Six Nations: Irish hopes high but France favourites to end long drought

By Sports Desk February 04, 2022

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

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    Kalvin Phillips is "incredibly excited" by the prospect of working under Pep Guardiola after completing his move to "world-class club" Manchester City on Monday.   The England midfielder joined from Leeds United on a six-year deal at the Etihad Stadium and is the Premier League champions' third signing of the window after Erling Haaland and Stefan Ortega.   Phillips had been with his home club since the age of 14 but the opportunity to work with one of the game's greatest coaches was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.   "City have again proved to be the best team in the country with an amazing squad and a manager in Pep Guardiola who is rightly considered to be the finest in the world," Phillips told the club's website.   "To be able to play under Pep and learn from him and his coaching staff as well as be part of a such a fantastic squad is a prospect that I am incredibly excited about.    "City are a world-class club with world-class staff and facilities and it’s a dream come true to have joined the club.    "Now I can't wait to get started and to look to try and help the team to go on and achieve more success."

    The departure of the midfielder brings to a close a 12-year association with Leeds, whom he came through the academy system with, and helped steer back to the Premier League in the 2019-2020 campaign.

    Phillips addressed the club and its supporters in a lengthy statement on social media shortly after the confirmation of his transfer, thanking them all and reserving additional praise for former boss Marcelo Bielsa.

    The Argentine, who guided Leeds back to the top-flight before he was relieved of duties earlier this year, is widely credited with turning the midfielder into one of the sharpest talents in the English game.

    "I would like to express how much of a privilege it has been to play for this amazing club," Phillips stated. "Since making my debut at 17, it has been a journey any Leeds lad could wish for.

    "When I was young, I went to see my first ever Leeds game at Elland Road and from that moment, I knew that my dream was to put on that white shirt and walk out on that pitch.

    "I'd like to thank everyone involved at the club for making Leeds one of the best clubs on earth. Every manager I have played under for showing trust in me and teaching me all I know.

    "I cannot mention Leeds without mentioning one special person - Marcelo. [You are] the best manager I have ever come across.

    "He was a man that gave the club life, he gave the players, and everyone involved in the club belief that we were good enough to return to the Premier League."

    Phillips' arrival at the Etihad Stadium came on the same day that Gabriel Jesus completed a £45million switch to Arsenal.

    Leeds also confirmed on Monday that 18-year-old midfielder Darko Gyabi has joined the club from City for an undisclosed fee in a separate deal to the one involving Phillips.

    The youngster played 10 times for City's Under-23 side last season and has been capped 12 times by England at youth level.

    Gyabi becomes Leeds' fourth signing of the window, following the arrivals of Brenden Aaronson, Rasmus Kristensen and Marc Roca.

  • England's Curry ruled out for rest of Australia tour with concussion England's Curry ruled out for rest of Australia tour with concussion

    Tom Curry will play no further part in England's tour of Australia after he was ruled out for the remaining two games through concussion.

    The Sale Sharks flanker started for Eddie Jones' side in Saturday's first Test in Perth, but was replaced by Lewis Ludlam at the half-time break as the Wallabies snapped their losing streak in a dramatic 30-28 fightback win.

    Curry had travelled to Brisbane for the tourists' next match, but will now fly back to England later this week in what is a sizeable blow.

    The 24-year-old - a member of the British and Irish Lions party that toured South Africa last year - is considered a frontrunner for Jones' squad at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

    "It has been agreed that in the interest of player welfare and recovery, [Curry] will take no further part in the tour," the Rugby Football Union confirmed in a brief statement.

    It is not yet known whether England will call up a replacement for Curry, who is the first noticeable injury the tourists have had to deal with.

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  • Phillips, Guardiola and Man City a match made in heaven Phillips, Guardiola and Man City a match made in heaven

    When it comes to recruitment and squad construction, there aren't many clubs – if any – that are run more effectively than Manchester City.

    Their Premier League title success in the 2021-22 season was just another reminder of how good they are on the pitch, yet the people in charge are not the types to simply sit around admiring their achievements.

    Even before winning a fourth Premier League crown in five years – a feat only ever previously managed by Alex Ferguson's Manchester United – it was clear where City were going to strengthen.

    A deal for arguably the most sought-after striker in world football, Erling Haaland, was wrapped up two weeks before the season ended, and then with Fernandinho expected to depart, another central midfielder was to be the second priority.

    Kalvin Phillips proved to be the chosen one, with City confirming on Monday that the England international has completed his reported £45million move from Leeds United, having undergone a medical on Friday.

    It's an impressive statement by City, who have already bolstered their two primary problem areas – if you can call them that – by the first week of July.

    And with respect to Phillips' signing, there's a lot to suggest it's a shrewd acquisition.

     

    Moulded by Bielsa

    Of course, the most obvious – and arguably crucial – link here is Marcelo Bielsa. It was under the Argentinian coach that Phillips has played the best football of his career and cemented himself as an England regular.

    Bielsa is also considered one of Pep Guardiola's greatest inspirations, with an apparent 11-hour meeting between the pair back in 2006 said to have played a major role in the City boss' decision to go into management.

    The similarities between the two coaches' styles of play are significant, and this should facilitate a smooth transition for Phillips.

    Under Bielsa he'll have become accustomed to not only intense training sessions, but also a playing philosophy that revolves around possession-based football and relentless counter pressing.

    In terms of the latter, City are perhaps a little more considered in their efforts compared to Bielsa's Leeds, but either way Phillips has been exposed to the same fundamentals, and that can only be a tick in the pros column.

    After all, a second-season bounce has become commonplace for signings under Guardiola. Numerous players have needed a full campaign to truly get to grips with the demands required by the Catalan coach before going on to show significant improvement and growth thereafter – Phillips might be better-equipped than most to hit the ground running.

    But that brings up a separate issue; what will Phillips be to City?

    Rodri the immovable object

    Having come through Leeds' academy, established himself as a key player and then gone on to be a fulcrum in Bielsa's team, Phillips was the first name on the teamsheet – when fit – for several years at Elland Road.

    Regardless of his suitability for City, it seems unlikely he'll enjoy a similar status in Guardiola's team. Phillips is at his most effective as lone defensive midfielder, but so too is Rodri, and it's difficult to imagine the Spain international being suddenly taken out of the team given how effective he's proven to be.

    Rodri's 2,937 successful passes in the opposition's half since the start of the 2020-21 season is over 400 more than any other Premier League player, and his 577 ball recoveries over the same period is the joint-most alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, though the Dane has played almost 1,000 minutes more.

    Of course, who's to say Phillips couldn't play the role even more effectively? But the key thing to consider is that Rodri has an important function in both keeping City on the ball and then winning it back when they don't, and he demonstrably does both well.

    Nevertheless, Guardiola's proven he's a coach keen to rotate. He gave at least 900 minutes of Premier League football to 18 players last season, with only four teams bettering that, so Phillips can still expect plenty of game time.

    And, to be fair, Phillips might not have even been up to the task of being a regular starter for City given how much time he spent sidelined last season.

    A match made in heaven

    Clearly, then, Guardiola's rotation policy would suggest Phillips will have opportunities to deputise for Rodri and take up the back-up role vacated by Fernandinho, yet there's no doubt he possesses the skillset to also play alongside the former Atletico Madrid midfielder as well.

    First and foremost, he's a more progressive player than Rodri. Over the past two seasons, 28 per cent of Phillips' passes have been forward, the exact same figure as Fernandinho and a fair bit more than Rodri's 20 per cent.

    Similarly, in the same period Phillips has played 3.5 passes into the box every 90 minutes, whereas Rodri has averaged two, and his 1.0 dribble attempts each game is also slightly more than his new team-mate (0.9).

    But in a way it shouldn't necessarily matter which midfield role Phillips plays in, given he has a range of abilities that should suit him either as a number six or a number eight, especially in a Guardiola team.

    On top of that, Phillips doesn't turn 27 until December, so he is very much entering his prime years, and if anyone can squeeze every ounce of potential out of a player, it's Guardiola.

    Then when you consider Phillips' history with Bielsa and type of team he played in at Leeds, everything points to this being a match made in heaven.

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