The match between France and Ireland is an enticing appetizer for an exciting Six Nations tournament.
In the past, it was boxing, not rugby union, that quickly brought together opposing rivals. Friday’s first match of the Six Nations Championship this year is a promoter’s dream, meeting all the criteria for a highly anticipated event: a powerful prime-time showdown that was previously unavailable to millions just three months ago. Get ready for the Rugby World Cup final that never happened.
The match between France and Ireland in Marseille, known as the “War on the Côte d’Azur,” is a daring and energetic choice for the first round of the tournament. While it may lead to early excitement, it will also immediately capture the attention of all spectators. Even in countries like South Africa and New Zealand, which have produced World Cup finalists in the past, there will undoubtedly be significant interest in this match.
If this upcoming match in Dublin is half as exciting as the last Six Nations game between these two teams a year ago, then it will surely be a win for everyone. Both teams are eager to redeem themselves after their discouraging losses to the Springboks and All Blacks in Paris during the quarter-finals last October. If not for the Stade de France undergoing renovations for the Olympics (resulting in Les Bleus playing home games in Lille and Lyon as well), the feeling of déjà vu would be strong.
It is overly simplistic to assume that the winners of Friday’s match will automatically win the 2024 title, but a victory would give them a significant early edge. Fun fact: Ireland has never won the Five or Six Nations title the year after a World Cup. If they struggle against a motivated team in Marseille, it will be even more difficult to break that pattern.
It is certain that Antoine Dupont, currently competing in sevens for a chance at Olympic gold, will be missed by his team. They also have a couple of injuries to overcome. However, those familiar with Shaun Edwards’ career as a motivational coach can expect an enthusiastic response. While not qualifying for the World Cup may have been devastating, the team is already focused on the future.
Recently, Damian Penaud, Grégory Alldritt, Matthieu Jalibert, and Thomas Ramos have been performing exceptionally well, which could spell trouble for France’s opponents. Out of the top European clubs, Bordeaux and Toulouse stand out, giving Les Bleus an advantage. Although they were defeated by the Springboks in the quarter-finals, their accuracy and tactical composure were lacking. However, the Top 14 league continues to produce promising players. When Emmanuel Meafou, who was raised in Australia, is healthy enough to play, France will become an even more formidable team. Standing at 6ft 8in tall and weighing nearly 23 stone, the 25-year-old lock is a massive threat to the opposition and could even darken the stadium lights on his own.
Ireland without Johnny Sexton are not as tactically dominant. Andy Farrell has emphasized that making major changes is not the key to creating successful teams, and as a seasoned winner, he should understand this. However, replicating Ireland’s performance in France without Sexton is impossible. He has been a crucial leader for a long time, making it a difficult task for his potential replacement at fly-half – most likely Jack Crowley from Munster – to fill his shoes this season.
Peter O’Mahony, who is known for his strong leadership skills, has been appointed as the substitute captain. However, Mack Hansen’s unanticipated injury is poorly timed. If they are unable to defeat France, Ireland may struggle to recover from their World Cup fatigue compared to other teams.
In the first three rounds, there are two important games featuring Scotland at Murrayfield. If there is one match that could cause France to pause, it is their visit to Edinburgh. In the past, inclement weather and penalty cards have created difficulties for teams playing there. And if Scotland manages to win, having already defeated Wales on the road, it would set up an exciting Calcutta Cup showdown. We acknowledge that we say this every year, but with Finn Russell leading the team, Scotland has the ability to challenge any opponent on any given day.
This highlights a significant challenge in achieving a grand slam victory, as France and Ireland were superior to the other teams at the World Cup. However, factors such as refereeing decisions, tackling regulations, and defensive speed can still impact the outcome. Additionally, the unpredictable nature of a rugby ball can also play a major role.
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England is determined to shed their recent reputation of underachievement and move forward. With a new positive captain, Jamie George, and talented young players, their training camp in Girona has a different energy. They aim to defend with more determination and add a more dynamic element to their attacking strategy, building upon the foundation established during Steve Borthwick’s initial year as coach.
It will not be revolutionary but the stats tell the story: England have been unable to collect more than one try bonus point in their last four Six Nations campaigns. Simply blaming the “squeezed middle” of the field as an excuse for kicking the ball away is also not going to attract fresh eyeballs to a sport that increasingly needs them. The sooner teams are incentivised to take more calculated risks – or measures are taken to reduce the amount of box kicking outside a team’s 22 – the better.
While addressing other persistent problems, it should also be noted that it may not be ideal for England, Scotland, and Ireland to hold Six Nations training camps in nations that are currently unable to participate in the championship. Furthermore, there is a need for the implementation of a 20-minute “orange card” for unintentional head collisions. This would help address the pressing issue of lowering tackle heights while also reducing the number of fractional red cards.
Fortunately, the Six Nations continues to fulfill the soul in ways that even Netflix film crews cannot match. Though JPR Williams is no longer with us, it is my hope that this tournament will create more unforgettable memories like the ones he was known for. I predict France will come out on top, but what rugby truly requires is another sensational performance.