It’s early days but momentum is key….
The stage is set after months of anticipation – lineups have been named, players are poised and hordes of fans across Europe are warming their vocal chords, planning their entire weekends around kick-off. The RBS Six Nations is back.
The premier tournament in the world’s annual rugby calendar begins this weekend and as always, after more than two months without an international, it is an incredibly tough one to predict. Many of the previews i’ve read have understandably based their early predictions on the form of the Autumn believing that the 2013 Six Nations is going to be a two-horse-race between the red rose of England and Les Blues of France. As a subplot, for four nations the spotlight shines even brighter, with the carrot of places on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia this summer dangled in every round.
The dust has settled on the results of November but the astonishing nature of England’s victory against the World Champion All Blacks has them approaching their opener against Scotland full of confidence and belief. Progress has been immeasurable across the last 12 months under the tutelage of Stuart Lancaster and his team of coaches, and what’s more they have the comfort of a home advantage for three of their matches. There is no doubt that collectively England will want to pick up where they left off at Twickenham against the All Blacks, and do their best to silence those critics who believe that the ABs, struck down by illness, were an easier target than usual. Chris Robshaw will, as ever, lead from the front with an effervescent workrate while Joe Launchbury aims to build on a reputation that has snowballed since his Autumn performances.
France, meanwhile, destroyed a wounded (literally) Australian squad, savagely grabbed the Argentinian Pumas by the jugular, and finished an unbeaten series with victory against a confident Samoan side brandishing the scalp of the Welsh dragon from Cardiff. Their domestic game is simmering with Toulon, Montpellier and Clermont Auvergne all pushing for European glory and head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has a squad in rude health to select from. The French face a tricky opener in Rome where they lost to the Azzurri last time round but the physicality, unity and guile that they played with in November is worlds apart from 24 months ago. With daunting trips to Twickenham and to Ireland’s Aviva Stadium later in the tournament they will need the power of behemoth number 8 Louis Picamoles, the twinkle toes of Wesley Fofana and the game management of halfbacks Frederic Michalak and Maxime Machenaud to prevail.
The Celtic connection struggled to navigate their way through the Autumn storm without severe damage, but are the cracks still open or have the necessary repairs been made to allow the Scottish, Irish and Welsh squadrons to relaunch?
Scotland bounced back from the wooden spoon in the 2012 championship with a successful summer tour of Australia, Fiji and Samoa. But it provided only momentary respite with their EMC Autumn Series one to forget. Losses to the top 2 ranked teams in the world (New Zealand and South Africa) were tough but it was the shattering result in Aberdeen against a combative Tongan side that proved to be the end of Andy Robinson’s time in charge. As a result there is a very different look to the Scottish setup. Scott Johnson has quickly settled into his new role and has been forthright with his selection policy with one eye on form and the other on the future. Lest we forget, England were in a very similar position this time last year but have made progress based on performances and results – something which will be equally important for the boys in blue. Dean Ryan is an outstanding appointment as forwards coach. He will grab the bull by the horns and demand the very best of his men. His knowledge of English rugby is second to none and he has been straight talking in saying that he’d like to leave a few ‘bloody noses’ behind at the end of his short-term contract. Johnnie Beattie has discovered a new lease of life in the south of France and has the skillset to light up any game in a split-second. For years the firepower of Scotland’s attack has been questioned but with a quality pack providing set piece ball and the names of Maitland, Lamont, Visser and Hogg in the squad, expect them to ask plenty of questions of opposition defences.
Wales are bruised and damaged after 7 consecutive losses through the second half of 2012, but go into the 2013 season as holders and Grand Slam winners last time out. Questions continue to be asked about the sustainability of their domestic game a the mass exodus to France threatens. Lions head coach Warren Gatland steps back from his role with Wales and the next 7 weeks will hold huge significance for players looking to impress him and book a summer trip to Australia. They start the tournament with a handful of injuries having been hit particularly hard with the loss of three established locks. However, in the shape of Alex Cuthbert, George North, Eli Walker, Leigh Halfpenny and Lee Byrne, they have an embarrassment of riches to select from in the back 3. Life, it seems, goes on without King Shane Williams. Adam Jones’ return to fitness at tighthead prop is a huge boost and will add to the horsepower of the scrum. With good ball Wales have always had individuals capable of a mesmeric moment of brilliance to break a game. They hope the opening game against Ireland will stop the rot and provide a launchpad for more success this time round.
Ireland’s loss to Wales at the Aviva Stadium in their opening game of the 2012 tournament showed just how crucial momentum is in the 6 Nations. Their opener in Cardiff carries even more significance as in round 2 they return home for a showdown with England. As a result they’ll be desperate to power out of the blocks. They fly over the Irish Sea boosted by the return to fitness of Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and talisman Brian O’Driscoll after a loss to the Springboks and big wins against Fiji (uncapped fixture) and Argentina in the Autumn. Their domestic teams continue to impress on all fronts. After a trio of Heineken cup wins in the last 4 years Leinster were narrowly pipped to a quarter final spot by a rampant Munster side in the final round. Ulster topped a tough group and sit pretty, 11 points clear at the top of the RaboDirect Pro 12. Jonathan Sexton has stolen transfer headlines in recent weeks and will be desperate to show why European rugby’s biggest spenders chased his signature so desperately. I know they typically love their food but i’ll never claim to know much about the dark arts of the front rowers in the scrum. Critics, however, suggest there is a vulnerability to the Irish pack. If they can hold their own and unleash the likes of new skipper Jamie Heaslip, pocket rocket prop Cian Healy and slippery wingers Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy in open play, they are sure to capitalise on exposed weaknesses.
Finally to Italy. They will be determined, under coach Jacques Brunel, to take the positives of an Autumn victory against Tonga and an excruciatingly narrow loss to the Wallabies into this years tournament. Treviso’s mid-table status in the Pro12 has them easily competing against many of their opposition week on week and with 3 games at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico the Azzurri will have their eyes on taking a scalp or two. If Sergio Parisse had been born in New Zealand he could have been an all time great All Black such is his talent and class. Their talisman will continue to lead from the very front with shaggy monster Martin Castrogiavanni anchoring a powerful and monsterous pack. The key to their achievements this year could lie in performances of lesser known players, the likes of young centre Tommaso Benvenuti and lock Francesco Minto.
Predictions, Predictions – Round 1
Wales vs Ireland
A fixture which, for years, i’ve loved to watch as a neutral. This one is every bit as appetising with a number of players looking to book an early spot on the Lions tour in June. It will be decided by fine, fine margins. There promises to be a fascinating showdown at halfback and a mouth-watering battle in the midfield where Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy combine for a record 48th time against the power and guile of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts. Set pieces, as ever, will set the tone. Even the bookmakers have sensed that this one is almost impossible to call but I expect the madness and energy provided by the crowd and their rendition of Land of my Fathers will help squeeze the Welsh over the line.
England vs Scotland
Simply put, this historic fixture is one that unites six million Scots every year against the Auld Enemy. For England, the nation will accept nothing but victory. Twelve months ago the Calcutta Cup returned south from Edinburgh and started the journey for Stuart Lancaster and his army in white. In a dour affair, a narrow victory at Murrayfield was settled only by a Charlie Hodgson chargedown try. Expect Scotland’s interim head coach Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan to encourage their Scottish underdogs to play in the right areas and exert territorial pressure with a big emphasis on kick chase. Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray are giant towers of Scottish beef in the boiler house and will look to ask questions of Tom Youngs throwing at lineout time. There is, however, a settled looked to the English side for whom on-form Billy Twelvetrees debuts in place of the injured wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi. The bookies believe that England’s power game and the dependable kicking of Owen Farrell will lead them to a victory by more than two scores. Passion will undoubtedly run high and i’m looking forward the the atmosphere at English rugby’s headquarters. Expect a surprise or two from the Scots. Victory for the first time since 1983?….we’ll see.
Italy vs France
Rome is one of the finest cities in the world, steeped in history. Being able to balance the focus of the game with the ability to switch off and enjoy the spectacular surroundings the city offers is crucial, but easy to get this wrong. I expect the French, however, to brace themselves for battle in the cauldron of the Stadio Olimpico. Italy enter this year’s tournament with a new attitude and a belief that they have closed the gap. They will measure success, not on performances, but on wins. Though the are powered by a pack of forwards who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, questions continue to be asked whether they have the firepower behind the scrum to really dominate. Luciano Orquera must have his most accurate radar attached to his right boot to stay in touch. The French can be capricious on foreign soil, but with a dry day forecast on Sunday perfect for the likes of fleet-footed Maxime Mermoz, I expect Thierry Dusautoir to lead France to the two score win many predict.