I cannot read any more conventional wisdom without giving myself concussion. So here are some more speculative choices. Some might suggest these predictions are cheeky if not outright irresponsible, Ireland aside. Fair enough. If not this blog, then which one?
Talking points by team (in order of predicted finish)
- Ireland deserve top-tier status. Ireland have grown a stable of talent. Injuries to Murray and Sexton would remain sources of vulnerability, but there is a quality of depth we have not seen, in spite of Schmidt’s conservative approach to selections. A Grand Slam fully earned, but can they continue for another 18 months? Remember, England were just hanging on by the end in 2003. Schmidt needs to move on in the back three and play the up-and-comers.
- England are deep and strong, but still fragile and undisciplined. The play of Cole, Hartley, and Brown will prove that clinging to the old guard is not the answer. Once again we will see that Billy and Maro are more important than Owen. The backs are fine when healthy. There is enough firepower if forwards provide the platform. England remain English as ever.
- France continue to uncover talent, and Brunel will not have had enough time to coach out their quality. They have more top-class scrum halves than the other five combined. This new generation may leapfrog a group of players who have not evolved into the modern game. With loads of potential, France may be capable once again of scaring anyone. Dare we hope the forwards can provide enough ball for these young backs to prove themselves? And we never speak of Scott Spedding again?
- Scotland have no margin for injury or error in the pack if they want to play top tier rugby. They can move the ball, create, and score, but their defense is not good enough to overcome a lack of depth in the forwards. For all the excitement in open play, winning rugby comes from a strong group of forwards. Russell and Hogg score a lot, but they are not defensive stalwarts. Townsend must keep searching for front row talent.
- Wales are unlucky with injuries, and a decent tournament in spite of them will suggest they have a chance to compete with the best if everything goes well. While the Pivac-Jones train is picking up momentum, the ever-pragmatic Gatland will do just enough to keep Howley in the coaches box.
- For Italy, the project continues. O’Shea may be the person they need, but he will need quite a bit of time to shape the game from the bottom up.
The players who will emerge with significantly higher profiles
- Rob Evans (Wales loosehead) – best loosehead prop in the tournament, Mako included
- Steff Evans (Wales wing) – will score tries and give Wales life
- Josh Van de Flier (Ireland openside) – has deserved to play open side the past two years
- Jordan Larmour (Ireland fullback/wing) – will conure magic in GS final game v England
- Jacob Stockdale (Ireland wing) – forget Earls, Zebo, and the rest, this is Bowe’s replacement
- Yacouba Camara (France loose forward) – will scare the shit out of England, after dominating Scotland
- Sekou Macalou (France freak forward) – will nip Larmour and his half backs as newcomer of the tournament
- Rémi Lamerat (France centre) – best French center not Fofana
- Kevin Gourdon (France loose forward) – has been class for awhile, but largely unnoticed till now
- Matthieu Jalibert (France fly-half) – France may reawaken if good weather and firm pitches enable endeavor
- Antoine Dupont (France scrum half) – will surprise Murray week one, and outplay the rest
- Ali Price (Scotland scrum half) – will shine light on mediocrity of scrum halves not Conor Murray or French (apologies to the injured Webb)
- Byron McGuigan (Scotland wing) – top try scorer in the tournament
- Tizano Pasquali (Italy forward) – no idea, I just like the name
- Sam Simmonds (England eight) – only, ONLY, if Jones sticks with him so he can grow into a tournament that is missing three World-class 8’s and an over-the-hill Heaslip
- Maro Itoje (England freak forward) – improbable given status, but the player of the tournament (edging Furlong) will demonstrate even greater value as the game continues to open up
Games people will remember
- France v Ireland – France breathe some free air and scare Schmidt’s men in a tight loss.
- Scotland v France – France signal an awakening, with a dominant pack opening up the field for a rampant display of, dare we say, French rugby.
- Scotland v England – England’s relatively mild scrum means Scotland will have a chance, if they can manage something near parity when packing down. A Calcutta Cup classic.
- France v England – An epic, in which the athleticism of Itoje, Lawes, and Simmonds just manage to save England’s campaign.
- Wales v France – Scarlets meet France or yore as players toss out the play book and fling it about in joyous abandon. Howley will claim credit, win or lose.
- England v Ireland – Ireland clinch Grand Slam, setting stage for a mild English panic. A magical and decisive counterattack will mark the day Jordan Larmour became overhyped.