Perhaps one of the world’s most compelling annual International Competitions is back in our lives, and I for one am glad to see it. There’s something quite magical about the Six Nations, with club competitions midway through and the occasional stagnant game or continued woes for a Worcester fan like myself, International rugby is a much needed break. If anything, getting to witness the array of talent on offer from Europe’s best Union nations is almost like another Heineken Cup…..but this time the banter goes up a level!
Debate rages before every campaign and always alludes to a French choke, whether Wales live up to expectation and who reluctantly receives the Wooden Spoon. Yet, this year seems a little different. This year, every side has comparable strengths and weaknesses that leave this illustrious competition wide open. Of course, Italy and Scotland are not likely to be in the mix for a Grand Slam, or even tournament victory, however both, if tactically sound, can create issues for any team.
In order to really pick apart who has the ability to hit the ground running you have to assess the tactics, head honchos and key man for each side.
Predicted Finish- Third
Lancaster has finally tired of the Ash Splash and has shown his faith in youth and inexperience with the likes of Burrell, Nowell, May, Watson and Ford all likely to bless International turf during the 5 tough fixtures. Even though the backline is youthful and lacking in key experience, they have a formidable, powerful and dynamic pack to give them psychological dominance. It is perhaps one of the most creative and intriguing English backline’s that have ever played and even without Tuilagi most English fans seem quietly confident. Long-term benefits will be reaped ahead of the RWC 2015.
A defensively sound outfit with an aggressive line speed that forces attacks backwards. After the Autumn, England were stand-out in their ability to re-organise and implement an effective scramble defence when threatened out wide. As long as England can use their superior Blitz to force turnover ball and hit teams on the counter, England will have no issues against the likes of Italy. However, if Farrell doesn’t slot his kicks and the set piece fails to click, England may be in trouble. Let’s hope that the weather permits England to attack the flanks and not just have to rely on the likes of Lawes and Vunipola to stuff it up the jumper!
Key man-Luther Burrell
Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw may be the obvious candidates for their continual rolling tackle count and imposing work in the ruck. However, with Burrell named out of position for Le Crunch, he has to be able to do what he does so effectively for Saints, closer to the touch line. If he can draw in a handful of defenders and manage to make delicate little offloads, he could be the pivotal piece in order to get England those much needed try’s.
Predicted finish- Second
It feels like a new era of French rugby is upon us. No Yachvili, Parra, Michalak, Clerc…..to name a few. Saint-Andre has turned to a variety of youth in the backline and an imposing pack who will miss Captain fantastic, Thierry Dusautoir. Even though the Autumn was a time of flair filled rugby and impressive performances from the likes of Picamoles and Tales, once again no one knows which French team will turn up. Frankly, no one will ever know! However, with Fofana, Dulin and Medard all deadly going forward, they won’t be short of tries.
The French are likely to utilise their superior kicking game with Doussain at 9. I imagine plenty of box kicks will be on the agenda. With giant Picamoles able to pick and go off the back of a scrum and dynamic running in the centre field, France will look to maintain quick ball and strike when the opposition is disorganised. Using Fofana as a pendulum in the midfield, forwards and backs alike will look to make scything runs of the French 12 to surpass the gain line on each phase. France need to have a consistent goal kicker if they are to challenge for the crown.
Key man-Louis Picamoles
Sucks in defenders and has deceptive pace. Along with Kayser and Bastareaud, Picamoles will plug holes around the rucks and suck in defenders to allow the backs to exploit space further out. An aggressive tackler he’ll look to get the French counter-rucking game going.
Predicted finish- Champions (No Grand Slam)
Ireland look the most formidable foe after their spirited fight against the All Blacks. It’s never an easy road by any stretch of the imagination for those hard core Irish fans, especially when their regions continuing to dominate European Club rugby! Consistency has not quite been on the cards over the past few years, yet, with such an intelligent, tactically and technically sound Coach in Schmidt at the helm, victories are imminent. Being BOD’s last campaign will certainly be influential on his and the Irish mentality, alongside the likes of Healy, O’Connell and Rob Kearney who are all playing superbly, Ireland are likely to come out all guns blazing.
Ireland demonstrated their tenacious, pro-active defence in the Saxons v Wolfhounds game last weekend. Their ability to work as one unit and make hit after hit will make it a battle for sides to try and take it up the middle. Ireland’s prowess in the art of Choke Tackling will allow them to stem threatening attacks and tire the opposition, and as a result will allow their forwards to get on top. With BOD in the midfield carving holes, alongside the finishing abilities of the Kearney’s and any Irish winger for that matter, Ireland will cross the whitewash when it counts.
Key man-Cian Healy
With ball carrying extraordinaire O’Brien missing through injury, it will be down to Healy to make those vital carries and big hits to put them on the front foot. If he can scrum big too, he will be the talisman in the pack, with the legend himself BOD leading that fantastically rounded backline.
Predicted finish- Fifth
The Azzurri will be eager to get more from just one win out of this tournament. Another upset against the French is certainly a possibility, with once again an experienced forward pack with the magnificent Parisse at the helm, they will frustrate and grate against the most skilled of sides. With English educated, Scotland U20, Tommaso Allan pulling the strings at Fly Half, its hard to know what to expect from a normally scoreless backline. However, as always, the Italians commitment will be continually evident and they will try to peg teams back with McLean’s solid kicking game.
Scrum, Parisse, scrum, Castro, scrum, defend. Nothing will come as a surprise. There will be plenty of hard running from the forwards and plenty of pick and drive’s. They will want to keep it tight and put the favourites under pressure, which will hopefully force errors. I hope the Italian backline suddenly becomes one of the most ruthless in the game!
Key man-Sergio Parisse
If Parisse doesn’t lead from the front, Italy will struggle to go forward and get some continuity in attack. He can do anything from anywhere, and will undoubtedly create opportunities that the likes of Esposito will need to finish.
Predicted finish- Last
I hope Scott Johnson doesn’t start as he means to go on. Naming Saracens’ Kelly Brown as Captain yet remarking his lack of faith in the out-and-out Blindside, who Johnson believes to be a solid Openside, is not the most intelligent move. Interestingly, the selection of Swinson ahead of Gray for the opening game against Ireland may give the Scots more solidity in the lineout, but possibly not in the loose. With a powerful wing and centre combination, Scotland have the ability to win the arm wrestle in the backs, but may lose the key battles up front. If Ryan Grant can play like he did in last year’s tournament, the Scots will make it difficult for any side. Although with only real attacking flair coming from Hogg, the Scots don’t have enough in their armoury to get much more than one score a game.
Similarly to Italy, the Scots will look to keep it tight and play the possession game. With the capable boots of both Laidlaw and Weir they will want to try and put pressure on opposition lineouts and scrums to hopefully force a scoring opportunity. With Hogg at 15, he has got supreme agility and pace to counter attack from any position. If Hamilton and Denton can make a nuisance in the rucks too, Scotland will need to take every opportunity. If we see a ruthless Scotland, a mid-table finish is certainly possible.
Key man-Duncan Weir
Even though Laidlaw seems to run the show at 9, Weir will be under pressure to take over the mantle and boss the game, whilst distributing accurately. If he can assess the game correctly and know when to play wide and keep it tight, he can maximise Scotland’s key attributes.
Predicted finish- Fourth
Wales have the chance to make history, winning three Six Nations Championships on the trot. However, Gatland’s life hasn’t been made easy with the loss of attacking genius Jonathan Davies, injured Gethin Jenkins and suspended Ian Evans. With the Welsh exodus ongoing and issues with central contract’s and Welsh Regional rugby still in the foreground, it would be understandable for some players to not be in the best place psychologically. Turmoil aside, Wales still have an incredibly talented and experienced side with a mere 11 British and Irish Lions starting against Italy. Gatland and co. are going out to make a statement, and with the likes of North and Scott Williams on tremendous club form, it’s hard to rule the Welsh out of a Grand Slam. For me, their tournament will depend on player fatigue and more influentially, the number 10 jersey. Priestland is favoured to Biggar and therefore needs to regain similar form to that of the 2011 RWC. If Wales were blessed with a World Class Fly-half like Carter or Cooper, they would be a much more formidable side.
With such a wondrous backline as well as a capable pack, Wales have strength in every area of the pitch. If they can gain solid platforms off a sturdy set-piece and make indents with North and Roberts in the centre of midfield, they will be able to get the likes of Williams and Cuthbert running arcs of 10. If Wales fail in their backs play and strike moves, they have the opportunity to turn to Faletau, Hibbard and Wyn-Jones to create an attritional contest. However if the scrum doesn’t go to plan, and Priestland ‘s kicking out of hand is ineffective that will test Wales’ resilience.
Key man-George North
Even though Halfpenny’s kicking and aerial ability is integral to Welsh success, North’s flair and power will give Wales numerous opportunities to threaten the whitewash. If he can front up defensively too and do plenty of work off the ball, like with Saints, he can potentially help Wales to a place in the record books.