Yes, it is that time of year again. And that means that those of you who are allergic to sports are going to have to put up with me wittering on about Wales for a few weeks. Sorry about that, but this is a personal blog. So as not to pollute too much of your screen real estate I’ll try to put the longer posts behind cuts. Here’s a preview of the first round of matches that take place today and tomorrow.
The season begins with England entertaining Italy at Twickenham. Both sides have injury problems. Italy have lost all three of their top scum halves and have pressed Mauro Bergamasco into service at #9. Meanwhile England are down to their fourth-choice fly half, Andy Goode, have lost a bunch of flank forwards, and have Harry Ellis replacing the injured Danny Care at #9. Will won’t be happy about this, but I suspect that the terrier-like Ellis is actually a better bet for disrupting an inexperienced opponent than the classy Care. I expect Harry to get yellow-carded at some point during the game, but not before he has reduced the larger and stronger Bergamasco to a nervous wreck. England have never lost to Italy, and should retain that record. If they don’t I expect Sergio Parisse to be named named of the match.
Next up is Ireland v France, which I think may be the best game of the three. Both teams are starting on a rebuilding process, but the French are a little further along the road. Ireland, on the other hand, are at home. Given that these are the two teams who I expect to give Wales the most trouble, I’m delighted that one of them is going to get off to a losing start. I have no idea which one it will be.
Tomorrow Wales begin their campaign in Edinburgh. The Welsh team is the only side that is settled and experienced. They are also the defending champions and hot favorites for the title this year. Scary. Scotland’s team is supposedly the best they have had in ages, but that wouldn’t be difficult. Last night the Welsh under-20 team lost a game in Perth despite scoring two tries to the Scots’ nil, because in Peter Horne the Scots have found a young man who already has the metronomic kicking precision of Chris Patterson. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that Scotland have dropped their points-scoring machine. I haven’t seen many of the Scottish players in action this year, but from past internationals I’d identify Hugo Southwell as a weak link. I expect the Welsh team to pepper him with high balls.
Gavin Henson is a late withdrawal from the Welsh side due to injury, but these days we have plenty of strength in depth and can get along fine without Prince Goldenboots. Mark Jones is also injured, but young Leigh Halfpenny has already covered himself in glory in the autumn internationals and Heineken Cup, and should be an adequate replacement. The big relief is that Lee Byrne is fit after missing a few games. He and Martyn Williams are the only two Welsh players that don’t have top class cover.
Do I expect Wales to win again this year? Well, they ought to. But they also have a difficult fixture in Paris (on Friday night, a new departure for the competition) and a potential final weekend decider against the Irish. I’m hopeful about the championship. Winning a Grand Slam is hard, but I’m sure that Gatland and Edwards have set that as the goal.