland win in place of the Blue Stane’s similar offer for Scotland. The Whey Pat refurbishment with large TVs will be tested like never before, as will the new BrewCo sports bar on North Street. For me however, the only safe place to watch a Scotland game is behind the sofa.
HD: I’m always a bit too nervous to frequent establishments like the Whey Pat and the Rule, that seem to be turned into bastions of Scottish nationalism on match days. Instead the Union is a venue where I can always rely on finding some sympathetic anglophiles, making it a far more attractive location. Failing that though, you really can’t beat a good old-fashioned house gathering with good mates and good beer.