With what is expected to be a tight Six Nations kicking off this weekend, Kevin Beirne looks at each country’s aspirations.
Spring is here, which can only mean one thing: the business end of the rugby season. For the next month and a half the Heineken Cup will step aside to allow something even bigger to take centre stage. The Six Nations is back, and it promises to be more intriguing than ever.
This year’s tournament carries some extra, World Cup-shaped, baggage with it. Half of the teams in this year’s Six Nations lost in the knock-out round to another European team, and another two failed to qualify from groups which were won by their European counterparts, with only France being knocked out by a Southern Hemisphere team.
This means that there are five World Cup rematches on the cards, with three teams looking to avenge their World Cup defeats at home. These rematches will go a long way towards deciding who will win the tournament. 2012 is one of those exciting years where there is no out-and-out favourite.
With a new head coach at the helm, and the classic French temperament a constant factor, the French remain, as always, unpredictable. They played poorly in autumn, even losing to Tonga, but somehow only lost the final by a single point. This would seem to put them forward as automatic favourites. In order to win however, Thierry Dusautoir, IRB World Player of the Year, will need his men to reproduce the energetic play present in the final, rather than the dull, cynical style that got them there.
Wales pose arguably the biggest threat to France’s hopes. Although the form of the likes of Sam Warburton and Rhys Priestland has cooled since their semi-final defeat to France, their passion will not have. After their controversial loss in October, they will be looking for revenge in Paris on the last day of the tournament.
The loss of Shane Williams will be countered by the emergence of four young wingers with Alex Cuthbert, the oldest, only twenty-one years old. Warren Gatland clearly liked what he saw at the World Cup, and is continuing to put his faith in a youthful side that has the potential to dominate Europe for years. With two big away games for Wales, it won’t be easy to come out on top as this team isn’t built for instant success, so Wales may drop a few points in the tournament.
Ireland go into the tournament on the back of the most successful Heineken Cup group stage in their history, with three quarter-finalists, the most of any country this year. Ulster’s emergence as a contender has given Declan Kidney further ammunition, even if he seems unwilling to use it.
The exclusion of Dan Tuohy in favour of Donnacha Ryan is questionable, as is the continued inclusion of Paddy Wallace over a number of more gifted, younger players such as Eoin O’Malley or Nevin Spence. Kidney’s selections indicate he has one eye on the end-of-year world rankings, which decide the 2015 World Cup pools.
Fergus McFadden has the unenviable task of filling Brian O’Driscoll’s shoes. Kidney and Co. will hope that he can emulate O’Driscoll’s Parisian debut back in 2000, when he scored a hat-trick in Ireland’s only win in the French capital in the past forty years.
The reigning champions, England, look unlikely to retain their crown. With an interim head coach in place and an overhaul of players, English rugby finds itself in a state of flux. A disastrous World Cup, both on and off the pitch, has seen Stuart Lancaster select only seventeen players from the thirty-man squad that failed so spectacularly in New Zealand.
Scotland’s ambition will be to overpower Italy and possibly sneak a home win against another team. Edinburgh’s progress in the Heineken Cup bodes well for the future of Scottish rugby, but it is unlikely that they will finish any higher than fifth. Their home opener against England is their best chance to win against one of the big four.
Italy, meanwhile, will have their eyes cast to the north, with Scotland at home their best chance to win, and avoid their tenth wooden spoon since they joined the competition, this being their thirteenth season. It remains to be seen what effect the departure of Nick Mallet will have on the Azzuri, but one can’t but feel that it won’t be good. Sergio Parisse can only carry this team so far, and their victory over France feels more like a flash in the pan than a turning point.
In just under two months, we will know for sure what the answers to all of these questions are. One thing is certain, however; even in its 118th edition, rugby’s oldest tournament is as exciting as ever.