The 6 Nations kicks-off tonight with Wales hosting England at the Millennium Stadium. Brian Barry discusses five of his predictions for the tournament, ahead of this weekend’s opening games.
5. Wales to win the Championship and Triple Crown
While all the talk is surrounding Ireland, entering the tournament, the championship may move across the Irish Sea for 2015. The Welsh come into the tournament on the back of a promising November series, highlighted with a hard-fought victory over South Africa.
It may be a cliché, but the 6 Nations is all about momentum. In that sense, tonight’s game against the English is key to their title credentials.
Win this evening, and the path becomes clear for Warren Gatland’s side. With Ireland calling to Cardiff in the fourth game, the only tie the Welsh will not be confident of a win is France away. Perhaps this may be a stumbling block, but Sam Warburton and co. look good value for a Triple Crown and 6 Nations win.
4. Robbie Henshaw to win player of the tournament
Symptoms of Irish PBSD, Post BOD Stress Disorder, have not lasted long. Robbie Henshaw is the new darling of Ireland.
With emphatic autumn displays, his stock has only risen in the interim, putting in performance after performance for Connacht.
The former fullback has impressed in defence as well as attack, and while there has been debate as to who will partner the NUIG student in the midfield, there is a renewed sense of confidence in the centre.
Robbie Henshaw is one of many 6 Nations virgins surrounded by hype, with the likes of Camille Lopz, Teddy Thomas, and Ross Ford also grabbing attention.
Ireland will go far, and with the daunting prospect of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud running down the channel next week, Henshaw will need to step up. Nothing has fazed the 21-year-old thus far, and there is little to suggest he will shirk the upcoming challenge.
3. England to struggle
England are hosting the World Cup later this year, with the weight of expectation on their shoulders. Stuart Lancaster took over at the beginning of this cycle, overseeing a young team with the ultimate goal of capturing the Webb Ellis trophy on home soil.
The fact that they are second favourites to do so would suggest they are entering this 6 Nations in good shape, right?
It could be argued that the Red Rose are no closer to clicking than they were three years ago. There is neither fluidity nor consistency to their performances, illustrated through the manner in which Lancaster switched tact and changed out-half in November.
Chris Ashton and Owen Farrell, the poster boys of the Lancaster revolution, have receded into rugby obscurity.
With trips to Cardiff and Dublin, the English will struggle. A final day tie with a championship-chasing France will act as a shot at redemption. Ending on a high may paper over the cracks on the outside, but in truth, England have a long way to go to be considered contenders next autumn.
2. France to Find Balance with Camille Lopez
While the French rugby team possess the consistency of WWW, their one true problem has been at 10. Freddy Michalak, Francois Trinh Duc, David Skrela.
They have come and gone, yet none of them have left a real impact on the international scene. The fact that no French out-half features in the top 10 all-time 6 Nations points scorers speaks volumes.
Enter Camille Lopez. The Clermont fly-half was injured last season, but enters 2015 in a rich vein of form. While it may be a fool’s hope from a French perspective, there is a belief that Lopez is the answer.
Although his goal-kicking is far from the finished article, the 25-year-old is a genuine world-class playmaker. If he can make these French backs gel, the rest of Europe should be very afraid.
1. Scottish improvement, but few results
The Vern Cotter era has brought a sense of optimism in Scotland. A strong showing against New Zealand and a victory over Argentina in November hinted that perhaps the Scots are finally prepared to emerge from the doldrums.
However, barring the home win against Italy, it is difficult to envisage another Scottish triumph. They will fancy taking a scalp against Wales or Ireland in Edinburgh. As for their Parisian date, a French flop will be relied upon. Having said that, they will not be ruled out of any tie.
It is positive to see a genuinely competitive Scotland once again, but unfortunately, they may struggle to record more than one win at this tournament.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.
Featured image By Nick Richards (Flickr: millenium stadium inside) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons