With the 2014 Six Nations set to kick off tomorrow and fans around Europe on tenterhooks here is our preview of the first round of action;
Game 1 – Wales vs Italy
Location – Cardiff
Kick-off – 14.30 GMT (Sat)
Wales – Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), George North (Northampton Saints); Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Racing Metro); Paul James (Bath), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Toby Faletau (NG Dragons).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Scarlets), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Andrew Coombs (NG Dragons), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), James Hook (Perpignan), Liam Williams (Scarlets).
Italy – Luke MCLEAN (Benetton Treviso, 52 caps), Angelo ESPOSITO (Benetton Treviso, uncapped), Michele CAMPAGNARO (Benetton Treviso, 2 caps), Alberto SGARBI (Benetton Treviso, 27 caps), Leonardo SARTO (Zebre Rugby, 2 caps), 10 Tommaso ALLAN (Perpignan, 3 caps), 9 Edoardo GORI (Benetton Treviso, 29 caps), 8 Sergio PARISSE (Stade Francais, 101 caps) (c), Mauro BERGAMASCO (Zebre Rugby, 95 caps), Alessandro ZANNI (Benetton Treviso, 80 caps), Marco BORTOLAMI (Zebre Rugby, 99 caps), Quintin GELDENHUYS (Zebre Rugby, 41 caps), Martin CASTROGIOVANNI (Toulon RC, 101 caps), Leonardo GHIRALDINI (Benetton Treviso, 59 caps), Michele RIZZO (Benetton Treviso, 11 caps)
Replacements: Davide GIAZZON (Zebre Rugby, 15 caps), Alberto DE MARCHI (Benetton Treviso, 12 caps), Lorenzo CITTADINI (Benetton Treviso, 27 caps), Joshua FURNO (Biarritz Olympique, 13 caps), Francesco MINTO (Benetton Treviso, 7 caps), Tobias Weitz BOTES (Benetton Treviso, 19 caps), Luciano ORQUERA (Zebre Rugby, 37 caps), Tommaso IANNONE (Zebre, 6 caps)
Preview – Wales find themselves in a no win situation in this Six Nations opener that could define both teams tournament. The Welsh will be expected to win this game comfortably but will receive little praise if they put Italy to the sword. However, should Wales only secure a narrow victory, or even worse lose the game, the criticisms will immediately start and doubt will begin to plague Warren Gatland’s side.
Whilst both sides have a few injury issues both coaches are able to field almost full strength sides with a scattering of young talent throughout. Italy will look to the experience in their pack to try to dominate up front and give their exciting rookie fly-half quick ball that he can distribute out to their inexperienced backline. Meanwhile Wales will look to use their power plays and carry the ball up the middle before unleashing the likes of North and Cuthbert to make a break for the line.
Gatland will be hoping his young but highly experienced back 3 are able to take advantage of Italy’s untried combination. Meanwhile the likes of Roberts will be expected to pressure young fly-half Allen into mistakes whilst Justin Tipuric will hope to make a statement of intent in the 7 shirt with Captain Sam Warburton starting on the bench.
Key Battle – The loose forwards are going to be absolutely key in this game, not just in terms of giving their team go-forward but also in ensuring they manage to claim and retain as much ball as possible.
Key Man –101 times capped Sergio Parisse is the cornerstone on which this Italian side is built, if he can fire on all cylinders then he can provide the Italians with the momentum to at least remain within touching distance of the Welsh going into the final 20 and then who knows?
One to Watch – Tommaso Allen has a huge game ahead as he pulls the strings at 10 in just his 4th international game. If he can remain composed and keep the Italians in the right areas of the pitch he could play a huge role in determining the outcome of the game.
Prediction – A comfortable win for Wales by about 15 points.
Game 2 – (Le Crunch) France vs England
Location – Paris
Kick-off – 17.00 GMT (Sat)
France – Brice Dulin (Castres); Yoann Huget (Toulouse), Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), Wesley Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), Maxime Medard (Toulouse); Jules Plisson (Stade Francais), Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse); Thomas Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), Benjamin Kayser (Clermont Auvergne), Nicolas Mas (Montpellier), Alexandre Flanquart (Stade Francais), Pascal Pape (Stade Francais, capt), Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), Bernard Le Roux (Racing Metro), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse).
Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski (RacingMetro), Yannick Forestier (Castres), Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), Antoie Burban (Stade Francais), Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne), Maxime Machenaud (Racing Metro), Gael Fickou (Toulouse)
England – Mike Brown; Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Henry Thomas, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode.
Preview – Sandwiched nicely in the middle of the two other Six Nations openers, Le Crunch looks set to be the game of the weekend as France and England go head to head. Whilst the title of favourites must lay firmly with Philippe Saint-André and his men this game is likely to turn on a single moment. This is especially true as neither coach has been able to select their first choice XV having been deprived of key players such as Remi Tales and Manu Tuilagi through injury. This adds extra intrigue to the contest as exciting talents such as Jack Nowell and Brice Dulin will be given their opportunity to impress.
The battle of the packs is also an area of interest as both sets of forwards are missing key personnel whilst still looking a more established unit than the backs. Both sets of half backs will be hoping their forwards can provide them with the momentum to take the game to the opposition. This will be particularly important for France as uncapped Jules Plisson starts at fly-half where he could either make or break France’s Six Nations hopes.
Key Battle – The midfield is likely to play a huge role in the outcome of this game as uncapped Northampton Saints centre Luther Burrell is moved to outside centre where he will go head-to-head with the one man human wrecking ball that is Mathieu Bastareaud. Meanwhile inside the clash of the titans the flair of Wesley Fofana will be facing the pragmatism of Billy Twelvetrees in a battle to see who can unleash their exciting wingers.
Key Man – Jules Plisson’s debut at fly-half will dictate the way the French play and is likely to play a huge role in the outcome of the game.
One to Watch – Jonny May could provide the spark to give England the edge in what is sure to be a tight encounter. The Gloucester man is an exciting open field runner with the ability to ghost through defenders.
Prediction – France to win a tight encounter by less than 7 points.
Game 3 – Ireland vs Scotland
Location – Dublin
Kick-off – 15.00 GMT (Sun)
Ireland – Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (c), Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Dan Tuohy, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Paddy Jackson, Fergus McFadden.
Scotland – Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar (all Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Sean Lamont; Duncan Weir (both Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh); Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Moray Low; Tim Swinson (both Glasgow Warriors), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Kelly Brown (Saracens, capt), David Denton (Edinburgh).
Replacements: Pat MacArthur (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Dickinson, Geoff Cross (both Edinburgh), Richie Gray (Castres), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier), Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Max Evans (Castres).
Preview – The final Six Nations game of the weekend sees Ireland attempt to right the wrongs of last seasons loss to Scotland at Murrayfield. Joe Schmidt will be hoping his Irish side can build on the positives of the narrow loss to the All Blacks in the Autumn whilst Scotland will look to repeat their third place success last year. Unlike in years gone by Scotland will be fielding a relatively inexperienced pack with a lot more emphasis placed on a more expansive attacking game built on the hard work of players like Jim Hamilton and Kelly Brown upfront.
Ireland will be looking to fully integrate some of their brightest young talents such as Dave Kearney and Luke Marshall into an experienced backline they hope will be firing from minute one. The Irish bench will also allow them to mix things up a little bit should Plan A falter with the likes of Paddy Jackson who can take the game to the Scottish line.
Key Battle – Locks Jim Hamilton and Paul O’Connell are likely to play a huge part in this game with the set piece likely to be a key element to both sides ability to implement their game plan. If either of these guys can get the upper-hand and influence the rest of their side then
Key Man – As Captain Paul O’Connell will have a huge role in getting his team up for the game and ensuring his forwards can dominate up-front and turn pressure into points unlike last time around.
One to Watch – With Matt Scott only deemed fit enough for a place on the bench Duncan Taylor will be given the opportunity to help the Scottish backline tick and get the likes of Hogg and Maitland running with ball in hand.
Prediction – Ireland to win a dogged game by around 10 points.