Amid the doom and gloom of the winter months, the promise of a superb sporting spectacle approaches. The pinnacle of international European rugby, the RBS 6 Nations now attracts an average of upto 5million viewers per game and is broadcast live in 160 countries worldwide.
And so the giants of northern hemisphere rugby will battle it out once more for Europe’s most coveted prize.
OK, maybe not all of the giants of Europe. This year’s Championship will most likely come down to a battle between three of the home nations: England, Wales and Ireland.
Without wanting to tempt fate, this is as good a chance as any for England to take home the Championship and, dare I say it, the Grand Slam. England have the strongest pack and a potentially exciting backline. But more on that later … onto their opponents and where each of them will end up in the table.
Round 1: France
France have had a fairly dismal run in the 6 Nations in last couple of years, limping home to a bottom-of-the-table finish in 2013 (after a solitary win against Scotland in the final weekend) and only managing 4th the year before.
Les Bleus will have taken solace from two narrow defeats to New Zealand and South Africa during the autumn, albeit to underwhelming performances from the southern hemisphere sides, and should fare better this time round last year’s 6th place, despite boasting a heap of talent.
On paper Philippe Saint-Andre has named a squad with bucket loads of running flair. Castres fly-half Remi Tales [though he’ll miss the first fixture against England], who made his debut on last year’s summer tour to New Zealand, has a great ability to read a game and with the combination of pace and power outside him in the form of Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou, France pose a very serious attacking threat.
The key to France’s campaign will be the transition of ball from their forwards to these fleet-footed fliers and, with scrum-half Morgan Parra out for the tournament, this could prove troublesome. They will also miss Parra’s consistency with the boot as the side’s place-kicker. Another name on the extensive French injury list is captain extraordinaire Thierry Dusautoir, who suffered a ruptured biceps in a recent Heineken Cup game. Having a player of such stature out for the duration will be a significant blow.
Le Crunch should go England’s way, provided the forwards exert their power in Paris, and how the French play from there on in is anyone’s guess but with Italy at home and the spark to create an upset elsewhere, France should leave Scotland and Italy battling for the Wooden Spoon. Prediction: 4th
Round 2: Scotland
Scotland face a doubly tough ask in the first round of travelling to Dublin, given they generally start badly – they have only once before begun a 6 Nations campaign with a victory, when they beat France at Murrayfield in 2006 – and they generally lose away from home – their only away win in their last 17 6N fixtures was a victory over Ireland at Croke Park in 2010.
Ever so slightly breaking the mould of being a sinfully boring rugby team, it may surprise you to hear the Scots scored five tries from first phase play during last year’s tournament, the same as the other five nations combined. The emergence of an exciting back three in the form of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and a powerful finisher in Sean Lamont has unearthed a new attacking vigour in the Scottish backline.
A number of the squad have also benefitted from stints in France, including Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie, the no.8 in particular enjoying a fine run of form at Montpellier. He’ll likely form part of an imposing back row alongside captain Kelly Brown (also playing some of his best rugby at Saracens) and Ryan Wilson or Alasdair Strokosch.
However, ill-discipline may prove costly. In 2013 they conceded the most penalties of any nation, averaging almost 15 per match – unless they clean up their act, they could be in for a torrid time. The Wooden Spoon decider will come down to Scotland v Italy at Murrayfield, where Italy could well double their tally of previous away wins in the Championship. Prediction: 6th
Round 3: Ireland
Ireland will fancy themselves as strong contenders this year with three games at home including reigning champions Wales. New coach Joe Schmidt, the kiwi who lead Leinster to back-to-back Heineken Cup titles (2011 & 2012) has a pretty full armoury at his disposal, with Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll back to their inspiring best.
The big name missing from Schmidt’s squad is the bruising flanker Sean O’Brien but with Chris Henry in blistering form at Ulster, O’Brien may not be missed. Henry, a wily operator at the breakdown, provides a different, more natural openside option and should combine well with the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony.
Where Ireland should stand out from the crowd is in the precision of their line-outs. Donnacha Ryan won four more lineouts than anyone else during the 2013 RBS 6 Nations, topping the list with 23, and Rory Best was the best thrower-in with an 81% success rate. That sort of secure ball can provide an invaluable platform for Jonny Sexton to marshall his troops.
Even though Schmidt has omitted wingers Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy from the early rounds of the Championship, despite their return from injury, they and Tommy Bowe will likely wreak havoc in the later stages of the tournament. Prediction: 3rd.
Check back tomorrow for the second preview featuring Wales, Italy and England.