Colm O’Donoghue | Staff Writer
We have reached that time of year again. The Christmas cheer has evaporated, New Year’s resolutions are long broken, and the days are still short and cold. Early January can be a bit bleak, but fear not: the Six Nations is around the corner. For any rugby fan, these are probably the seven best weeks of the year. Nothing quite matches those weekends: the anthems, the passion and the fireworks that are bound to happen. There are endless reasons why this has the potential to be one of the best Six Nations tournaments in recent years.
Firstly, there is the small matter of the Rugby World Cup taking place next September across the Irish Sea. The Six Nations is the last time these six teams will be together before the warm up games start in August. There is little opportunity to try new things: this is a tournament about getting combinations right and ready for England 2015.
Secondly, it is hard to remember a time when so many teams could boast a legitimate chance to win it. The old cliché goes that nothing is ever certain in sport, however over the last five to ten years the winner has tended to come from a group of often two or three sides. This year, however, it looks like Scotland, one of the teams who have had very little luck or talent since the tournament changed from five nations to six, could join the mix.
All seemed to be on the up for Italy a few years ago. Treviso looked like they had benefitted from the Pro12 and were a very tough team to play on home soil. Last season brought about some turmoil however. With the uncertainty over the future of the European Cup, coupled with the low overall talent level in the Italian teams, the offseason saw an exodus of sorts which makes things more difficult for the national side.
With the retirement of some of their seasoned veterans in the last year or two, Italy have had to rebuild a weak team. As usual, they will be a hard to beat and built around the set piece. The Italians know how to scrummage and they will look to veteran Martin Castrogiovanni, returning after his spectacular tirade about his former coach Richard Cockerill, to give them a platform to work off. This team has a strong spine with Castro, Furno, Bortolami, Zanni and the ageless warrior Sergio Parisse seemingly ever present in their pack. The grunt has never been a problem for Italy. They enjoy the physicality and the tight game. However they always have, outside of Parisse, lacked real nous and game winning ability to see them win enough to challenge for the trophy.
Italy have some exciting backs like Tomasso Allan, who played his underage rugby in Scotland, Michele Campagnaro who set the tournament alight last year and veterans Luke McClean and Andrea Masi.
Key Man: Who else? Parisse was the benchmark for number 8s in world rugby until Kieran Read and Duane Vermeulen announced themselves in the last couple of years.
One to watch: Michele Campagnaro. You could do worse than put this man into your fantasy Six Nations team. Should be amongst any tries Italy get through their backline
Likely finishing position: Definite favourites for the Wooden Spoon. They get first crack at champions Ireland at home, a place where the men in green have struggled in recent years. They will look to win that one, or continue their habit of beating France on home soil. It is hard to see them beating England or Scotland on the road.
What a difference a year makes. France started last year’s tournament with a bang against England, beating them in Paris. They were poor in all three games in between before coming within a TMO decision of beating Ireland on the last day. France have really struggled to find any continuity under Philippe Saint André, a man who is prone to making some mind-boggling decisions. Their trip to Australia last summer was an unmitigated disaster. Autumn provided some cause for hope, however.
France have struggled to find a Test standard 10 for as long as I can remember. Lionel Beauxis, Frederic Michalak, David Skrela, Francois Trinh-Duc and a myriad of scrum-half-cum-out-halves have been trialled with radically mixed effects. A position which typifies French rugby like no other, if their 10 has been on form, they look great, but they are so regularly indifferent or downright awful that it has been tough to watch at times. In Camille Lopez they look to have unearthed a real gem. He has shone for Clermont this season and was excellent in the autumn. Outside him there is a wealth of talent. The fact that last year’s match winner in Paris against England, Gael Fickou, can be left out of the 31 altogether is testament to that. Wesley Fofana is one of the best in the world on his day. Mathieu Bastareaud, though out of form, can be incredibly destructive when he gets going, both in attack and defence. Scott Spedding, a naturalised South African making up one of five project players in the French 31 man squad, made two of Teddy Thomas’s three tries on his debut. If France can get ball wide, they will be very difficult to beat.
Uncharacteristically, their scrum may be one of the weaker ones in this year’s tournament. If they can get that right, and show up on the day, they can beat anyone. Three away ties in Dublin, Twickenham and Rome will likely be their undoing.
Key Man: Philippe Saint André. The coach? The key man is the coach? This is the first time under Saint André that his squad has made sense with no crazy omissions. He is prone to head scratching decisions though. If he can get his best 23 out, France will be tough to beat. His form suggests he cannot.
One to watch: Teddy Thomas. The man from Biarritz started his international career with a hat-trick and man of the match performance against Fiji. This was followed by a wonder score against Australia. The dream start came crashing down after he stupidly missed a team meeting and was left out of France’s plans for the remainder of the autumn. Look for him to score for fun if given space.
Finishing position: France on the road is always a mystery. With three tough away games this year look for them to battle it out for 3rd or 4th.
It has been a long time coming, but might we be seeing the resurgence of the men from the North? With Glasgow firmly establishing themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Pro12 over the last three or four seasons, Scotland will look to finish higher up the table than would normally be the case. With the man who taught Joe Schmidt everything he knows, Vern Cotter, now at the helm and more quality available than there has been for a while, things are looking rosy for the Scots. With wins over Tonga and Argentina, and a hard fought loss against New Zealand in the autumn, they are right to be optimistic.
Scoring 41 points against Argentina wasn’t a fluke, and if this team can get their hands on the ball they have the backs to do serious damage. Tommy Seymour, Stuart Hogg and Alex Dunbar have been running in tries for fun for Glasgow, and they will look to continue that form on the international stage. How well young Finn Russell can manage this stage will be a key factor.
Up front there is plenty of talent. In the gargantuan second row brothers of Richie and Jonny Gray, a potential Lions 2019 combination, the Scots have real class. Ross Ford has looked better of late, and if he can keep the lineout strong they may take some beating. The fact that the last game of their campaign, a home game against Ireland, is a sell-out suggests the Scots think they may well be in a grand-slam decider on March 21st. One could only dream of being in Murrayfield for Flower of Scotland that day.
Key man: Jonny Gray. 20 years old. I nearly spit my cornflakes out when I first read how young this man actually is, such is his talent. A leader of men and a superb operator, he will be crucial in how far Scotland will go.
One to watch: Stuart Hogg. Still a young man, though it feels like he has been around for an age, this could be the year when Hogg explodes on the international scene. A man who loves to attack from anywhere he is a joy to watch. He has been pushed hard for his spot in Glasgow by young Peter Murchie, and as a result he will be fresh and raring to go against France in Paris on match day one. Worth a punt at decent odds for tournament top try scorer.
Finishing position: With three games in Murrayfield the Scots could go far. Paris on the opening day will tell us a lot. A win there and they just might be in with a shout. I would predict a 3rd place finish.
Likely the most difficult team to predict in this years’ tournament. The Welsh could be great, and equally could be awful. Life is never easy for the Welsh regions. A massive player drain over the last half decade has led to a huge amount of unrest which threatened to derail professional rugby in the country. For the moment there is some semblance of peace and fans can properly concentrate on the sport. Two wins and two losses in the autumn, but Wales finally got over the hump against South Africa ending their incredible streak of losses against the Southern Hemisphere big three.
The Friday night Six Nations curtain raiser against the English in the Millennium Stadium is more important than words can describe. Both teams will look to set down a marker in what will undoubtedly be the game of the opening weekend. The prospect of 80,000 rugby mad Welshmen belting out Land of My Fathers in the enclosed cauldron of the Millennium is already getting me excited.
There is no doubt about the talent in Wales. Winners of two of the last three tournaments, there are some excellent players in red. The problem is the game plan. Do Wales, as we expect, persist with “Warrenball,” trying to bully teams with crash ball from Jamie Roberts in midfield, drawing defenders into rucks before spreading it to their giant wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert? The problem is the predictability. Rhys Webb has been a game winner for Ospreys this season, and his performances in the autumn are the shot in the arm that Wales needed. Mike Phillips is a good scrum half, but had become too ponderous. When you have a breakdown specialist the quality of Sam Warburton providing you with quick ball, and the speed that Wales have outside, there should be more tries than there have been. This has led people to the conclusion that defences have simply figured Wales out, and the lack of plan B will no longer work against the well-drilled defences of England and Ireland. The injury to Samson Lee, who has been excellent, is also a worry for the Welsh scrum.
Key Man: Alun-Wyn Jones. A colossus, the Welsh answer to Paul O’Connell. This man is ever present, and always around the ball. If he can inspire Wales to the levels we all know they can reach, they will be tough to beat.
One to watch: Rhys Webb. Fans of the Pro12 will tell you all about this man. With nine tries for the Ospreys already this season, look for him to get in for a few over the next couple of weeks. He will get fans on the edge of their seats, a real livewire.
Predicted finish: As I said it’s a tough one. Win on day one and they could justifiably be installed as favourites. Lose that one and they could finish as low as fifth.
When Stuart Lancaster took over in the aftermath of England’s disastrous 2011 World Cup, England were a mess. They were team of dislikeable idiots who were spending too much time attracting attention for the wrong reasons and not enough time winning matches. Lancaster, a relatively unknown quantity at that stage, promised to reinvent the culture around the team and build a team of winners by the World Cup on home soil in 2015.
Until the summer, things seemed to be going excellently. A resounding 3-0 test series loss in New Zealand was followed up by defeats to the All Blacks and Springboks in fortress Twickenham. They ended 2014 with a good win against the Wallabies however, and will look to kick on this year.
There are many questions still to be answered however. One gets the impression Lancaster still doesn’t know his best midfield, with the form of George Ford far surpassing that of incumbent Owen Farrell. Manu Tuilagi’s injury gives an opportunity for others in the 12 and 13 shirts, in what has been a real problem area for England over the years. Sam Burgess is still too green, and still not sure he is a back. Kyle Eastmond has been trialled, dropped, returned and dropped again. Brad Barritt offers nothing in attack though he is a defensive rock. Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell should, on form, fill these jerseys though it seems Lancaster is not a fan of either, despite Burrell’s excellent Six Nations last year.
Up front, the injury to Ben Morgan is a shame. The man has been a monster for Gloucester this season and far outplayed Billy Vunipola in the autumn. While Munster fans learned how destructive Vunipola can be at his best, his form dating back to last April has been extremely patchy. Lancaster has been forced to recall the man he left out in the cold, the ageless Nick Easter. The fact that England can omit European player of the year, Steffon Armitage, lose their starting 8 in Morgan and still field players with the quality of Vunipola and Easter gives you an idea of the strength in depth they have.
Finally, how Lancaster deals with bad boy Dylan Hartley’s latest indiscretion is intriguing. When Hartley was banned in 2013 prior to the Lion’s tour it was reported that Lancaster gave him his “final warning.” However, he is one of few players in the England team who is genuinely world class and would be very close to a world XV, despite his reputation. Compounding matters is England’s lack of genuine options in the position. Tom Youngs has not played an enormous amount for Leicester and Rob Webber is still very green in test match rugby. Can Lancaster afford to stick to his guns?
Key Man: Chris Robshaw. A man who cops a lot of unnecessary flak, Robshaw has been colossal this season. His absence in the Aviva was a huge difference for Harlequins against Leinster, and a decisive factor in the game. Look for him to be at his influential best right from the get-go.
One to watch: George Ford. The injury to Owen Farrell gives him his chance, cometh the hour cometh the man. Ford must use this tournament to make the 10 jersey his own and give Lancaster no choice in September.. A wealth of quality is undoubtable, can they select their best XV is the question. On form Ford is one of the best 10s in the world to watch. Feet of a dancer and an excellent pass, if what is sure to be a new-look backline gels, England could be tough to stop.
Prediction: Seems crazy with all the doubts discussed above, but this could well be the team to beat. Millenium Stadium will be a huge ask, but look for England to be undefeated at home, could likely come down to the winner of England v Ireland once again.
It is hard not to be positive about Irish rugby these days, though I am about to try my best. Six Nations Champions, undefeated in Argentina and three wins from three in the autumn, things are exceedingly good heading into this years’ tournament. Joe Schmidt has developed a winning mentality and an excellent culture in this team. In many ways Schmidt is the perfect international coach. The beautiful rugby Leinster played under his tenure is very difficult to replicate without the day to day training he was afforded in that role. However Schmidt is a coach who cares little for names and reputation, he cares about fundamentals, teamwork and ruthless accuracy. Ireland’s game plan will likely remain simple in this tournament, be solid in every facet of the game and execute when teams give them the opportunity.
The tournament is not without controversy however. With Cian Healy unlikely to feature in the early rounds if at all, and Jack McGrath having not played rugby in a month before the Italian game, the scrum might be in trouble. Added to this is Mike Ross’s poor form this season, having been demolished by Joe Marler in the December doubleheader against Harlequins before being unceremoniously dropped for the game against Castres. Ross could face a battle for his green jersey, despite being the only ever-present during Schmidt’s time as Ireland boss. Iain Henderson looks to return from injury for the Six Nations but with only one, albeit excellent, game since September, will he be fit enough for Test Match Intensity? Conor Murray is an injury doubt after missing Munster’s crucial European game against Saracens. Jonathan Sexton is out for at least the first game and will not have played rugby for three months before the game against the French in Dublin.
All these injuries beg the question: might we use the Six Nations to give real experience to guys like Ian Madigan, Kieran Marmion and Rhys Ruddock? As fans, I think we could accept a seemingly below par result in the Six Nations if it meant a World Cup semi-final or better come September.
Ireland have the talent to win the tournament, but it might possibly be better to rest the guys coming back from long term injuries and look at some new talent. With France and England at home, the Grand Slam is not beyond the realms of possibility, but it might be a big ask with so many key men fresh off long term injuries. The competition for places in the back row and back three is incredibly fierce and these areas will likely see a degree of rotation as the tournament progresses.
Key Man: Paul O’Connell. In the face of adversity, the captain needs to stand up and be counted. There are few, if any, men more inspirational than O’Connell in world rugby, and his impending retirement will see the game lose a legend. If Ireland are to go far with a banged up squad, O’Connell will have a big part to play.
One to watch: Robbie Henshaw. Whether he plays at 12 or 13, look for Henshaw to make his mark on this tournament. A physical presence in midfield, with an eye for a gap and a kicking game to add to his defensive excellence, Henshaw’s star should rise during the tournament. The sub-plot of who partners him will be exciting.
Prediction: Do not be surprised or indeed disheartened if Ireland finish 3rd or 4th this year. The game against France in Dublin is the most important game, with a rematch in September in the Millenium Stadium on the cards. Potential to win it, and will be favourites, but it is hard to see them repeating last year’s heroics.