By Rhys Thomas
January 31 2012
It's back! The Six Nations returns on Saturday 4th February, and we take a look at the competing teams, all vying for Grand Slam glory.
Les Bleus were a whisker away from being World Champions after a long and tortuous campaign, and public splits in the camp made for uneasy viewing. Now however, Marc Lièvremont has departed, and former Toulon and Sale head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has come in. It will be interesting to see how he manages all the egos and fixes all the splits in the camp. He has experience of managing big players, and that will come through in this tournament. They have world-class players like Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Vincent Clerc to name but a few. As usual, they have the potential to be the best or the worst. They lost to Tonga at the World Cup, yet got to the final. If they can form a cohesive unit, nobody will stop them, and the All Blacks will be quaking in their boots.
The Italians are perennially in last place. Aside from a win against France last year, and various wins against Wales and Scotland since 2000, the Italian team haven’t secured very many victories, despite possessing the talents of captain Sergio Parisse and Prop star Martin Castrogiovanni. They have moved their home games to Stadio Olimpico, and they are hoping for over 70,000 attendees for the match against England, which will be a huge boost for the sport in Italy. Rugby in Italy has already been boosted by Treviso and Aironi playing in the Pro12, but can they transfer that form into international Rugby? They offer very little behind, apart from last year’s Player of the Tournament Andrea Masi and Mirco Bergamasco. It is entirely possible that the Italians could win both home games, including one against Scotland, but I don’t think that they will. They will secure one win at home, although I can’t say with any confidence which side.
The English are a side in transition. With players like Lewis Moody retiring, and head coach Martin Johnson resigning, it’s all change at Twickenham. Their squad has nine new players in it, and a new head coach in Stuart Lancaster. He has previously coached Leeds and the Saxons, and has brought in Andy Farrell from Saracens as assistant. Lancaster has taken the team up North for their training camp, instead of the luxurious Pennyhill Park that previous England teams have stayed at. There isn’t a core of experienced players like previous sides, but there is the usual smattering of non-English players. Truthfully, I don’t think anybody can predict how England will do at this Six Nations, but I think that they won’t gel in time or indeed have the required quality to make a dent in this tournament. Hopefully for them the arrogance will have been washed away by Lancaster and his Northern adventure, because come February 4th, there will be no place for cockiness up at Murrayfield.
The Irish suffered a bitter blow losing Brian O’Driscoll for the whole tournament, and their campaign could be defined by the loss of that one player. He is a talisman, simply one of the greatest players to pull on that green jersey. Who will fill in for him? Keith Earls seems to be the front-runner, although wingers Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble can both play there. One thing is for certain, they are big boots to fill, and it could be a sign of the future for Ireland. They crashed out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage to Wales, a result that still rankles to this day. They have one of the
best back-rows around in Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip, and of course two top quality outside-halves in Jonny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara. We will see how Ireland want to play, just by their number 10 selection, it’s that key for them. It’s an aging team, and this could be one of the last tournaments where they have such an experienced team. Much has not changed since the World Cup however, and we know what happened there.
The Scots had a disappointing campaign, losing to both England and Argentina, and failed to get to the quarter-finals. The glaring problem for them is the inability to score tries, despite having the likes of Max Evans and the Lamont brothers on the pitch. Dan Parks of Cardiff Blues is first choice 10 for them, although many feel that he isn’t what Scotland need to score more tries. In my view, they don’t need to score tries. They have been the nearly men ever since Andy Robinson took over. Take the World Cup game against Argentina. They were narrowly behind until Parks came on and slotted a drop-goal. The only reason Scotland lost that game was their lapse in defence with let the Argentines score soon after the drop-goal. It’s not tries they need, it’s the bloody mindedness to finish off a game – and what better time to do that than against the English at a packed Murrayfield.
Even though Wales were one of the standout teams at the RWC, injuries could severely dent Wales’ title hopes this time around. It looks like Priestland, Jenkins, Roberts and Lydiate are out of the Ireland game, and that really sets the tone for the whole championship. Even with the injuries, Wales should be looking to win the Grand Slam. Every team has injuries, and the replacements need to stand up and be counted, especially James Hook, looking every inch a 10 since he came back from Perpignan. What impressed everyone at the World Cup might not be around now. The fitness may have deteriorated, even though they have had another camp, the effect might not be so drastic. The “club” mentality the team developed was beneficial, but being back at the regions could’ve damaged that. Gatland will have a tough job bringing it back round, but he needs to, because Wales have the potential to be World beaters, and it all starts here.