Likely Lads for 2017 Tour

So, Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish Lions for a second time following his series win over Australia in 2013.

Across the four nations, debates are being had and one of those debates is who should captain this team? There are only two contenders really either Cardiff back rower Sam Warburton or Grand Slam winning captain Dylan Hartley.

Hartley has to skipper the Lions, he recently led his England side to a 3-0 win over Australia as for Warburton he failed to tour due to injury.

I think it is fairly widely assumed Eddie Jones’ all conquering England squad will dominate the 34 man squad that is due to be announced towards the end of the season.

France based players is another contentious issue due to the fact the French season finishes comparatively late it is unlikely some players will be able to join up with the squad at the right time. This therefore means some France based players could effectively miss out on selection.

Head coach of Wales Warren Gatland celebrates after beating Ireland in their Six Nations rugby match at Croke Park in Dublin

Gatland will lead the Lions in New Zealand.

New Zealand is the pinnacle, a series win over the All Blacks is going to take something seriously special, you could even argue miraculous.

These are the 34 players I think could maybe win that series.

Props: Dan Cole, Joe Marler (both England), Jack McGrath (Ireland), WP Nel (Scotland), Mako Vunipola (England)

Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Jamie George, Dylan Hartley (Captain, both England)

Locks: Jonny Gray (Scotland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), George Kruis (England)

Flankers: John Hardie (Scotland), James Haskell (England), CJ Stander (Ireland), Sam Warburton (Wales)

Number Eights: Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Billy Vunipola (England)

Scrum-Halves: Conor Murray (Ireland), Rhys Webb (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Fly-Halves: Dan Biggar (Wales), Owen Farrell, George Ford (both England)

Centres: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Jonathan Joseph (England), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Duncan Taylor (Scotland)

Wings: Jack Nowell (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England)

Fullbacks: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales)

Squad by Nation

England: 15

Ireland: 6

Scotland: 6

Wales: 7

That is my pick but with a year to play plenty of time for players to play their way in or out of Gatland’s plans.

Summer Tours: Can the North Compete With the South?

All six European giants travel south this June to take on some form of opposition whilst England, Wales and Ireland all have three match test series, Scotland and France have two matches against their hosts and Italy have three assorted matches.

Italy- Tour of Americas

Italy have three tests this summer to see where they really are after a scathing Six Nations campaign in which they were thrashed by Ireland, Wales and England whilst also losing to Scotland convincingly and coming ever so close to France.

They face a very tough test against Argentina firstly before playing the USA and Canada. The Argentina game should be the hardest match for Italy, a fantastic World Cup campaign and with their Super Rugby franchise, los Jaguares playing well Argentina are in good health.

Italy seem to have found a new general at fly-half with Carlo Canna, a talented fly-half, he has some real pace and is not afraid to take on defenders using his pace and skills to punish defenders.

The man in midfield is able to direct play as well as he showed against France, his brain is switched on and making up his little partnership with Gori is exciting Italian fans.

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Carlo Canna lines up a kick.

Gori had an indifferent Six Nations and you could argue that Palazzani is the man to take Italy forward, his distribution was certainly slicker than Gori’s and he offers a turn of pace that Gori is simply incapable of.

One other back that was stand out is Michele Campagnaro, the Exeter centre was powerful using his upper body strength to swat away defenders that were left trailing in his wake.

Campagnaro is key player for Italy on this tour if he stays fit Italy have a prominent ball carrier in the backs, the backline can be built around him and add something to the traditionally strong pack.

What has not been said about Sergio Parisse, the leader, a man that is Italian rugby, he can at times try too hard to be the hero as was evident against France with his wayward drop goal.

Elsewhere in the forwards, lock Biagi looks an exciting prospect, the giant lock was athletic in the line out and has a high work rate around the park.

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Biagi on the charge.

Italy must win the tests against USA and Canada to have any real credibility following this tour.

My Italy 23: 1 Andrea Lovotii (Zebre) 2 Davide Giazzon (Treviso) 3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps) 4 George Biagi (Zebre) 5 Joshua Furno (Newcastle) 6 Francesco Minto (Treviso) 7 Simone Favaro (Glasgow) 8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, Stade Français)

9 Guglielmo Palazzani 10 Carlo Canna 11 Leonardo Sarto 12 Gonzalo Garcia (all Zebre) 13 Michele Campgnaro (Exeter) 14 Giovanbattista Venditti (Newcastle) 15 Luke McLean (Treviso)

Fixtures

vs. Argentina, Estadio B.G Estanislao Lopez, Santa Fe, 11th June

vs. United States of America, Avaya Stadium, San Jose, 18th June

vs. Canada, BMO Field, Toronto, 26th June

Predictions

Argentina (LOSE) USA (WIN) Canada (LOSE)

France- Tour of Argentina

France one again disappointing at the Six Nations despite Guy Noves becoming the new head coach, he has not done what Eddie Jones has. No rapid transformation and very little to suggest France are back.

In recent years it’s been too much about this powerful yet rarely effective forwards game. If France are to become a world force again they need to get back the flowing rugby, the backs scything open defences with ease. They certainly have the personnel.

Maxime Médard, what a player, dazzling feet, electric pace and an eye for the half gap. The fullback is a really high quality player and one man that can change the game given half a gap.

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Maxime Médard scoring a try.

Another mesmerising talent is Wesley Fofana, once the greatest inside centre in the world, now confined to the odd start for his country after this change in strategy which has coincided with a downturn in form for France.

The centre has the most unbelievable step and grace that can turn players inside out or stand them up in spectacular fashion. He has to be playing for France come the tour to Argentina.

Those are just two men who will have to be at their best if France are to get anything in their tour to Argentina.

Argentina will feel they have this series won, two tests against a poor French side should be a win for the Pumas.

That powerful pack and a backline with the likes of Cordero and Imhoff in it is a pretty scary prospect for France and their new coach Guy Noves as they visit South America.

The best player over the course of the Six Nations was most definitely fly-half François Trinh-Duc, every time he came on he changed the game, he is a sensational talent. he kicks well out of hand and the attacking game he brings is unmatched by any other option the French have.

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François Trinh-Duc the all action fly-half.

In the forwards there is just one player that has been a top player for them, that was Toulon hooker, Guilhem Guirado. The skipper epitomised the determination of a France side wanting to be the side they used to be.

He led by example over the course of the championship, an undoubted talent at hooker, he excelled as captain and will be key if France are to win this tour.

My France XV: 1 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing) 2 Guilhem Guirado (Captain, Toulon) 3 Rabah Slimani (Stade) 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina (Clermont) 5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) 6 Damien Chouly (Clermont) 7 Bernard Le Roux (Racing) 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing) 10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier) 11 Virimi Vakatawa (France Sevens) 12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont) 13 Maxime Mermoz (Toulon) 14 Yoann Huget 15 Maxime Médard (both Toulouse)

Fixtures

vs. Argentina, Estadio Monumental José Fierro, Tucumán, 18th June

vs. Argentina, Estadio Monumental José Fierro, Tucumán, 25th June

Predictions

Argentina (LOSE) Argentina (LOSE)

Scotland- Tour of Japan

Following Japan’s impressive showing at the World Cup and that win over South Africa in what was an outstanding achievement for Eddie Jones and his troops. Wins over Samoa and USA followed.

The Sunwolves have also recently claimed their first scalp over the new Argentine franchise, Japan have a growing rugby pedigree, Dom Day the latest European star to join the Japanese top tier, a league saturated in money.

They are growing and with players like Tanaka and Goromaru in the backs and Leitch and Mafi in the forwards they have real pedigree and will provide Scotland with a real test in June.

Scotland seem to have discovered a set of strike runners to add to Glasgow star Hogg they now have Seymour and Visser two extremely talented wingers. They also have some great ball players in the middle of the park.

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Stuart Hogg in action.

Bennett is becoming a real asset, his pace make him a seriously valuable player to have at 13 and with a selection of players to have inside him, the midfield is becoming really strong and depth is developing.

Laidlaw is a wonderful leader and has given Scotland some direction in terms of leadership, his goal kicking is up there amongst the world’s best. He also doubles up as one of his country’s best playmakers.

In the forwards the double act of Jonny and Richie Gray is something that really cannot be overestimated, the locks are sensational coming round the corner and are quite brilliant at the lineout and they provide some real drive at the scrum.

Richie has for years been an important part of Scotland’s engine room but it seems as though Jonny is going to be even better, he is being tipped by some as the next Scotland captain.

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Jonny Gray a key cog in the Scotland team.

Scotland will have a real test on their hands against Japan, the improving ‘Brave Blossoms’ will want to continue to build on their win over South Africa. Scotland did beat Japan at the World Cup but a test in the far east is a much tougher ask than beating them on a one off in England.

A defining series for both sides, Scotland could show some real intent to become one of the leading sides in the northern hemisphere and Japan could show they will be a ‘Tier One’ nation. June will tell us the full story.

My Scotland XV: 1 Alisdair Dickinson 2 Ross Ford 3 WP Nel (all Edinburgh) 4 Richie Gray (Castres) 5 Jonny Gray 6 Josh Strauss (both Glasgow) 7 John Hardie (Edinburgh) 8 David Denton (Bath)

9 Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester) 10 Finn Russell (Glasgow) 11 Tim Visser (Harlequins) 12 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 13 Mark Bennett 14 Tommy Seymour 15 Stuart Hogg (all Glasgow)

Fixtures

vs. Japan, Toyota Stadium, Aichi, 18th June

vs. Japan, Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo, 25th June

Predictions

Japan (WIN) Japan (WIN)

Ireland- Tour of South Africa

Ireland, a team in transition that suffered a number of high profile injuries going into a Six Nations which was overall disappointing. Ireland have to accept that now they are playing catch up to England and Wales who are most certainly leading the northern hemisphere pack now.

CJ Stander was a revelation over the Six Nations, a powerful carrier able to power over at least on defender, his offloading game can also open space for the quicker men such as Bowe or Zebo.

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CJ Stander has been outstanding for Ireland.

The Munster flanker will come in for some competition in the back row which looks very strong for Ireland at the moment, especially at blindside.

Another revelation was Ultan Dillane at lock, the 22 year old has been huge for Connacht in their awesome season. Dillane is looking like the real deal and with the likes of McCarthy and Toner stepping up due to the loss of Ireland legend O’Connell, Dillane is the up and coming star of Irish rugby.

A playmaker may take some searching, Sexton is getting on a bit but his all round game is still superior to the majority of options available. Sexton’s kicking game and attacking ability is quite something.

Teenager Ringrose is making quite a splash down in Dublin at the moment, his turn of pace and good hands make him a contender to join the touring party in South Africa. Starting is unlikely looking at the options Ireland have available but exposure to the elite squad can only aid his development.

The aerial ability of Rob Kearney is still unrivalled and his ability to break the line make him a good asset if the Irish back row can force teams to kick long. He really is the definition of a strike runner, against a heavy South Africa team with a kick chase game he could be hugely influential.

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Rob Kearney has been a very influential player for Ireland.

South Africa will be a high pressure environment, they place a huge onus on the kick chase and with wingers like Habana you can understand why. The breakdown will be really tough, Louw, Alberts, Burger are all powerful and strong at the breakdown, Ireland will have to try and combat the green Springbok machine.

Another challenge for Ireland will be the altitude, Johannesburg’s Ellis Park is the stadium furthest above sea level in the world at 1,753 metres. The game in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth should not be as much of a problem.

The effects of the altitude can be a real challenge, Johannesburg will see Ireland facing nausea, anaerobic breathing which will increase the build up of lactic acid and other adverse effects on the body as well as a very tough South African team.

Ireland will believe they can win in South Africa and last year they were in a good place and most certainly the strongest of the northern hemisphere but after the Six Nations they have had it is not looking promising.

My Ireland XV: 1 Jack McGrath (Leinster) 2 Rory Best (Captain, Ulster) 3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster) 4 Iain Henderson (Ulster) 5 Ultan Dillane (Connacht) 6 Peter O’Mahony (Munster) 7 Sean O’Brien (Leinster) 8 CJ Stander (Munster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster) 10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster) 11 Luke Fitzgerald 12 Robbie Henshaw (both Leinster) 13 Jared Payne 14 Tommy Bowe (both Ulster) 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

Fixtures

vs. South Africa, DHL Newlands, Cape Town, 11th June

vs. South Africa, Emirates Airline Eliis Park, Johannesburg, 18th June

vs. South Africa, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth, 25th June

Prediction

South Africa (WIN) South Africa (LOSE) South Africa (LOSE)

Wales- Tour to New Zealand

Wales are arguably going to New Zealand at the best possible time, some of the stars are gone and New Zealand will have to go through some pretty serious reconstruction in certain ares, they will be by no means weak but they are the leat settled they have been in 12 years.

If Wales can rattle the All Blacks in the first test and they crumble the series win is on for Wales. New Zealand have some really exciting talent coming through though and with players like Israel Dagg also looking red hot this task is not an easy one.

Definitely the most settled squad of the squads touring and with veterans such as Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris. The experience could give them a real edge in the first test should the All Blacks be undercooked.

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Wales captain, Sam Warburton.

Wales’ George North has been out of form for Northampton for the vast majority of the season but he did look at his best in the red of Wales during the Six Nations. Wales will look to get the ball to him as quickly as possible especially if he is up against a lightweight winger for example Habana.

Dan Biggar has emerged as the best fly-half in the northern hemisphere following a very strong Six Nations and consistent performances for his franchise, the Ospreys. Biggar’s attacking game either from kicking or him taking the ball to the line make him a real threat.

Roberts has been outstanding his powerful running lines make him a deadly threat, he proved that against Scotland. His size allow him to punish defenders is he is allowed to get up to speed. If he is marked closely and hit hard he will come down.

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Dan Biggar performing the famous Biggar Shuffle.

In the forwards there is the awesome Faletau, the Dragons eight is an absolute machine he moves fast and is powerful. The back row is certainly key to Wales and he will be relishing a battle with the unbelievable Kieran Read.

Samson Lee looks to be the answer to all Wales’ prayers at scrum time since the loss of Adam Jones. Lee is becoming a world class prop and although he is not the quickest around the park his set piece work make him dangerous.

Fekitoa and Ngatai look to be making up for the loss of Nonu and Conrad Smith who have left to go and make their money in France.

The All Blacks are a team to be wary of, they are a tough side to beat even though the stars of Nonu, Carter and McCaw are gone. The depth is scary and with players like Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and Ngatai waiting in the wings they are not short on talent to come in for the stars.

My Wales XV: 1 Rob Evans (Scarlets) 2 Scott Baldwin (Ospreys) 3 Samson Lee (Scarlets) 4 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) 5 Luke Charteris (Racing) 6 Dan Lydiate (Ospreys) 7 Sam Warburton (Captain, Cardiff) 8 Taulupe Faletau (Dragons)

9 Rhys Webb 10 Dan Biggar (both Ospreys) 11 George North (Northampton) 12 Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) 13 Jonathan Davies (Clermont) 14 Liam Williams (Scarlets) 15 Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon)

Fixtures

vs. England, Twickenham Stadium, London, 29th May

vs. New Zealand, Eden Park, Auckland, 11th June

vs. Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, 14th June

vs. New Zealand, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 18th June

vs. New Zealand, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, 25th June

Predictions

England (LOSE) New Zealand (WIN) Chiefs (WIN) New Zealand (LOSE) New Zealand (LOSE)

England- Tour to Australia

Australia announced themselves as back at the top at the World Cup powering their way into the final led by Michael Cheika and their fly-half Bernard Foley being in inspired form for the Wallabies.

Australia are back to being one of the world’s best and despite the majority of their franchises struggling they will be tough to beat for any side and although they won the Grand Slam let us not forget they are still learning to work with Eddie Jones as head coach.

England have riches aplenty in the backs, Alex Goode is in scintillating form, his attacking game is something to behold, one of the few Saracens players to have that flair and with that gives his strike runners like Ashton space to score the tries. A varied kicking game is also very welcome in a back three which will likely be all out pace.

One of Bath’s positives this season has been the rising stock of Anthony Watson although he is better deployed at fullback than wing with Goode in such good form it looks as though the youngster will be playing at wing for the duration of the tour. His electric pace and lightning footwork is something that is frightening for the rest of the league.

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Watson in full flight for Bath.

In the pack it looks as though England have nailed their second row pairing with George Kruis and Maro Itoje looking like the real deal, both are strong in the air and powerful in the scrum, their work rate is just incredible and they will be key in Australia.

Another Saracen, Billy Vunipola is a hugely influential player for England, his impressive outings for England during the Six Nations will mean the Australians will know what he can do. The number eight raw power and defensive capability will see him ripping into the heart of Australia to open space out wide that with the runners England have they can exploit.

Hartley, the contentious captain, he led England by example kept himself squeaky clean thought the campaign and handled the media duty very well. His performances spoke for themselves, his work around the park was evident and the set piece was almost flawless.

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Hartley with his first trophy, the Calcutta Cup.

Australia do have their own threats one of which being Israel Folau, an athletic powerhouse and with the likes of Kuridrani and Mitchell around him Australia are not short on fast players.

In the forwards players such as Hooper and Pocock have under performed in Super Rugby, they will likely improve in time for the tour but the way they have been playing will not fill Cheika with hope.

They have a scrum to be feared now after years of struggling to get to grips with the complex art of scrummaging they now have a front row that are both powerful and capable when it comes to scrums.

My England XV: 1 Joe Marler (Harlequins) 2 Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton) 3 Dan Cole (Leicester) 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis (both Saracens) 6 Chris Robshaw 7 Jack Clifford (both Harlequins) 8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

9 Danny Care (Harlequins) 10 Owen Farrell (Saracens) 11 Christian Wade (Wasps) 12 Manu Tuilagi (Leicester) 13 Jonathan Joseph 14 Anthony Watson (both Bath) 15 Alex Goode (Saracens)

Fixtures

vs. Wales, Twickenham Stadium, London, 29th May

vs. Australia, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, 11th June

vs. Australia, AAMI Park, Melbourne, 18th June

vs. Australia, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 25th June

Predictions

Wales (WIN) Australia (WIN) Australia (LOSE) Australia (WIN)

 

Six Nations Preview

Six Nations Preview

The Six Nations is looming and this year it looks to be a close run affair as Wales and Ireland will look to build on relatively successful campaigns, Scotland try to carry on their World Cup form, England and France rebuild and Italy attempt to recover from a disappointing autumn.

Ireland are the favourites having won the last two championships under Joe Schmidt, a canny operator and he knows which players get the men in green to tick. To add to the old guard are a crop of youngsters coming through such as Ringrose who could add something to an already strong side.1390761721_0

Wales seem to have built a team that can beat anybody at the moment and with many of their home grown players back playing for a top side has given them optimism even. Warren’s Law could affect them down the line but they still look like they will be mounting a title challenge.

Scotland were one refereeing decision away from a World Cup semi-final, it seems Vern Cotter’s style is beginning to rub off on Scotland as they continue to build. This Six Nations could be a defining tournament for the men north of the border.

England are an unknown quantity under Eddie Jones, he has said he wants to base England’s game around their traditional strengths like the scrum, his selection though seems some very exciting talents in the squad.

France also have a new coach in former Toulouse boss Novés, he has reshaped the team and hopefully can bring back some je ne sais quoi. Saint-André’s pragmatic nature stifled what was once the best team in the world to watch.

Italy will look to this championship as a chance to redeem themselves, the World Cup ran to the script for Italy and saw them crash out after the group once again. They need to find something special if they are to get anywhere near the title this year.
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Head Coach: Eddie Jones
Stadium: Twickenham Stadium, London (82,500)
Last Season: 2nd
Prediction: Champions

Fixtures

Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 16:50. Sat 6th February
Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sun 14th February
Ireland, Twickenham, 16:50, Sat 27th February
Wales, Twickenham, 16:00, Sat 12th March
France, Stade de France, 20:00, Sat 19th March

England have faced some pretty tough criticism recently after their World Cup. This lead to the appointment of Eddie Jones.

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England head coach, Eddie Jones

The squad has been named and has a blend of experience and youth, on paper it looks competitive. If England can get their pack moving forward and pick an exciting backline with distributors and finishers this England team could be brutally efficient.

I expect England to pick up wins in Rome and Edinburgh, they should be routine for this England side. I think playing at Twickenham could give them the edge against wales and Ireland but the trip to Paris looks a game too far for this developing English side.

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Vunipola on the charge

This Six Nations is a stepping stone for bigger things for the likes of Itoje, Daly, Beaumont, Clifford and Paul Hill. It looks as though they will be key in England’s future joining the likes of Ford, Farrell, Joseph, Launchbury and Vunipola all still young but players that could have 40 to 50 caps come 2019.

My England XV
1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
2 Dylan Hartley (Captain, Northampton Saints)
3 Paul Hill (Northampton Saints)
4 Joe Launhcbury (Wasps)
5 Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)
6 Maro Itoje (Saracens)
7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby)
8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

9 Danny Care (Harlequins)
10 George Ford (Bath Rugby)
11 Chris Ashton (Saracens)
12 Owen Farrell (Saracens)
13 Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)
14 Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)
15 Mike Brown (Harlequins)

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Head Coach: Guy Novés
Stadium: Stade de France, Paris (81,338)
Last Season: 4th
Prediction: 3rd

Fixtures

Italy, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 6th February
Ireland, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 13th February
Wales, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Fri 26th February
Scotland, BT Murrayfield, 15:00, Sun 13th March
England, Stade de France, 20:00, Sat 19th March

France like England have been criticised for not just results but what has been dubbed a boring and drab style in attack and bring weak in defence.

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New France boss, Guy Novés

Novés’ first squad suggests a very extreme change in tactics and a more of a swing towards that attacking play we have loved to watch in the past. With the reintroduction of Médard in the backline and Gaël Fickou coming in there is some flair there.

I think France can pick up wins over Italy and Ireland despite the strength in Ireland’s squad I think Paris will be tough to win in. I think they will also defeat England at home. Tough away trips to Edinburgh and Cardiff could be their undoing.

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Maxime Médard scoring a try against Scotland.

Flair in the backs and power in the forwards could be a glorious combination. This fresh approach could be either brilliant or horrendous. I for one hope that it brings a new era of running rugby with the likes of Médard and Fofana providing excitement.

 

 

My France XV

1 Eddy Ben Arous (Racing 92)
2 Guilhem Guirado (Captain, RC Toulon)
3 Rabah Slimani (Stade Français)
4 Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Français)
5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse)
6 Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne)
7 Bernard le Roux (Racing 92)
8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)

9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier)
11 Benjamin Fall (Montpellier)
12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne)
13 Gaël Fickou (Toulouse)
14 Maxime Médard (Toulouse)
15 Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne)

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Head Coach: Joe Schmidt
Stadium: Aviva Stadium, Dublin (51,700)
Last Season: Champions
Prediction: 2nd

Fixtures

Wales, Aviva Stadium, 15:00, Sun 7th February
France, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 13th February
England, Twickehham, 16:50, Sat 27th February
Italy, Aviva Stadium, 13:30, Sat 12th March
Scotland, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Sat 19th March

Ireland won the championship last year and put in some impressive displays at the World Cup including a memorable win over France. This year they look to retain the title.

With Ireland’s squad due to be announced next week at some stage it is a fairly settled image we expect to see despite some high profile retirements and injuries for Ireland to come to terms with.

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Ireland legend, Paul O’Connell

Ireland should win all three of their home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland. Hoever away trips to Paris and London could be tough games especially as both England and France will be smarting after a tough World Cup.

Among the players Ringrose is an exciting prospect and big things are expected of the centre. Henshaw is in the form of is life at the moment and the pack will see who can fill the void left by O’Connell.

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Garry Ringrose scores for Leinster

My Ireland XV

1 Cian Healy (Leinster)
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
5 Devin Toner (Leinster)
6 John Muldoon (Connacht)
7 Sean O’Brien (Captain, Leinster)
8 Robin Copeland (Munster)

9 Conor Murray (Munster)
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
11 Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
12 Robbie Henshaw (Ulster)
13 Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
14 Simon Zebo (Munster)
15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)

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Head Coach: Jacques Brunel
Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (73,000)
Last Season: 5th
Prediction: 6th

Fixtures

France, Stade de France, 14:25, Sat 6th February
England, Stadio Olimpico, 14:00, Sun 14th February
Scotland, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Sat 27th February
Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 13:30, Sat 12th March
Wales, Principality Stadium, 14:30, Sat 19th March

Italy had a disappointing World Cup and still are struggling to give that extra 20% that could take them from also rans to join the top table of international rugby where Argentina now dine and Japan are approaching.

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Sergio Parisse

Italy have announced their squad and it really is a mixture of the Italian stalwarts and a few new names as Brunel will try to make Italy competitive it’s a strong enough side.

Italy have two home games against England and Scotland, I don’t think they will win either of those England should have enough to win convincingly and Scotland too. I think repeat heroics in Paris or Cardiff are also unlikely whilst Ireland is a tough trip for any team let alone Italy.

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Marco Susio is one of 18 uncapped players

Italy have picked an astonishing 18 players in a 38 man training squad that convened in November in Treviso assuming the squad will be cut with the France and England based players also to be added.

My Italy XV

1 Dario Chistolini (Zebre)
2 Davide Giazzon (Benneton Treviso)
3 Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps)
4 George Biagi (Zebre)
5 Qunitin Geldenhuys (Zebre)
6 Alessandro Zanni (Benneton Treviso)
7 Paul Derbyshire (Zebre)
8 Sergio Parisse (Captain, Stade Français)

9 Edoardo Gori (Benneton Treviso)
10 Carlo Canna (Zebre)
11 Gio Venditti (Newcastle Falcons)
12 Luca Morisi (Benneton Treviso)
13 Michele Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs)
14 Marco Susio (Rugby Calvisano)
15 Luke McLean (Benneton Treviso)
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Head Coach: Vern Cotter
Stadium: BT Murrayfield, Ediburgh (67,144)
Last Season: 6th
Prediction: 5th

Fixtures

England, BT Murrayfield, 16:50, Sat 6th February
Wales, Principality Stadium, 16:50, Sat 13th February
Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:25, Sat 27th February
France, BT Murrayfield, 15:00, Sun 13th March
Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 17:00, Sat 19th March

Scotland’s World Cup heroics may be the turning point and rugby in Scotland could be headed for a period of success, this Six Nations they’ll be hoping to kick on.

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Greig Laidlaw has been important for Scotland

Scotland are yet to announce their squad but are due to towards the middle of next week. I expect Cotter will retain the vast majority of his World Cup squad who performed so well. There may be a couple of additions after seeing how well Edinburgh are playing this season.

Scotland should be able to beat Italy in what has for a long time become the wooden spoon decider. I also think that at Murrayfield they should be too much for the French. Trips to Cardiff and Dublin are tough and England should be able to beat them.

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Gray brothers

Scotland’s second row is the frightening Gray brothers who the pack is being built on add to that some pace in the backs they will be formidable opposition.

My Scotland XV

1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors)
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby)
3 WP Nel (Edinburgh Rugby)
4 Richie Gray (Castres Olympique)
5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors)
6 Josh Strauss (Edinburgh Rugby)
7 Blair Cowan (London Irish)
8 David Denton (Bath Rugby)

9 Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester Rugby)
10 Finn Russell (Captain, Glasgow Warriors)
11 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors)
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby)
13 Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors)
14 Tim Visser (Harlequins)
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)
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Head Coach: Warren Gatland
Stadium: Principality Stadium, Cardiff (74,500)
Last Season: 3rd
Prediction: 4th

Fixtures

Ireland, Aviva Stadium, 15:00, Sun 7th February
Scotland, Principality Stadium, 16:50, Sat 13th February
France, Principality Stadium, 20:05, Fri 26th February
England, Twickenham, 16:00, Sat 12th March
Italy, Principality Stadium, 14:30, Sat 19th March

Wales will be enthused after a strong World Cup that meant they would only crash out thanks to a sumptuous offload from Duane Vermeulen.

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George North

The core of the squad is settled and is due to be announced soon although the exact date is not set in stone. The squad will be much unchanged from the team last year.

Wales face tough trips to Dublin and London which I can’t see them winning however they should be able to see off the challenges of France, Italy and Scotland at home. Although Scotland and France could go either way.

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Wales captain, Sam Warburton

Wales have the old guard such as Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones in their ranks they know how to perform on the big stage there is very little room for manoeuvre in the current squad.

My Wales XV

1 Paul James (Ospreys)
2 Kristian Dacey (Cardiff)
3 Samson Lee (Scarlets)
4 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys)
5 Luke Charteris (Racing 92)
6 Dan Lydiate (Ospreys)
7 Sam Warburton (Captain, Cardiff)
8 Taulupe Faletau (Dragons)

9 Gareth Davies (Scarlets)
10 Dan Biggar (Ospreys)
11 George North (Northampton Saints)
12 Jamie Roberts (Harlequins)
13 Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne)
14 Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff)
15 Liam Williams (Scarlets)