LIAM BOTHAM WEEKEND COLUMN

In the world of rugby, regional championships don’t come more popular than Europe’s Six Nations Tournament – for those who don’t know featuring England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy.

The Tournament begins on the first Saturday in February and finishes on the second or third weekend in March, and it is widely watched and supported not only in Europe, but around the world.

It dates back to 1883, when the four home nations battled it out, became the ‘Five Nations’ in 1910 with the addition of France, and ‘Six Nations’, when Italy joined in 2000.

The winning team receives the recently redesigned Championship Trophy, made from sterling silver and said to be capable of holding five litres of champagne.

On form, France are the favourites to win the 2021 Six Nations, as they look formidable with head coach Fabian Galthie having brought on board Shaun Edwards, whose defensive tactics are legendary.

Edwards is one of the world’s leading coaches, he makes a difference wherever he goes and has already done so with the former erratic French Team. It’s a mystery to me how Wales could allow his departure.

France take on Italy in the opener in Rome, and the game should be a formality for Le Bleus, who face a youthful Azzuri side.

England cross swords with Scotland at Twickenham, which normally holds a defining advantage for the home side, but the empty Covid-19 stadiums can have the same influence in rugby as they are deemed to have had in football the last several months. With much of the atmosphere gone, we’re bound to see a few indifferent results.

I’m not suggesting France will go down to Italy – the Azzuris are Wooden Spoon contenders for the 16th time in their Six Nations history, but the 150th Calcutta Cup at Twickenham has the potential for an upset.

England pulled victoriously through the Autumn Season, but it wasn’t pretty, and the Scottish, with a more expansive game predicted, have a realistic chance of tumbling the apple cart on this occasion.

At scrum-half, Ben Youngs will win his 105th cap for England, and plays alongside his formidable partner, Owen Farrell. The fly-half, in turn, has Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade starting on his outside at centres.

I’m looking forward to seeing Lawrence, the powerhouse backliner, square things up with his former English Under 20 centre-mate, Cameron Redpath, the crafty playmaker.  Redpath’s father, Bryan, was a Scottish international, and his youngster has decided to return to Scotland after his spell in England.

We’re set for a good battle of skills, too, between the England back row of Mark Wilson, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola, and their Scottish counterparts Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson and Hamish Watson.

To sum this one up: A closely matched affair with upset potential. I’ll leave it there.

It’s Wales, at home in Cardiff, vs Ireland in the third Six Nations encounter.

You would’ve read in my first two columns about the rampant Irish Clubs who top both Conference A and B in the Pro 14 Championship with Leinster and Ulster, Munster and Cannacht.

The Welsh, invariably tenacious wherever they play, seem up against it this time. They are out of sorts and bump some exciting players, full of flair. I’ll side with the Irish.

There’s a full English Premier schedule this weekend,- as noted last week I enjoy the new, young players, getting their chances to impress, and I also enjoy the rivalry at the bottom of the table, where relegation looms.

Last year, due to Saracens Salary cap deduction and relegation, the rest of the Premiership teams were in a comfortable position of knowing they were safe. This year with Covid-19, there is a rumour that there again will be no Relegation but no firm decision has been made, so the bottom of table Gloucester are likely to throw the kitchen sink at London Irish, who are 4 places above them, but I think it will be a home win for the Irish although Gloucester have to turn this unexpected poor form around.

Harlequins threw a spanner in the form book with their surprise beating of WASPS last week and will be out to maintain their good form against Bath, another team who are playing well below their potential and need a big win to turn their season around in order not be in the  potential relegation dog fight.

WASPS will no doubt make an attempt to restore confidence in the team embarrassed by Harlequins last week. At their normal level of play they should have an edge over Northampton, who are showing better form this season and are only one point behind Wasps. This could be the best game of the weekend.

Strugglers Leicester and Worcester go head-to-head – Leicester are far from the heights they have been used to in previous decades. It was only due to the fact that Saracens were relegated last season that Leicester are still in the premiership. Again, their form has been poor but could see some improvement fielding an all-South African back row in Cyle Brink, Jasper Wiese and Henro Liebenberg. I will go for a home win for Tigers.

Sunday’s game is interesting with the surprise package of the Season Newcastle hosting last year’s European and premier champions, Exeter. Newcastle will be tough to beat at home as Dean Richards has transformed the much fancied relegation favourite to being a force. I will go for Exeter as they are wounded due to Bristol (at the time of writing) being 5 points ahead of them and sitting pretty at the top!

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