Who will win Six Nations 2019? How much can we read into the Six Nations rugby results?
As the Six Nations rugby tournament kicks off for yet another year, amid the usual feverish excitement, the usual burning questions will be asked: Who will win? Who will promise much but not deliver? Who will Italy beat this year?
More importantly, this being Rugby World Cup year, how much can we read into the Six Nations rugby results? Will teams use these matches as buildup matches to fine-tune selection issues or is it all about momentum?
For us, we will enjoy each match as it comes.
We will keenly watch how well certain indivduals play; those relatively new to the scene and those who have been around a while.
We take a look at these men.
Maro Itoje (England) and James Ryan (Ireland)
As with buses, you wait a long time for one and suddenly two come along at once. The same can be said for these two outstanding lock forwards.
It is rare to be excited by debutant locks but Itoje and Ryan are the first engine-room warriors to make such an impact for a long time. The last locks to have had the same impact, a sustained one, were John Eales and Martin Johnson. And that was about 30 years ago!
You might well ask, what about Brodie Retallick and Victor Matfield?
I would argue that, while they are rightly acknowledged as two of the greatest locks in recent years, both with a bit of an X factor about them, they developed into great players rather than started out with the same big bang that Eales and Johnson did.
And start with a bang is what Itoje and Ryan have done. The Englishman and the Irishman, who face each other on Saturday in the first round of the Six Nations fixtures, share similar starts to their international careers:
From the time he made his full England debut under Eddie Jones in January 2016, Itoje went on an unbeaten run with England until they were defeated by Ireland in the final match of the 2017 Six Nations.
Meanwhile, he also had an unbeaten streak with his club side, Saracens, not losing a match that he started in between May 2015 and September 2016. All in all, he enjoyed a 31-game unbeaten run.
Ryan had a similar beginning, being beaten in only his 24th game as a professional rugby player for Leinster and Ireland. It came in the first Test against Australia in last year’s June tour. Normal service subsequently resumed for Ryan and Ireland won the next two Tests to win the series 2-1 — their first on Australian soil.
But while they will go at each other hammer and tongs on Saturday, the two will undoubtedly be playing at tandem for the British and Irish Lions in the near future, most likely the 2021 tour to South Africa.
And what a perfect pairing they would make.
Itoje is slightly shorter, at 1.97m tall, but is the heavier man, at 117kg. He is a noted powerhouse scrummager while also being a dominant lineout man and an outstanding breakdown exponent. He is also no slouch in the loose.
Ryan, at 2m and weighing 108kg, would be more the “beanpole” of the two. But that is a bit of a misnomer in his case. He is tough and abrasive and definitely no pushover.
Saturday’s battle will be one to savour. Expect both men to play key roles at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and in the years beyond.
Wesley Fofana (France)
While the inclusion of debutant Romain Ntamack was the biggest news in France, and deservedly so, the fact that he will play alongside Wesley Fofana is for me the more exciting development.
Son of the legendary Emile Ntamack, Romain already has a World Cup win under his belt, with last year’s Under-20 victory with France.
A combination of Romain and Fofana will be one to relish.
Both are attacking players with a good sense of tactical awareness, especially useful when combined with the veteran Camille Lopez at No 10.
But it is really Fofana that we should be excited about.
The Clermont player, nicknamed “The Cheetah” in France for his pace, burst onto the Six Nations scene in 2012, scoring on his debut, and continued that fine form for the rest of that season and into 2013.
But he has had wretched luck with injuries over the past few years, missing the past two seasons of Six Nations rugby. He is surely due an extended run with a clean bill of health.
A player of rare skill and incisive running, 31-year-old Fofana is the type of player the Kiwis have respect for, and are wary of. An extended run in the French team alongside N’tamack, one of the most exciting talents to emerge in years, could make the French side their usual enigmatic and dangerous selves.
And no surprise, being France, that this is happening in Rugby World Cup year.
Sadly, Fofana, who has made 45 appearances for France, scoring 15 tries, has announced that he will retire from international rugby after the World Cup, which would mean that this will be his last Six Nations tournament.
Appreciate him while you can.
Sergio Parisse (Italy)
Another man to catch while you still can is the stylish and skillful Italian captain, Sergio Parisse.
Statistically, Parisse is the man who has lost the highest number of games in rugby union, with 100 international losses in all.
But in no way would you ever call him a loser.
Parisse, 35, has been one of the best No 8s in the modern game — to some people he is the best ever — and has captained Italy since 2008.
Standing on 134 caps, he is likely to finish his career in the next year or two as the most-capped international player of all time, overtaking Richie Mccaw’s 148 appearances.
Along the way, he will break Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 66 Six Nations matches when he faces Scotland this weekend.
And if he makes it to Japan, the Argentina-born Parisse will become only the third man to have played at five Rugby World Cups, joining Brian Lima (Samoa) and Mauro Bergamasco (also Italy).
Italy have never made it to the quarterfinal of the Rugby World Cup. And doing it this year probably couldn’t be harder, as they are grouped with world champions, New Zealand (three-time winners) and South Africa (two-time winners).
But even behind all those losing efforts, Parisse has shone through with his classy displays.
He has all the basic attributes of your classic No.8 but has the softest hands and attempts things others wouldn’t even contemplate. He is also a real physical presence and dishes out his share of big hits.
He has had a better time of it at club level. He has won league titles with his first club Treviso (in Italy), and then with current club, Stade Francais (of France), with whom he also won the European Challenge Cup in 2016-17.
But the shop window of the game remains international rugby and, despite all those defeats, Parisse is a player all who have watched him will call a winner.
Manu Tuilagi (England)
Has there ever been a more awaited comeback in rugby?
After six years away due to injury, the rampaging centre will make his return to the Six Nations on Saturday against Ireland. His face-off with the powerful Bundee Aki, another British player of Samoan descent, will be a contest not for the fainthearted.
But while Tuilagi has been the one player Eddie Jones has been wanting to use since he came into the job in late 2015, the only question mark must be whether the Leicester man is really in prime England form.
Could it be more a case of wishful thinking on England’s and Jones’s part?
Can Tuilagi still be the player who tore New Zealand to shreds in 2012, who scored that incisive try against Ireland in the warm-up match before the 2011 RWC?
I’m not convinced Tuilagi is anywhere near as good as he was in those first few years with England, despite a promising cameo against Australia in the November internationals last year. In that match, his first run needed three men to stop him, while a decoy run later created the opening for Owen Farrell’s try. We shall see on Saturday whether he is back to his best.
Tuilagi is a true rugby beast and all eyes will be on him when he makes that first run.
Neutrals will want to see him at his best, while Ireland fans will hope he is underdone. Everyone will wish him well, health wise.
The game needs players like him.
George North (Wales)
Most people like watching the fast men fly. And when the fast men also happen to be big men, the “like” factor tends to go up somewhat.
George North is one of the fast big men and one of the best.
But as with many other top-level players these days, injuries are difficult to avoid and North has not been spared. He has also inexplicably lost some of that glorious early form.
It was painful especially to see the difference between the George North on the Lions tour of Australia in 2013, and the George North on the Lions tour of New Zealand four years later.
In 2013, North was quite a sight, rampaging across the dry fast grounds of Australia as he played a key role in the Lions winning the series 2-1.
In 2017, however, North was like a heavy machine spluttering back to life and trying to find his form, Eventually, a torn hamstring put paid to what little chance he had of making the Test side, which went on to draw the series with the All Blacks.
After several seasons playing for Northampton, North is now back playing his club rugby in Wales, for the Ospreys, and the more structured playing season and lighter workload could see him return to his brilliant best.
North will win his 80th cap for Wales in the Six Nations opener on Friday against France in Paris — and he is still only 26. Perhaps he will overtake McCaw and Parisse one day.
And he has quite a strike rate so far, with 34 tries in those 79 games for his country.
The best surely is yet to come.
On a side note, see how one ardent fan is getting ready to cheer on Wales: