Six Nations 2018 Preview

Including hopes as a massive Scotland fan, the form of the other nations and predictions for results and the final standings.

A bit of history

With the annual showdown between the six best teams in the Northern Hemisphere rolling around next Saturday there is a spring in my step as a rugby fan. As a Scottish rugby fan there is a slightly more positive feeling going into this year’s round of matches, coming of an arguably successful 2017 which included the first Six Nations since 2006 in which the men in blue won three matches….

The 2006 tournament was really my first experience of watching rugby, and a remember as seven year old being enthralled in the five weekend’s of coverage as Scotland recorded victories over France, England and Italy finishing third. After this first experience of moderate success I thought this was the status quo and couldn’t wait for the 2007 championship. This excitement came to a crashing halt a year later after a drive to Murrayfield on misty, wet roads resulted in a 37-17 defeat the Italians. Conceding three tries in the opening ten minutes was not a great introduction to a sporting arena which had played host to many highs, just not in my lifetime.

From there it seemed to go down hill every year as a Scotland fan. Most years we would usually either struggle to beat the Italians or spring the occasional surprise on England (2008), Ireland (2010, 2013) while losing to Italy. This often meant we were awarded the dreaded ‘Wooden Spoon’, the award given to the bottom team after the Scots had only managed one victory or even finished without.

Every year we would turn our attention to the other nations, watching jealously as the likes of France, Wales, Ireland and England competed for the trophy. Thought this was still entertaining from the perspective of a rugby fan there is a growing desperation to play part in the top half of the tournament. With no memory of the Five Nations victory when I was all but several months it has been rare to experience much in the way of Scottish success.

Recent Scottish hope

However, following an encouraging (and perhaps unlucky – don’t worry I won’t o into detail) performance in the previous year’s World Cup, where our hopes were ended by Australia and referee Craig Joubert in the Quarter Finals, the Scots had a relatively strong campaign in 2016 ending a nine Six Nations game rot with  a convincing win in Italy before beating the French at home. The campaign also included close encounters with England and France before being outmuscled by Ireland after a plucky performance. Things looked to finally be on the up under the tuition of Vern Cotter and as mentioned the Scots went one better a year later.

After beating a tough Japanese side that Summer before victories over Argentina and Tonga were followed by a agnosing defeat by Australia, (this seems to have become bit of a grudge match) the men in blue recorded three victories in the 2017 championship winning every home game. These included impressive victories against Ireland and Wales either side of a disappointing defeat in Paris by a brutal French side. However, the only let down was a massive 61-21 defeat at Twickenham to the ‘Auld Enemy’, a loss which a comprehensive last round defeat of Italy couldn’t make up for. This loss was comprehended by a 4th place finish as our points difference took a battering after the England game.

As ‘Big Vern’ packed his bags and made his way to the French ‘Top 14’ and Montpeillier, there was a wide sense amongst Scottish fans that he had taken the national side a long way. There was confidence that the entrance of successful Glasgow and former Scottish international, Gregor Townsend, would result in the continuation of this progress. In the following months it became obvious that the SRU’s appointment hadn’t been based on false evidence as Scotland travelled to Australia and gained revenge for the two previous defeats after a convincing victory over Italy in Singapore.

A loss to Fiji down there was the forgotten after it rained tries at Murrayfield in a 44-38 victory over their Pacific neighbors, Samoa. This seemed to back up the Townsend mentality of playing chaotic rugby with a focus on scoring lots of tries even if it meant the opposition crossed the whitewash a lot too. This victory was followed by a narrow defeat by New Zealand in which some awesome defensive work by the class act which is Beuden Barret stopped Stuart Hogg meters from the line in the 80th minute. ‘Hoggy’ was spot on when he said it was “bloody close” post match. A 22-17 defeat in the end.

I don’t think anybody predicted what was going to happen next. After the frustration of not quite getting across that whitewash in the previous Hogg was ruled out in the warm up for the Australia game. He likely didn’t think he would watch the Scots score eight tries against the Wallabies in a scintillating display against the 14 man tourists. In an amazing display the Scots put down a marker for this year’s Six Nations and that just about brings us up to date.

Form and Expectations

Many armchair experts in the media seem to be putting the Scots up there with England and Ireland but I would be cautious, figuring that we don’t suit the tag of being semi-favorites very well. First of all England enter this tournament with one defeat in their last 24 games under the masterful leadership of Eddie Jones with only a game against New Zealand surely providing a benchmark of whether they are the best team in the world (they haven’t met in England’s last 24 games). Despite criticism off some areas of they’re performance, you can’t argue that they aren’t hugely clinical.

Ireland, the only side to beat a Jones led England, should probably be seen as the joint or second favorites for the championship. After a disappointing campaign last time round, (defeats to Scotland and Wales rendered the victory over England as a consolation for not being in the running for lifting the trophy)  they should be following a successful Autumn with the hopes of treating the last game away against England as the decider this time round.

Moving onto Scotland’s other Celtic cousin, it has been well remarked in the media that Wales seem to be going through a transitional period. Their performances in the Autumn didn’t exactly set the rugby community alight, even if they were slightly more plucky against New Zealand and South Africa after a shocking display against Georgia at the Millennium. Though it must be said that a poor Autumn often doesn’t mean a poor Six Nations for the Welsh. Last year’s championship was mixed for them as well. Impressive wins over Ireland and Italy along with a perhaps unlucky defeat to England, went hand in hand with defeat to Scotland and France in a farcical 100 minute game in Paris.

It is my opinion that as we head towards the North Sea there unfortunately isn’t anything to get to excited about this year. The French who for long periods of time have dominated who gets their hands on the trophy, have been out of sorts for at least the last five years, winning it last in 2010 and rarely finishing in the top half of the table since. The cliché of them being massively unpredictable seems to have been altered to them either being very poor or pretty mediocre in their performances, a missed conversion saving their blushes in a 23-23 draw against Japan in the Autumn. Incredulously though, it is the French and I am therefore not willing to quite write them off yet.

Last but not least there is Italy, the long term minnows of the tournament who will be hoping to improve this year. Although I think an improved Italy would be good for the championship I don’t want to seem them beat Scotland like they managed to in on multiple occasions in previous years. There is a hope that former Harlequins coach, Connor O’Shea can work some magic after improvements in the Pro 14 and Europe by Treviso and Zebre. Can they avoid the Wooden Spoon? We shall wait and see.

The Predictions

With the bonus point system of last year in place this adds slight complication but I will try my best and look forward to seeing how wrong I am.

Round 1

Wales Vs. Scotland –  Hardest one to predict, but I think Scotland will break their duck of losses in Cardiff in a close match where Wales will get a losing bonus point.

France Vs. Ireland – Ireland started slowly last year and I think the same will happen in Paris with the exception that they will win in a game likely dominated by penalty goals. Victory by ten points or so for the visitors.

Italy Vs. England – The hosts will put up a fight for the first half but England will pull away for a convincing BP win after an hour at the most.

Round 2

Ireland Vs. Italy – Not unlike last year, Ireland likely to win this one convincingly with a BP.

England Vs. Wales – Won’t be as close as last time round but plucky Welsh performance will earn them a losing BP.

Scotland Vs. France – France will want to make amends for Irish loss but will be beaten in close high scoring encounter by Scots. Losing BP for French.

Round 3

France Vs. Italy – This may be the game the Italians target the most and I predict a close affair in Marseille. Losing BP for Italy.

Ireland Vs. Wales – Wales have often acted as Ireland’s bogey with last year being no exception. This year however I think Ireland will win by 15 points or more.

Scotland Vs. England – Hopefully closer than last year’s demolition. England to win tense encounter at Murrayfield. Scotland get losing BP.

Round 4

Ireland Vs. Scotland – Huge prediction but reckon Ireland will come unstuck in lively affair in Dublin. Irish to gain losing BP though.

France Vs. England – England to win in unconvincing style in a poor game. France to get losing BP.

Wales Vs. Italy – Welsh to blow off steam after plucky first half performance by Italians to get BP win.

Round 5

Italy Vs. Scotland – With championship hopes on the line Scotland to win by narrow margin in Rome. Italian losing BP.

England Vs. Ireland – Ireland beat English at Twickenham narrowly to take championship on points difference on dramatic last day. Losing BP for England.

Wales Vs. France – Wales to finish disappointing campaign with narrow victory over flat French side. Losing BP to French.

Final Standings

  1. Ireland – 18 points (4 wins)
  2. England – 18 points (4 wins)
  3. Scotland – 17 points (4 wins)
  4. Wales – 11 points (2 wins)
  5. France – 7 points (1 win)
  6. Italy – 2 points

 

 

Lumphanan Detox 10K 2018

With the festive period coming to a close, there seemed no better option than to make the short journey down the Deeside valley to the village of Lumphanan to participate in the aptly named “Detox” race. After a lull in my running addiction in recent weeks, this seemed the perfect opportunity to create a benchmark at the start of a new year. This challenging 10K race is the only one that is nailed down in my calendar and it has always been a family affair, even before I debuted on the hilly, muddy and often weather beaten course four years ago.

With my grandmother’s house located along the last kilometre of the race, it often feels like any family members who are competing have been gifted their own personal fan club. This year there was three of us taking part, with my mother and Auntie braving the cold,wet conditions to get their year’s of to a good start. We were also joined by my Auntie’s partner, a strong runner from the local club, Deeside Runners and three of Braemar’s finest, often labelled as the ‘Triplets’ for obvious reasons. These three siblings would act as a personal motivator. If I could finish before, or simply keep one of them in my sites for the whole race I would be pleased.

All of the above including other extended family including my brother, Auntie Claire, Uncle Mark and my three cousins descended on my Grandmother’s house, as the air buzzed with nervous energy and anticipation as the runners amongst us prepared to feel the burn. As we jogged the few hundred meters down to the start line, I started to visual the route in my head, taking in the atmosphere of a quiet rural community which had been enlivened by the arrival of 450 so runners.

Beginning in a grass park in the centre of the village, the often chaotic start to the race was quickly interrupted by a tough mile long incline leading up a minor road averaging just under 6%. A good warm up and often many people’s least favorite part of the route for obvious reasons. After this climb competitors are rewarded by a long descent which continues almost uninterrupted for the next three kilometers, before becoming more gradual, eventually taking the form of a flat incline.

The course creator then throws a spanner in the works for the road runners amongst the field with a challenging two kilometre section along a often icy and always very muddy farm track, before rejoining the main road resulting in a fast finish to agonizingly close to the finish line. With the line in site the route takes you away from the award for your efforts, with a painful 300 metre loop around a housing estate to ensure you’ve done your ten kilometers.

With this mind we entered the village hall and collected our race numbers, discussing how many layers should be worn and what footwear would be best. That morning I had taken a risk and decided to wear my ‘innovates’ or “mudblasters” as I liked to call them. These were ultra grippy shoes and this being Scotland in January it was a reasonable guess to think that there would be lots of mud and ice along the route.

The downside was that they didn’t have a very thick sole and weren’t really that well suited to road running, increasing risk of injury through impact. Having needed three stitches in my knee in muddy conditions a few months previously it was a risk I was willing to take.

Soon enough 11am rolled around and the usual struggle to decide where to place myself amongst the relatively large field took place. I wanted to be quite near the front, but realised with the first runner likely to come in up to ten minutes before yours truly that I needed to choose were to stand with a note of modesty. I also felt the pressure of the ‘Triplets’ taking part in their first ‘Detox’ looking to me in terms of where they should position themselves. All I had to do was stay with one of them…..

The struggle for position continued after the starting pistol had been fired, with a frantic and totally uncontrolled (pacing wise) start. The hill climb was first on the menu and I kept an eye on one of the ‘Triplets’ as the legs started to burn. As the climb winded upwards, I pulled alongside my target and we shared a breathless greeting. Team Braemar was on the move and it was great to feel a bit of companionship as the pain continued.

When we reached the summit of this first challenge, he pulled away and I was overtaken by the usual suspects who I had overtaken on the ascent but were much faster on fast rolling descents. Continuing on to the flat I managed to catch my companion again as I encouraged him to try and catch his brother that just about remained in our eye line.

This section on a south facing road is notorious for there being a headwind and I took off my lucky green hat, worried that it was going to blow away. Passing the halfway water station I managed to wish an old school mate a Happy New Year before reaching the infamous mud fest which was the farm track.

With some slight ice patches this is my least favorite part of the course, as we plodded on through the mud, returning to the tarmac after what felt like an age. From there the fellow Braemarian and I were neck and neck, getting a big cheer as we reached the fan base at my Grandmother’s house. It was the final short descent that made the difference as my speed was again highlighted as something to work on. My go to excuse is that I have short legs.

Finishing a place behind the ‘Triplet’ I felt like death for about a minute before making queries about my time. That had been tough and I knew that my fitness levels hadn’t been particularly high entering the New Year. I reckoned I had ran it in around 45 minutes but was pleased to find out that I had ran a 42:20.

Not a PB but not too far off and I felt more confident that my running was in a better place than it had been previously. It was a successful day for Team Braemar and my Auntie Marie and Mother both ran across the finish line in 46:34 and 58:24 respectively. A good day for all involved and if able to run next time around I have no doubt I will be making my sixth appearance at the 2019 ‘Lumphanan Detox’.