Last weekend started with discussions about deflated balls and inflated egos and finished with a curious final ‘play’ that, if it had happened in cricket, would have had spectators talking about Indian bookmakers.
New England Patriots’s Tom Brady threw four touchdowns to claim his fourth Super Bowl, in the process completing more successful touchdown passes than anyone in history.
The Seattle Seahawks could have claimed victory having only one yard required for the winning touchdown yet, inexplicably chose to throw the ball (resulting in an interception) rather than use star running back Marshawn ‘Beast Mode’ Lynch.
Attention now turns to another oval-shaped ball game yet one without all the padding and frequent breaks in the form of the eagerly-awaited Six Nations.
There could not be a tastier start on Friday evening (moved from the scheduled weekend slot in a move to attract a greater worldwide audience) as England travel to Wales in a match that could go some way towards deciding the championship.
Unfortunately for England, whose Rugby Football Union celebrates its 144th birthday this week, it is almost their second string that will be taking the field due to a plethora of injuries whereas Wales are nursing just a single strain to the thigh of Jonathan Davies, which left coach Warren Gatland with tough decisions as to who to include from the start. The back three provided the biggest headache (for Gatland and England) where one from George North, Liam Williams, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny had to be omitted. Halfpenny starts, with Williams having to make do on the bench.
Is this bad luck on England’s part or just a sign of the times as rugby becomes faster and more physical? Or perhaps it has more to do with astute forward planning from the Welsh Rugby Union that has introduced National Dual Contracts which allows them to limit the number of games eligible players are entitled to play for their clubs thereby reducing the risk of injury.
While this may have cost their domestic clubs the opportunity to succeed in European competition and arguably opportunities for some individuals to earn the mega-bucks that can be on offer, it does at least provide the national squad with the greatest chance of success.
England will be heading into the dragon-fuelled furnace where they can expect a roasting reception similar to the one they experienced two years ago when they hoped to claim the title. On that occasion they were humiliated 30-3 and few would bet against the Welsh levelling the overall total of wins at 57 apiece. Wales, as co-hosts of the World Cup this summer, will be looking to lay down a marker.
Despite having a powerful midfield and backline the Welsh do have their weaknesses. Few have shown real form this season at club level and England will hope they need time to find their level while Samson Lee is untested at this level at tight-head prop and will be challenged ‘at the coalface’.
At least England have some enviable strength in depth as demonstrated when their second-string (or even third given the injuries), the Saxons, sealed a solid 18-9 victory away to an Irish Wolfhounds side featuring three British Lions. The disjointed nature of the game resulted in scrappy rugby although England managed two tries one of which was scored by Henry Slade whose additional eight points with the boot saw him called up to the senior squad.
Also making the same journey will be former Rugby League star, Sam Burgess, who had a largely anonymous international as he switched codes, although he will only be training with the squad to gain experience.
If England lose, which I expect them to if Gatland has fulfilled his promise to unleash the 6ft 4in tall Jamie Roberts (and Dan Biggar, at 6ft 2in, described as the best defensive fly-half since Johnny Wilkinson) on George Ford who stands at 5ft 9in, they cannot blame their injury situation if they continue to play a large number of internationals and allow their players to be pushed hard week in, week out at club level.
Injuries continue to mount due to the increased bulk of the players and physical nature of the game. After 10 players suffered tour-ending injuries on the Lions visit to South Africa in 2009 Dr James Robson commented: “We’re reaching a level where players are too big for their skill level.”
The defending champions, Ireland, again look in great shape under the expert guidance of Joe Schmidt, having defeated in the autumn series both South Africa and Australia. While they will also be missing half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray for the first match, an away trip to Italy should be easy to negotiate without them, meaning they will be well rested for the home fixture against France.
Brian O’Driscoll is a big fan of Schmidt, despite him being the first coach to drop the Irishman, referring to the coach’s positivity and attention to detail. Before he took over the national side in 2013 he racked up the titles with Leinster as head coach.
French coach, Phillipe Saint-Andre, is already downplaying his side’s chances in the Six Nations, complaining that he has had too little time to shape his squad, preferring to look ahead to the summer fixtures. The enigmatic French need little encouragement to let their guard down and an opening fixture against the much-improved Scots is a real test.
How has this transformation in Scottish performance occurred? If one were to be nationalistic, you could point to the high number of imports, particularly from the home of new coach Vern Cotter. Certainly many former players are unhappy that the likes of Kelly Brown and John Barclay have been omitted as a result. It should be noted, for the sake of equity, that the southern hemisphere has provided so many ‘imports’ to the Six Nations that they could enter their own team!
More positively one could point to a specific game-plan that returns Scotland to their traditional strengths. They certainly have cause for optimism after a strong performance against New Zealand and wins over Argentina and Tonga along with an upturn in form for Edinburgh at club level.
While Cotter clearly has increased the physicality in their play, Scotland will again rely heavily on the Gray brothers, Greig Laidlaw and Stuart Hogg although keep an eye open for Hamish Watson and Hugh Blake.
Having not won in France since 1999 or London since 1983 the statistics don’t bode well for Scotland. However, England won’t fancy away trips to the two leading contenders. Recent performances, form, injuries and even the fixture list favour Wales and Ireland meaning their fixture on Saturday, March 14, could be the decider.