In the second of TTT’s 6 Nations previews, we look at England’s opponents in the closing weekends of the tournament and the Red Rose themselves.
Round 4: Wales
Reigning Champions Wales will be vying to win their third consecutive title – and make rugby history as the first team to do so – while England, runners up to Wales for the last two years, will be looking to go one better.
One feels the tournament decider will come down to the fourth weekend as Wales travel to Twickenham. Whereas England suffered terribly in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – largely at the hands of Sam Warburton and his back row colleagues – the home advantage shifts this time around.
That said the stats didn’t lie last year pointing to Wales having the most complete game. In defence they were the best side of the tournament, missing just 8% of the tackles they attempted. And in attack they also had the best rucking statistics last season, securing possession from 97% of all the rucks they set up.
While they may be slightly set back with injuries to the likes of Jonathan Davies (and Sam Warburton starts on the bench in round one due to lack of game time) they still boast a wealth of power throughout the side, typical of Warren Gatland’s attritional style of wearing down oppositions through sheer stubborn force.
Adam Jones is a brute of a prop, Richard Hibbard a human wrecking-ball of a hooker and Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris mammoth in the second row. Toby Faletau will most likely be one of the top carriers and tacklers of the tournament, Mike Phillips is probably the largest, most powerful scrum-half in international rugby, Jamie Roberts is a bulldozer in the centre and with two wingers the size of George North and Alex Cuthbert it’ll take a monumental effort to stop the collective forward momentum. Prediction: 1st … or possibly 2nd … but probably 1st … again.
Round 5: Italy
The Azzurri recorded two historic wins in 2013 (and pushed England to the wire at Twickenham) raising them from tournament whipping boys to serious contenders. While few Italian names would feature in a World XV (even Sergio Parisse would most likely be pipped by Kieran Read) they have passion in spades and an ability to grind down opponents.
The Italians’ strength lies in their unrelenting refusal to give in, personified by the likes of Parisse and his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni. Parisse needs no introduction as Italy simply struggle without him but rarely does Zanni get the praise he deserves as he consistently leads his side’s stats for tackles and carries.
The front five are also one of significant international prowess with their set piece one of the best in the business – they had the best line-out (90%) and scrum (91%) success rates of any team in 2013. The problem lies in the backs. While the young Perpignan fly-half Tommaso Allen could be the answer to the country’s no.10 problems, the rest of the backline lacks the penetration to capitalise on this solid platform at the set-piece. Prediction: 5th.
And finally, England
As mentioned yesterday, England have their best chance of bringing home silverware, with what is rapidly approaching a world-class set of forwards. The pack is where England will be look to maul their way to the Championship, with a collective eight as good as any in the world – certainly good enough to give the All Blacks a run for their money in November.
The back row combination of Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood and Billy Vunipola in particular works well. Vunipola has emerged as one of the most powerful ball-carriers in world rugby, while Robshaw and Wood never fail to put in a phenomenal shift. With other abrasive forwards such as Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes playing some of their best rugby, the onus will be on the backs to convert what will inevitably be considerable forward momentum.
The problems as always comes in England’s lack of consistency in picking a backline and having Manu Tuilagi out for the Championship is a blow as no other ‘English’ centre possesses the same go-forward. Luther Burrell comes close and will likely be the man tasking with filling Tuilagi’s boots, whilst also having a slightly more subtle edge to his game which should hopefully allow the ball to be moved around a bit.
As such, Stuart Lancaster has picked a potentially hugely exciting set of pacey backs and not been afraid to drop Chris Ashton, who had a poor run during the autumn. The lack of experience on the wing is a worry, though. Jonny May has only one cap, while Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson would make their debut if selected for France. But (though it’s a big but) if Owen Farrell is able to put the likes of Burrell and co into gaps and the space subsequently opens up out wide, expect the back three to run riot, where they struggled last year – only crossing the tryline five times.
The success of England’s campaign will boil down to how quickly this fledgling side is able to click. A win in Paris and a steady build of momentum and the tournament could be ours for the taking, though Wales may just prove too strong. Prediction: 2nd … or possibly 1st … but probably 2nd … again!