It is that time of year again. Spring is beginning to break through the Winter’s sky. Cue the Six Nations. November brought mixed fortune for Europe’s elite, and teams look to either carry on their momentum or set the record straight. Throw an approaching Lions Tour into the mix and it makes for a mouth-watering prospect.
Hopes, if not expectations, are high in the Ireland camp. A solid Autumn Series has laid a platform for Declan Kidney’s charges to launch an assault on the Championship. Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Richardt Strauss aside, Ireland go into the Wales game with a clean bill of health. A new wing partnership of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy will be the only major shake-up from last year. They look set to challenge the defences of Europe, and they will score tries. All four provinces had wins on the final match-day of the Heineken Cup which should see them traveling to Cardiff with a pep in the step. Should they overcome the Welsh, the path becomes a bit clearer. They have England and France at home; the former have not come out of Dublin with 2 points in the 6 Nations since 2003, whereas that year was the last year the French were beaten at Landsdowne Road, which makes for a happy hunting ground for Les Blues. Kidney and co are due a big year. Watch this space.
The dust still hasn’t settled on England’s resounding win against the All Blacks in November, having lost the two previous games versus Australia and South Africa. Stuart Lancaster’s charges are tipped by many for the Grand Slam, but with trips to Dublin and Cardiff ahead of them, it may not be all so simple. Owen Farrell is the key man for them. They fought fire with fire against New Zealand and came out on top, but the Northern Hemisphere game is a different entity entirely. The out-half is the key role in the European game. No team has won a Grand Slam without their number 10 firing on all cylinders. He must make sure he nails his kicks; the ability to release the likes of Ashton and Tuilagi is redundant should he miss from the placed ball. We saw this side of him on his visit to Thomond Park earlier in the season. If he ticks, England will tick; and if England tick, they will take some stopping.
The other obvious contender for the title are France. Les Blues displayed a tour de force in November, swatting aside Australia and Argentina before stuttering to a labouring win over Samoa, which raises the age-old question; which France will turn up on the day? Over the last few years, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly from the French. They lost to Italy on their last visit to Rome, but marched onto the World Cup Final a few months later. Pascal Pape takes over the captaincy and he will need everything his colleagues have to offer in their arsenal if the French are to claim the title for the first time since 2010. With daunting trips to Dublin and London, it would be a deserved title for Phillipe Saint-Andre’s men if they could pull it off.
For a team defending a Grand Slam, very few fancy the Welsh. Having been whitewashed in the Autumn, they must regroup to find that free flowing rugby which saw them power through the competition last year. If they get it right, the big running backs will be a threat to anyone, and few can cope with the power and pace of Alex Cuthbert, George North and Jamie Roberts. However, there is a feeling that it is simply not their year, and should they lose to Ireland on the opening day, things could start slipping very quickly with a visit to Paris the following week. They will not be happy with it, but having already slipped outside of the top 8 in the World Rankings, they could be looking at finishing in the bottom half of the table here too.
Scotland finally parted ways with Andy Robinson, after a disastrous three games before Christmas, culminating in a humiliating loss to Tonga at home. Scott Johnson has come in as interim coach to try steady the ship. A win at home against Italy is a must. From there, it is difficult to see where Scotland are going to get their wins from. Home fixtures against Ireland and Wales look their best bets, but 5th would be a good return for them having got the Wooden Spoon in 2012.
Italy must be tired of being the nearly men of Europe. Having just missed out against the touring Australians two months ago, Jacques Brunel’s charges are agonisingly close to finding the break-through. Having not gone through a tournament without a win since 2009, Sergio Parisse and co are making strides in the right direction. Competing in the Rabo Direct Pro 12, most of the players will be used to playing against the top players on a weekly basis. Italy are becoming an increasingly tricky proposition in Rome, and do not rule them out to grab another win against the traveling Irish, Welsh or French.
You cannot win the Six Nations Championship in the opening two rounds, but you can certainly lose it, and it is a vital springboard for success. There will be thrills and spills, cheers and jeers, and plenty of tries. It is the greatest rugby competition on the planet. Enjoy.
SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Brian Barry.