"Guess who's back, back again, Rich is back.... tell your friends......"
That's right people, not so Slim Shady is BACK on #rugbyunited duty (at least part time) and where better to start than by previewing the greatest International rugby tournament (held in the Northern Hemisphere in the first few months of the year) that the world has ever seen.
It promises to be one of the most open tournaments in recent history, with several unknown factors and each team being legitimately able to put forward a case for victory (well, except Italy.....)
New coaches, new skipper, pretty much the same team. England are the bridesmaids of the recent tournaments, with a seemingly endless series of second place victories, and let's face facts, after much optimism following an impressive 6 Nations last season and solid November Internationals the year before, England massively flunked in the Rugby World Cup. Eddie Jones has been brought in to improve the big game attitude and performances, Dylan Hartley has been given the armband to add a bit more steely resolve, but with the rest of the starting line up being largely the same, and combining some of the leagues top performers (Itoje, Kvesic, Cipriani, Daly) seemingly being out of favour and bans and injuries to the likes of Ashton and May, the new attitude will have to paper over a lot of the cracks. Conceivably, England can win the whole thing, the bookies are making them one of the favourites, in my eyes though, the reality may be very different.
Le Grande Phillipe and his 4 year reign of averageness and trial and error selections is over. Guy Noves is the man to take over and he made his intentions clear by dropping Matthieu Bastereaud from his squad, replacing him with the fleet footed Jonathan Danty, but also named another 7 new caps, including Flying Fijian Virimi Vakatawa as they look to burst themselves out of a slump. Noves as a coach made big waves as Toulouse coach, but was on a seemingly downwards spiral towards the end of a tenure, which has led to concern from some quarters about whether he is the man to reignite the French pyrotechnics that we all love to see.
Last years champions are another side with a new era upon them, with the lost of talismanic lock and skipper, Paul O'Connell, who hands the armband to the shiny, round head of Rory Best. New blood in the outstanding Munsterman CJ Stander will be an option and the Ulster standout Stuart McCloskey will fight for a spot in the centers, but injuries to Cian Healy and Mike Ross may disrupt the front row, Henderson and O'Mahoney may miss the tournament entirely with injuries and worrying dips in form for Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton make it more difficult for Ireland to go for back to back 6 Nations wins. Joe Schmidt's charges are usually one of the better defensive units, but it went awry during the World Cup and improvement is imperative for them to scale to the top step of the podium.
Let's face it, Italy rarely have looked capable of competing over the past few seasons, and Jacques Brunel heads to his final Six Nations with Mission Impossible: Avoid The Wooden Spoon replaying yet again. Often the Italians have piggybacked on Sergio Parisse's huge talents, but he's 33 now, and the new talent isn't there to make any real improvement to the Azzuri squad. The key position will be in the 10 jersey, with Scotalian Tomasso Allan struggling and Kelly Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey Mona (High 5 for the 80's Craig McLachlan reference, anyone?) looking incapable of kicking his way out of a wet paper bag, the mantle may fall to the potential of Carlo Canna. There will be 10 new faces in the Italian squad. Unless the new faces include the likes of Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and at least 5 new forwards, I can't see Brunel getting a fairytale send off.
Scotland are an enigma, qualified for the last 8 of the World Cup with a dodgy try against Samoa (it was a knock on) and went out of the World Cup to a dodgy penalty decision against the Aussies (it wasn't a penalty) so I don't truly buy the 'Amazing World Cup' line, they were one decision away from elimination in the groups, and one decision away from a semi final, but under Fearne Cotton, the on field performances have definitely improved and they will be a tough old nut to crack this time round. I think in no uncertain terms, Scotland WILL NOT be Wooden Spooning this season, are the improvements enough to propel them to the upper echelons? A lot will depend on World Player of the year nominee Greig Laidlaw and the dominance of the impressive tight 5, but they will need to tighten up defensively to stand a chance. And avoid Craig Joubert.
Gatlands scrappers will go into the tournament with key injuries, but still with the most settled squad. They will be disappointed with the overall performances last spring, especially the home defeat to England, but will have high hopes in taking yet another post World Cup 6 Nations crown. There's not much new to write about Wales, we know the star men, we know the 'Gatland ball' gameplan, their chances will all depend on if any side can outperform or outmuscle them and whether in stopping the red tide the forwards provide, they can also close the gaps against a potent backline. Dan Biggar's boot will keep them in any game, as well as his pre kick boogie providing fans with endless meme's, GIF's and laughs.
No grand slam.
1 - Wales
2 - Scotland
3 - England
4 - Ireland
5 - France
6 - Italy (let's give Georgia a shot now, hey.)