With the Six Nations set to begin this weekend, Oli Davis gives his views on the six contenders chances:
The most eagerly anticipated Six Nations tournament in recent memory kicks off at the Millennium Stadium this Friday evening. England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy will provide 1,200 minutes worth of enthralling rugby as each team seeks the perfect preparation for the Rugby World Cup later this year. Here’s how I view the six teams stacking up:
England will enter the Welsh cauldron, roof open or closed, determined to right the wrongs of two years previously. Wales will be determined to inflict the same damage as in that 30-3 drubbing.
I worry about Stuart Lancaster’s England. There is a myriad of reasons as to why this campaign could be a painful one. Their injury list is almost as long as a middle-aged woman’s shopping list at Sainsbury’s, the pressure is greater than ever and not to mention the fact that every team, yes every team, wants to beat England the most.
However, despite having the likes of Owen Farrell, Ben Morgan, Joe Launchbury, Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden out (not to mention the others unavailable for the Wales opener), England undoubtedly have players capable of striking fear into the other nations. Their forward pack is certainly the strongest out of the six packs and with the returning Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole in the front row, the red rose will look to establish a solid set-piece platform from which to assert their game plan.
Their backs may be under-strength, however considering the supreme form of George Ford for Bath this season and with the pace of Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson out wide, this England back line is certainly not one to be underestimated.
Where to start with Les Bleues? It is an old cliché to question what to expect from them but it is an undeniably accurate one. Will we see an enthralling, laissez-faire brand of rugby? Or will they disappoint us as they have been guilty of in the past? Whatever the outcome, France are a team to be feared.
The midfield partnership of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud is potentially unstoppable. The guile of Fofana and the brute force of Bastareaud has been waiting to flourish together for a few years now. Outside of them, Teddy Thomas burst onto the scene against Fiji with a hat-trick before producing an incredible solo effort against Australia; no doubt all other teams will be wary of his potential.
The forward pack has been a bit of a revolving door for the French. Nicolas Mas is a sturdy prop, capable of competing with the best in the business. However the real key for the French forwards lies with Captain Thierry Dusautoir. His performances for the French over the years have been likened to the great Richie McCaw. Whilst perhaps not quite on McCaw’s level, he is certainly one of the exceptional flankers worldwide. As ever with the French, they will be strong candidates for the Championship, whether they achieve that goal is another matter.
The form book would suggest the Irish come into this tournament as the team most on song. Wins against the Springboks and Australia during the Autumn Internationals have raised Irish expectations substantially.
Jonathan Sexton is arguably the best Fly-Half in the world based on form over the past year. His game management is exceptional, he also has the ability to open up even the best defences in the world. His goal kicking has improved immeasurably and he has formed an extremely consistent Half-Back partnership with star Scrum-Half Connor Murray. However staying on the field has been a problem for him, he is ruled out of the first game against Italy.
As for the forwards, Cian Healy and Rory Best will again bring substantial experience and power in the Front Row. Behind them, the iconic Paul O’Connell will inevitably lead by example on the field once again, not being afraid to put his head where many other players would not. Last year’s champions, Ireland could go one better this year and take the Grand Slam.
The Italians have come a long way from being the perennial whipping boys of the tournament not so long ago. Still not yet getting the results to compete with the Northern Hemisphere heavyweights, Italy may well end up with the Wooden Spoon. However, as we have seen in years past, they have the capacity to spring a surprise. France, Scotland and Ireland have all suffered surprise losses to Italy in recent tournaments.
Captain Sergio Parisse is one of the most enjoyable players to watch worldwide, he is as close to a complete back-row forward as there is, whilst also possessing huge passion for his adopted country (he was born in Argentina). New Zealand-born Fly Half Kelly Haimona is touted by his Captain to solve Italy’s revolving door at Outside Half.
To go along with the experienced forward pack, including Martin Castrogiovanni, Italy have a number of young and exciting wide players. Michele Campagnaro, Giovanbattista Venditti and Leonardo Sarto all possess electric pace and showcased last year their potential. Campagnaro especially, was one of last year’s top performers. This year may well be another last-place finish for the Italians but underestimate them at your peril; this team has substantial raw talent.
The Scots will enter this tournament with a fair amount of confidence, determined to improve upon the limited success of recent memory. The Autumn series saw a string of good Scottish performances, none more so than the determined showing against the All Blacks. They also defeated Argentina with ease, showcasing some fantastic running rugby in the process.
Under Greig Laidlaw, they have a great leader and a metronomic goal-kicker who has showed a good vain of form since arriving at Gloucester. The Gray brothers will look to provide ballast in the Second Row whilst Ross Ford will seek again to prove why he is one of the best hookers in the tournament.
The concerns lie amongst the outside backs. The loss of Sean Maitland is a big blow because the New Zealand-born winger shone in last year’s championship alongside the ever present fullback Stuart Hogg. If Vern Cotter can get his backs moving quickly, orchestrated by Hogg, Scotland could surprise a few people. A strong performance in the first round against the French will certainly set them up well for the rest of the tournament.
The Welsh are becoming a bit like the French- which side will turn up? The powerful and precise Welsh sides sent out by Warren Gatland in years past? Or will it be the predictable and lacklustre one of last Six Nations?
Gatland has the fortune of being able to select a team that has been largely unhindered by injuries. Furthermore, his big name players George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts have been in a solid run of form for their respective clubs. In addition, by having Captain fantastic Sam Warburton alongside the ever-present Alun-Wyn Jones, Wales have two leaders capable of guiding their team magnificently when the going gets tough.
Should Wales convincingly send the English licking their wounds back to Twickenham, this could be the start of a special year for Welsh rugby. They have a squad of substantial talent which has, at least for the past couple of years, not quite ‘clicked’ completely. This Six Nations is the perfect opportunity to raise their standards from previous years.bookmark me