In the 2nd part of this Six Nations preview, let’s take a look at the prospects for Italy, Scotland and Wales.
Italy are desperate for a victory to prove their naysayers wrong
There seems to be a never-ending debate about whether Italy deserve their place in the Six Nations. The facts are stark. Italy have not won a Six Nations match in six years and have propped up the Six Nations table 15 times. Their matches follow a regular pattern. They put up a good fight for sixty minutes, fail to take points from visits to the opposition 22, then fall away in the closing stages. With an eye on the future, Franco Smith has opted for a squad with an average age of 24. Italy are desperate for a victory to prove their naysayers wrong. However, this Six Nations may come a bit early in their progression.
Player to Watch: Luca Bigi – The Azzurri captain has a cross to bear; following in the footsteps of rugby icon Sergio Parisse is a nigh-on impossible task. In the early 2010s, the Azzurri boasted an excellent front-row: Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini, and Martin Castrogiovanni rivalled the world’s best. Since their retirements, Italy have regressed up front. Bigi, however, is an experienced campaigner, and will need to make sure his line-outs are impeccable to ensure that Italy convert territory into points. Bigi’s leadership skills will also be put to the test as he martials his inexperienced troops.
Breakthrough Star: Paolo Garbisi – Italy have sorely missed a commanding fly-half since the heydays of the 1990s and Diego Dominguez. Garbisi is a graduate of a successful Italian U20 team that notched victories over Wales and Scotland. The no.10 received his first international call-up while playing provincial rugby for Petrarca Padova. Now starting for Benetton Treviso, the fly-half likes to attack the gainline and has shown flashes of attacking brilliance in his short international career. Consistent goal-kicking is vital to ensure Italy avoid the wooden spoon.
With star players Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell all returning to the fold, this is the most talented Scotland side since the turn of the century
There was a sense of ‘what next?’ when Scotland bowed out of the 2019 World Cup in the group stages. Gregor Townsend, who masterminded Glasgow Warriors’ renaissance, was not fulfilling his potential as Scotland head coach. There had been baby steps in changing Scotland’s attacking DNA, but few huge strides. Progress in the last year of international rugby has been hampered by a spate of injuries. However, with star players Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell all returning to the fold, this is the most talented Scotland side since the turn of the century. Expect fireworks in the Calcutta Cup, and the Scots to give the Auld Enemy a run for their money.
Player to Watch: Finn Russell – “Just now, there’s no relationship, we don’t work at all together,” said talismanic fly-half Finn Russell about his relationship with national team coach Gregor Townsend. “Eight years I’ve had him as a coach, and I don’t really know him at all. We’ve not got a personal relationship”. After a half-time dressing room row at Twickenham and one drink too many at a hotel bar, Finn Russell’s Scotland career seemed to be over. Fast forward one year and Russell is starting in the Six Nations curtain raiser, with reports that he has been a model player in training. Russell is a rugby genius. He is the star player of European powerhouses Racing 92, with a ridiculous passing range and unique vision. Scotland’s success depends on Russell’s success.
Breakthrough Star: Cameron Redpath – Eddie Jones first selected an 18 year-old Cameron Redpath for the 2018 tour of South Africa. Cynics would say this move was to ward off interest from north of the border – Cameron’s father Bryan appeared for Scotland at three World Cups. A tug-of-war for his services was always on the cards, but the immediate gateway to international rugby has lured Redpath to Murrayfield. This represents a big coup for the Scottish, as Redpath has been a shining light at inside centre for Bath this year and is improving game on game. His decision-making is supreme and he has playmaking ability that should dovetail with Russell. Scotland are set for years to come with him in their backline.
Wayne Pivac took the reins after a successful spell at the Scarlets but is already feeling the pressure after 3 wins in 10 Test matches
The ghost of Warren Gatland continues to haunt Welsh rugby. Gatland transformed a nation of 3.1 million into an international rugby force – Wales reached two World Cup semi-finals and four Grand Slams, with a famously formidable defence. Big boots to fill, then. Gatland returned home to coach in New Zealand and defensive guru Shaun Edwards was hired by the French Rugby Union. Gatland’s compatriot Wayne Pivac took the reins after a successful spell at the Scarlets but is already feeling the pressure after 3 wins in 10 Test matches. The Autumn Nations Cup did not give any insight into a new Welsh rugby philosophy. Positive results this spring will exorcise some demons and point towards a new future. Negative results and Pivac may be set for the chop.
Player to Watch: Dan Lydiate – Dan Lydiate was once the centrepiece of Wales’ feared defence, as his scything chop tackles set the benchmark for monumental defensive efforts. Lydiate would throw himself at the knees of attacking players with immense bravery, but a change to the laws of the game meant that the flanker’s trademark tackle was now banned. The Ospreys forward found himself out in the international wilderness for five years, but Pivac gave Lydiate a shock recall and a starting berth against Ireland. His experience and industry will complement the dynamism of fellow back-rowers Justin Tirpuric and Taulupe Faletau.
Breakthrough Player: Louis Rees-Zammit – the Gloucester flier will be making his Six Nations debut this spring. In Rees-Zammit, Wales have a genuine successor to legend Shane Williams. The top try scorer in the 2019/20 Aviva Premiership season as a teenager. He has searing pace and an instinct for the tryline that cannot be coached. Pivac needs to devise a gameplan to make the most of Rees-Zammit’s blistering pace and get the ball out to the dangerous Wales back three.
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