Preview: Six Nations

 
 

England

England will enter the tournament in good spirits after demolishing the world champions, New Zealand, 38-21 at Twickenham in December. The victory was all the more satisfying as it was the All Blacks’ first defeat since August 2011. This certainly shows the potential of the English team as they simply brushed aside the powerhouse of international rugby in such thrilling fashion.

The high expectations of English fans have weighed down on the team since their World Cup victory nearly ten years ago, with only one Championship and no Triple Crowns during the most barren period for English rugby since the professional era began.

Since the victory in the 2011 Championship, Stuart Lancaster has taken the helm as English head coach. Under Lancaster’s stewardship, England have continued their resurgence in the 2012 Championship, with impressive victories over Ireland in Twickenham and France in Paris last year cementing the fact that this English team has the potential to beat any team in any stadium.

England will hope to build on the promise they have shown in the previous two Championships and expectations will be extremely high after they dismantled the seemingly unbeatable All Blacks. It will be interesting to see if this young English side can handle the weight of expectation thrust upon them. If they can pass this mental examination, England could prevail with their first Grand Slam in ten years.

The English have developed an exciting backline with potent finishers such as Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. Youngsters such as Manu Tuilagi and outhalf Owen Farrell have been added to the backs to add more options and quality. Farrell looks like being the key man for England, as he looks to build on an impressive first Championship in 2012.

Farrell has the potential to become the long-term replacement for Jonny Wilkinson at flyhalf, an issue England have struggled with since the legend left for France. Despite his tender years, Farrell has provided mature performances and, if he is on form, he can lay the platform for the potent backline outside him to wreak havoc.

If Farrell’s development as one of world rugby’s brightest stars continues on an upward curve, England could be looking at a return to the fruitful times reminiscent of a decade ago.

France

The French enter the 2013 Championship as favourites, owing to the excellent form of their clubs in Europe. Clermont and Toulon have excelled, with Clermont in particular, impressive in their back-to-back victories over reigning champions Leinster in December. The national team also impressed in the autumn internationals, with comprehensive victories over Argentina and Australia.

Philippe Saint-André has an embarrassment of riches with which to select his squad from, so even if the French were struck by injuries the quality and depth of his squad should still shine through. Nicolas Mas and Dimitri Szarzewski will look to dominate opponents at scrum-time, with new captain Pascal Papé and Yoann Maestri forming a formidable duo in the engine room.

Ex-captain Thierry Dusautoir forms a back-row with Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga that is both athletic and destructive. Morgan Parra, Frédéric Michalak and François Trinh-Duc will vie for the half back roles, with Michalak enjoying his best rugby since the 2003 World Cup.

The recalled battering ram, Mathieu Basteraud, could well make his return to the fold with either Wesley Fofana or the exciting, uncapped Gaël Fickou as his partner. Maxime Mermoz and Florian Fritz add serious competition for these places. On the wing, Vincent Clerc is only two tries behind the French record while Yoann Huget and Benjamin Fall look set to complete the back three.

The French remain an enigma; able to either delight or frustrate their fans, and sometimes both, on any given day. Saint-André will look to focus a French team that is capable of dominating Europe, if only they could find some consistency.

The key games for the French will be the back-to-back away games to England and Ireland. A potential Grand Slam decider looms in Dublin, but only if the French can overcome the English at Twickenham. If they can, they will be riding a wave of momentum into the Aviva Stadium against an Irish team that has underachieved since the 2009 Grand Slam apart from a couple of games here and there.

Ireland

The Irish team will go into the Six Nations on the back of a positive autumn series, where they won two of their three games, losing narrowly to South Africa by four points. Kidney’s men finished their autumn on a high, with a convincing 46-24 win over old foe, Argentina.

The victory over the South Americans was all the more impressive as it was achieved without seasoned campaigners such as Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Stephen Ferris. In their absence, Craig Gilroy has emerged as an option on the wing and Mike McCarthy stood out as an alternative for the second row.

The Grand Slam of 2009 is quickly becoming a faded memory and this team will want to ensure their status as one of Ireland’s greatest ever with another Championship. Ireland will garnish hope from the fact that England and France, traditional giants in the northern hemisphere, will visit the Aviva Stadium in February and March. A tough opener is expected though in Cardiff against a Welsh team who will be attempting to prove a point after a dismal autumn.

The central figure is Ireland’s push to regain the Six Nations Championship this year will be Jonathan Sexton. Much of the burden will rest on the broad shoulders of the flyhalf who will be constantly scrutinised due to his key position on the paddock. This pressure will be even heavier due to the loss of Tommy Bowe and Paul O’Connell.

If Sexton can get his kicking and playmaking correct, Ireland could be close to the top of the table come St. Patrick’s weekend. It will also be interesting to see how Heaslip will handle the weight of expectation on him as he replaces a legend as captain, despite O’Driscoll’s insistence that he would like to continue to hold the position.

Ireland will enter the 2013 Six Nations in hope rather than expectation, but with world-class players still at Declan Kidney’s disposal, they will believe they can win a second Grand Slam in five years. With Kidney’s contract due to expire this year, a strong Irish performance is needed to secure another few years for the Munsterman.

Italy

Coming into this year’s Six Nations, Italy are realistic in their goals and fans should be content with the idea of a second straight fifth place finish. Having broken a three-in-a-row chain of last place finishes, head coach Jacques Brunel will have the 2015 World Cup in mind.

Expect Brunel to utilise this tournament to test the waters and replicate the results that allowed the Frenchman to put Italy into the world’s top ten rankings and into Group D of the World Cup (alongside France and Ireland).

An indicator of what can be expected from the Italian side can be found in the Autumn Internationals, which began with a grinded out victory over Tonga. Whilst not wholly impressive, the performance was a display of resiliency and fortitude, as well as admittances of failing to provide suitable pressure and an unfocused approach to ball control.

Comparing Italy’s game plans against New Zealand and Australia not only shows a maturity in the Italian game, it also saw the Azzuri being highly competitive in a narrow defeat to Australia, a game in which many believe the Italians were unlucky to walk away as the losers.

Italy attempted an attacking strategy, which held a promising amount of success on the top two ranked teams in the world. With New Zealand, Italy were thoroughly outmatched, with any mistakes being continually capitalised by the All Blacks, despite the score line being every indication of a sweep, a lost lineout attack and a New Zealand try were really all that clinched the game.

With Australia, Italy came out fully aggressive, particularly in the way they dominated the scrum, yet it took them well into the second half until they could find their confidence, and truly establish a working rhythm.

From these performances, a basis for Italy’s general strategy can be discovered; first and foremost being an aggressive output, yet a polishing and refining in terms of passing and ball control could create a formidable side.

Italy comes into this Six Nations from a very interesting perspective. Freed from the notions of history, they are attempting to wipe the slate clean and build an effective attacking squad, with 27 players who featured last November picked for this year’s tournament.

Scotland

Scotland come into the 2013 Championship heavily favoured for the dreaded Wooden Spoon. A disastrous autumn campaign, resulting in the resignation of Andy Robinson as coach, saw the Scots fall to the bottom of the third tier of nations for the 2015 World Cup draw. The new coach, Australian Scot Johnson, will look to turn the fortunes of this ailing rugby nation around.

Up front, Scotland will rely heavily on the ball-carrying ability of their one world-class forward: second row Richie Gray. They will look to try and play a game based on set piece, with Gray and Alastair Kellock especially effective come lineout time. Prop Euan Murray and hooker Ross Ford will aim for at least parity in the scrum.

A back-row combining Kelly Brown, John Barclay and the re-called John Beattie make for a strong unit on paper. Indeed looking at the Scottish pack, this could be said for them all. In spite of this strength up front, the Scottish backline is possibly the weakest in European rugby.

The retirement of Mike Blair means that Greg Laidlaw is the favourite for the scrumhalf position. Laidlaw is a solid kicking halfback, capable of playing both nine and ten, and helped guide Edinburgh to the Heineken Cup semi-finals last year. Outhalf remains a problem, with the inexperienced duo of Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson vying for the 10 jersey.

Centre is another area of difficulty, with Sean Lamont the probable favourite for the 12 jersey. In truth, Lamont is best utilised as a wing. He is a decent ball carrier but, with poor handling skills and a limited kicking game, is really not an ideal 12 to have outside of an inexperienced 10.

Max Evans, whose career has really not lived up to early expectations, will fill the 13 slot. Meanwhile, the Scottish back three is arguably their most exciting in years; with New Zealand-born Sean Maitland likely to make his debut with try-scoring machine Tim Visser on the opposite side and the attacking Stuart Hogg at fullback.

With Scottish rugby in general at an all-time low, they will do well to beat even Italy at Murrayfield.

Wales

The 2012 Six Nations championship win for Wales was impressive for a number of reasons; key among them the idea of such a young team being able to dominate in such a fashion. The young Welsh side were able to stick to their game plan, allowing them to rank first in the amount of points conceded (58), least errors made (44) and lineouts won (56).

One year ago, so many people saw this as the beginning of a dominant era, yet much has changed in since. Wales currently sit on a seven game losing streak, with the aura and talk surrounding the Welsh camp being the almost daily plight of interim head coach Rob Howley as player after player succumbs to injury.

The team has had bad luck with twelve players currently injured, with seven of those likely to be out of the Six Nations entirely. Among the notable injuries are Bradley Davis, Rhys Priestland, Aaron Jarvis and Ashley Beck. Wales are without three of their four leading second rows, with Ian Evans an uncertainty. Factor in the absence of Dan Lydiate, the man of last year’s campaign, and a serious problem faces the interim Welsh coach.

To accommodate such losses, five uncapped players have now been added to the squad, including two second rows; James King and Andrew Coombs. The back-row has seen its own resurgence; two uncapped players, Josh Navidi and Andries Pretorius, are due to meet up with the impressive Sam Warburton, Justin Tupiric and Toby Faletau.

Wales’s five locks have 32 caps between them, and Ian Evans holds 25 of those alone. Lions tight-head prop Adam Jones will also make a return, and is expected to add strength to the Wales scrum, and important facet of Wales’ overall game.

In terms of management and strategy, Rob Howley has stated that he has completely taken to his role as head coach, in comparison to the Autumn Internationals, in which he divided duties with Warren Gatland. Mark Jones of the Scarlets has been added as the team’s attack coach, yet Wales must not forgot what won them the Six Nations, in essence, the highly prized scrum, as well as a solid kicking game.

 

By Sean O’Neill, Jack Walsh and Matthew Morrow

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