It’s that time of year again; Christmas has been and gone, New Year’s resolutions have already been consigned to history and we have forgotten what it feels like to finish work in daylight.
The large chunk of silver lining is that also means the Natwest 6 Nations is only just around the corner; Europe’s premier rugby competition and one of the largest annual sporting tournaments in the world. Taking in six of the best cities in Europe, the rugby is always fierce, brutally competitive and feverishly supported in front of sell-out crowds.
Looking ahead to the kick-off on 3rd February a lot of eyes are naturally drawn to Twickenham, the home of the back-to-back champions, with two huge matches of England v Wales on 10th February and England v Ireland on 17th March – the second not only the last day of the tournament, but St. Patrick’s Day! England have a raft of key injuries (none more important than Billy Vunipola) but the depth of talent, along with the belief and quality Eddie Jones has instilled in his charges means you cannot write them off and they are rightly one of the favourites.
However, looking further afield there are some fantastic fixtures, taking place at incredible stadia across Europe.
The majestic Stade de France in Paris sees France host Ireland, Italy and old foes England (wonderfully known as Le Crunch) on 10th March. With a brand new coach in Jacques Brunel, will the French finally settle on a preferred XV and begin to fulfill some of their undoubted potential? They certainly have the talent (both established and emerging) to do so, with particular attention on uncapped 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert. The titanic clashes with Ireland and England will surely be compelling viewing.
Ireland are always there or thereabouts when it comes to handing out the honours in theNatwest 6 Nations. Ably led by the wily Joe Schmidt, they are incredibly physical, tactically astute and fiendishly tough to beat. Well-drilled and experienced, they also have an exciting crop of young players making an impression in the Pro14 and European Champions Cup and looking to make the breakthrough onto the international scene (a path well worn by the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, and Tadhg Furlong recently). Highlights of their home fixtures at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin are the clashes with Home Nations rivals Wales and Scotland, on 24th February and 10th March respectively.
The Eternal City of Rome sees Italy welcome England on opening weekend and Scotland on the final day to the Stadio Olimpico. These bookend three tough away trips for Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri, who are rightly favourites for the wooden spoon and will have to perform above their recent level to avoid a winless campaign, especially with pressure growing for the impressive Georgia to be given an opportunity to join, or replace, them in the tournament.
Perennial underdogs Scotland have really found their identity over the last few seasons, playing some wonderful, free-flowing rugby and putting behemoths like Australia to the sword. New coach Gregor Townsend, who’s Glasgow Warriors side provided so many of the key players in the Scottish rugby revolution, will be desperate to build on the work done and establish his side as genuine Natwest 6 Nations and World Cup contenders. The Calcutta Cup clash with auld enemy England on 24th February at BT Murrayfield will be one for the ages and they will really be targeting the French before that on 11th February.
Finally, Wales will be looking to build and improve from a tough 2017. They open the tournament at the Principality Stadium against Scotland on 3rd February which offers an immediate chance to make their case as contenders, but could also be the proverbial banana skin. However they have a vastly experienced core of players, and when you have that many British and Irish Lions you cannot be discounted - even with Lions skipper Sam Warburton currently out with injury. Josh Adams and James Davies are exciting new faces in a familiar squad which knows how to win not only titles but Grand Slams.
So, after all is said and done who wins the thing? Overall you could conceivably make an argument for five different potential winners, which sounds like serious fence-sitting but is one of the beauties of the 6 Nations - when over 80% of the teams taking part could realistically end up champions then you know you’re on to something good.
My prediction? England v Ireland on Super Saturday will decide the destination of the trophy in some form or another, but there won’t be a Grand Slam. Besides that, it’s just too close to call. Whatever happens, it will make fascinating viewing, and I can’t wait.
Hospitality? Travel? Accommodation? We can help! Get In Touch