With the Six Nations tournament getting underway tomorrow, Freddie Turner casts his eyes over the contenders and predicts who will come out on top.
The Six Nations, starting tomorrow with clashes between Wales and Italy as well as England and France, sees Northern Hemisphere’s finest coming together over five weekends and 18 matches to slug it out to be crowned the champions of Europe for 2014.
Such intense rivalries always make the tournament a standout on the rugby calendar; even more so this year with the 2015 World Cup little more than a year away. Sides will therefore be looking to lay down a benchmark and attempt to close the gap on the southern hemisphere giants. But which of the six competing nations are in contention for this illustrious crown?
Wales will be hoping to be crowned champions for the third successive year and maybe even go one better than 2013 by securing the Grand Slam. Their squad is laden with Lions, including BBC Sports Personality of the Year runner-up Leigh Halfpenny and rampant winger George North.
Their squad is littered with talent, depth and experience with every member of their starting line-up for this weekend’s opener against Italy having at least 20 caps. After battering England to reclaim the title at Cardiff last year, it would take a brave man to bet against the Welsh.
However, this autumn once again highlighted their inability to beat the Southern Hemisphere giants, with another loss to Australia making it 18 consecutive defeats. This has meant their world ranking remains sixth, behind both England and France. Moreover, domestic issues are causing a mass exodus of players to French and English clubs. Is the Welsh bubble about to burst?
It may seem bizarre to name last year’s ‘wooden spoon’ holders France (yes, France) as contenders for the crown, but 2014 could well be their year. Whilst their formidable national league is flooded with foreign imports, young French talent is competing at a very high level.
This coupled with the fact that France have been champions in each of the last four campaigns that have followed a Lions tour, winning the Six Nations in 1998, 2002, 2006 and in 2010, makes them serious challengers.
Much will depend on the dynamic centre partnership of Wesley Fofana and man-mountain Mathieu Bastareaud. If their powerful pack can afford their backs enough ball, we could see a return of the famous French flair.
The loss of captain and tackling supremo Thierry Dusuatoir is a critical one but other big names such as Yannick Nyanga may well be able to fill the void. As always, questions will be asked of their consistency and ability to win games away from Paris, but if Philippe Saint-Andre’s side play to their full potential, they will be a match for anyone.
After a promising autumn series, England will be hoping to keep up the momentum and win only their second Six Nations since 2003, whilst atoning for their humbling defeat in Cardiff last time around.
The pack appears one of the strongest in the tournament with depth across all areas; a number of dynamic players such as Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury ought to give extra impetus to England in both attack and defence, whilst Owen Farrell continues to impress in the international arena and will hope to cement his hold over the number 10 shirt going into a World Cup year.
However, England’s real issues lie in the backline. With Manu Tuilagi injured, the midfield combinations look unimpressive, and out wide neither position is nailed on. Chris Ashton has lacked international form for a fair while now and young speedstars Marland Yarde and Christian Wade will both miss the whole tournament with injuries.
This gives a chance to young debutants Anthony Watson, Johnny May and Exeter Chiefs’ Jack Nowell, all of whom could add much needed pace and flair but remain unproven and inexperienced. This weekend’s clash in Paris is perhaps Stuart Lancaster’s biggest yet as England coach.
It is perhaps contentious to not name Ireland as contenders, especially when their team contains the names of legends Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. However, they appear a team in transition with many players coming into the twilight of their careers.
Indeed, it is set to be O’Driscoll’s 14th and final championship, meaning he will want to bow out in a way in keeping with his spectacular career – but this seems unlikely. Very few of Ireland’s players are at the peak of their career and this championship is perhaps more a chance for new coach Joe Schmidt to blood new talent and try out different combinations.
Prop Cian Healy , Lions fly-half Jonny Sexton and winger Tommy Bowe all offer star quality and give Ireland a fighting chance, but ultimately matches in Paris and London, as well as the visit of Wales, will probably prove a bridge too far.
A solid team who are difficult to beat, Scotland finished in a very credible third place in 2013. Whilst they work hard and boast an imposing and well organised pack, the autumn once again highlighted their lack of class and cutting edge, especially in the back line.
Scotland lack creativity in the midfield, and there is still a question mark hanging over their first choice number 10. Stuart Hogg at fullback and Sean Maitland on the wing will provide their main attacking threat and much will be required from them if Scotland are to compete. Ultimately, a couple of wins is perhaps the best Scotland can hope for.
With only 11 wins out of 70 since they joined the Six Nations in 2000, and nine out of 14 wooden spoons, Italy are the perennial underdogs. 2013 was an impressive campaign by their standards, however, with a fourth placed finish and two wins over Ireland and France.
Italian captain Sergio Parisse is one of the best players in the world and he leads a huge pack capable of competing with most. However, they often lack fluency and dynamism in the backline. They are no longer a walkover, especially on home turf, but it is hard to imagine them winning more than one game this time around.bookmark me