It’s February this weekend the start of a new month and for those who are fans of rugby union it also means the start of the Six nations. The time of year when club and provincial rugby takes a break and all focus is turned to the northern hemispheres top international prize. With last year’s championship being somewhat lacklustre and a two horse race we take a look team by team and see who could be contenders for this year’s championship.
France picked up the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, the low point of a miserable 2013.Head coach Philippe Saint-Andre took charge after France reached the 2011 World Cup final and has since overseen a period of rebuilding in which results have suffered.
The pressure is on Saint-Andre to deliver results but his cause is not helped by the loss of key players such as captain Thierry Dusautoir – one of the best flankers in the world – for the entire tournament with a ruptured bicep tendon and wing Vincent Clerc who is sidelined by an arm injury suffered in a motorbike accident. Although Stade Francais lock Pascal Pape will lead the side in Dusautoir’s absence.
The No 10 position has been a revolving door on Saint-Andre’s watch. Last season’s starter Frederic Michalak has fallen out of favour and Castres’ Remi Tales – who failed to overly impress during the autumn – will miss the tournament opener against England in Paris with a bicep problem. With a poor showing in 2013 and with the constant threat of an upset within in the French camp. France could easily be one of the bottom sides of the championship this year.
With Scotland finishing in third place in last years championship aided by the most unlikely victories over Ireland. This years Expectations should be modest for a squad shorn by injury of three likely starters in Alastair Kellock, Euan Murray and Tim Visser for the entire tournament. Recent form offers little encouragement;, Scotland have won two of eight Tests – against Italy and Japan – and failed to score a try during autumn defeats to South Africa (28-0) and Australia (21-15) at Murrayfield.
A major strength is the back row with competition for places so fierce that captain Kelly Brown is far from assured of a place in the team, particularly given the excellent club form of Chris Fusaro.
The back division remains more of a work in progress. Greig Laid law is established as the first-choice scrum-half but there is little continuity in the fly-half and inside centre roles and the lack of creativity from those areas during the autumn defeats to Australia and South Africa meant the outside strike runners – Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont and Stuart Hogg – had little chance to shine. With Scotland only having two home games in this year’s tournament and withthe in ability to score many tries, Scotland’s chances look slim to repeat the good fortune of last year.
With Wins over France and Ireland gave the Azzurri their highest placing in their Six Nations history with a respectable fourth in 2013. However, they have some tough away fixtures in 2014 and realistically they will be battling with Scotland to avoid the wooden spoon. The Azzurri’s poor showing in their autumn series has offered little hope for this years championship as Australia put 50 points past them, and despite a win against Fiji, they also lost to Argentina.
To add to their problems, they also have a long injury list and will be unable to call on the likes of Gonzalo Canale, Andrea Masi, Simone Favaro and Tito Tebaldi, forcing coach Jacques Brunel to throw some young inexperienced players into the mix.
The experience of the Bergamasco brothers may be crucial for them in light of all their injury woes. The Azzurri kick off their campaign with two tough away games – Wales and France – before hosting Scotland at Stadio Olimpico in a game that could decide if they finish bottom or not.
Runners-up for the past two seasons, England face a difficult start against a French side that will be hell-bent on atoning for a dismal 2013, although victory in Paris would set them up nicely for a championship push.
The return of Brad Barritt from injury is a timely boost and should ease some of the pressure on Farrell’s shoulders, while centre partner Manu Tuilagi could be in contention for latter stages of the competition.
The England pack were blown away by Wales last year but their performance in the November defeat to New Zealand proved they can compete with the best in the world. Hooker Dylan Hartley also looks to have confronted his demons following a tumultuous 12 months and is arguably in the best form of his career.
England will be severely tested by Scotland at Murrayfield and Ireland at Twickenham but if they emerge unscathed from those contests, we could see a repeat of last years potential championship decider with Wales.
Lat year’s champions will be hoping to make history this year as theyaim to make it three in a row and with probably the strongest squad in the championship who would bet against them. Even though they are easily the Bookmakers favourites to take the championship and complete the Grand Slam, The Welsh are still disappointed that they failed to win against a southern hemisphere side in the autumn internationals but all those psychological hurdles that they still have to overcome in order to beat the southern giants, are non-existent when it comes to their northern neighbours. They have won nine out of their last ten games against northern hemisphere teams and no matterwhat happened in the autumn, Wales will be confident going into this tournament.
Waren Gatland has got some injury concerns – most notably Jonathan Davies who will be sorely missed. However they have some great strength in depth and are welcoming back the likes of Jamie Roberts and Adam Jones. Gatland will also have to decide on whom his fly-half is – both Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland are in fine form however the latter’s fluctuating form may see Biggar get the starting berth.As well as having a good solid pack the welsh also have some superb attacking prowess – George North has established himself as the most exciting game breaker in Europe at the moment. They also have the boot of Leigh Halfpenny who will not let them down. They kick their campaign off in Italy but it is round two that will set them up – an away game to Ireland that they will have to win if they are to make Six Nations history.
And Finally Ireland
What can we expect from the boys in green? With it being new head Joe Schmidt’s first Six Nations campaign it will be a testing campaign Brian O’Driscoll and the lads. The form of Jonny Sexton will be key. The fly-half’s move to Racing Metro has not gone as well as he’d have hoped, with the Paris sideoung upstart called Brian O’Driscoll announced his arrival on the international stage with a stunning hat-trick. already out of Europe and languishing in mid-table in the Top 14. Sexton has already played as many club games as he did in the whole of last season and his physical well-being is a concern for Schmidt.
The return of Rory Best and Cian Healy from injury bolsters Ireland’s pack, while young tighthead Martin Moore and Jordi Murphy have impressed for Leinster, but the loss of Sean O’Brien to a dislocated shoulder is a mammoth blow.
If the boys in green can see off Scotland and Wales in Dublin it sets up a mouth-watering trip to Twickenham in round three, a venue where they suffered a 30-9 hiding in 2012.
Ireland should exact revenge against Italy before concluding their campaign in France, where they have tasted victory just once since 1972. That came in 2000, when a y
Can O’Driscoll repeat that feat and lead Ireland to victory in his final international game? It would be quite the send-off.
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