Ball In Touch: Our rugby columnist Jeff Ball previews who has the best chance of walking away with this year’s Six Nations trophy. For a handy beginners guide to rugby, check out our recent A-Z of Rugby Union
This Saturday sees the 2012 Six Nations kick off in Paris as France take on Italy. From there the action moves to Edinburgh as Scotland battle England for the Calcutta Cup (something they have already won according to the SRFU online shop this week). Finally Ireland are up against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. So what can we expect from this year’s competition?
Quite honestly, it is with hesitance that I make any predictions; such has been the upheaval in terms of coaches and squads. Ideally we would be allowed to see how the first round of matches pans out before having to write a preview.
Traditionally these sorts of columns pick a winner and then hope no one notices if you are wrong in six weeks time, or breaks out the loudspeaker if you are right. With that in mind I will go forFranceto win it. Or Wales. Or someone else.
Every year it gets harder and harder to call, which of course can only be a good thing for the competition. On their day anyone can beat anyone, just. Admittedly it took Italy’s win over France in Italy just last year to be able to say that, but it helps my point. It is natural to have favourites and France and Wales are probably my top picks this year to win it, in that order. But with so many new faces both on and off the pitch, who’s to say England couldn’t storm away with it driven by the exuberance and ignorance of youth?
France will have home advantage three times this year, something that counts for a lot these days. The Parisian crowd are not for the faint hearted and opposition players can be sure of a vocal welcome.
Their new coach Phillipe Saint Andre will bring stability and structure to a side that has been lacking it for so long. France has one of the biggest and most well paid pools of players in the world. Competition for places will only make them stronger and if they stop being so ‘French’ and focus on playing the game and keeping their discipline (which has historically been the downfall of the French) there is a danger they could walk away with the trophy, though maybe not the grand slam.
Even the most herculean efforts can not guarantee the much coveted grand slam as there are five other teams determined to stop you. Such is the aspiration for the slam that simply winning the championship can feel like a let down.
One team standing in their way is Wales. Fresh from a World Cup that offered so much and yet fell short by the smallest of margins, the squad is brimming with confidence and familiarity. Despite being a young squad much of the side already play beyond their years. It is a settled set-up with coach Warren Gatland pushing his squad hard. cryotherapy training in Poland has been an innovation with great success. No team was probably fitter than Wales at the World Cup and we can expect the same again.
Shorn of Shane Williams through retirement, there area bevy of teenagers waiting to step in to the wing slot, George North being one to watch. Tabloid favourite Gavin Henson is floating around the squad and could be a huge asset if he finds his form of old and becomes ‘Gavin the rugby player’ rather than ‘Gavin the reality tv star’.
Headlines are something England have been actively avoiding of late after a few too many last year. Danny Care was first to suffer Stuart Lancaster’s axe after being caught drink driving, while Delon Armitage removed himself from having the chance to step up from the Saxons after being arrested last Saturday night for an incident at a nightclub.
Instead, the interim coach is looking for everyone to keep their heads below the radar, focus on the rugby and building a culture of respect and hard work. If they do that then Lancaster could make the job permanent, but only a good showing by his team will secure that, and even then it isn’t certain. The appointment of once capped Chris Robshaw typifies the sort of player England want now. Graft, and lots of it. The noises have been positive so far, but with so many fresh faces (almost half the squad have less than two caps) it is impossible to say how they will fare.
The Saracens backs will likely provide the framework the attack is built around, whilst the speed players like Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes return from injury could be crucial.
Looking to upset the kindergarten of the tournament will be Scotland, who have England first up on home turf. The metronomic Chris Paterson has stepped to the side meaning the next generation need to front up. Led by Ross Ford for the first time, the Scottish have a fearsome front five that will be out to unsettle those they face.
Scotland are progressing nicely under Andy Robinson but so is everyone else. Once we know what pace the Scots are going at, we will have a better idea of where in the table they will be. Another fight to avoid the wooden spoon would be a disappointment for all involved.
The wooden spoon (or cucchiaio di legno for our European cousins) has haunted the Italians for years now, and they are desperate to push up the table. Sergio Parisse is the biggest name amongst their ranks and rightly so. New coach Jacques Brunel has his work cut out lifting them and has been scouring the lower Italian league sides for someone to join Parisse as a global superstar. The inclusion of two Italian sides in what was the Celtic League has yet to reap rewards, but we shall see.
With the Irish provincial sides flying high in the Heineken Cup, the hope of coach Declan Kidney is that that will will at last translate to the full test side. Ireland have unashamedly picked a side for now, never mind 2015. New faces are rare, but the loss of Brian O’Driscoll for the whole competition opens up a chance for someone else to have a go at securing the 13 shirt. Bar a fantastic win against Australia, Ireland’s form has not been notable in the last year and how they make the step up is still to be determined.
The destruction of England in the final fixture of last year’s tournament will give them heart and everyone should be fearful of playing them at home. With the likes of Leinster and Munster plays making up a large part of the spine of the team, the channelling of their success away from the green shirt of Ireland in what must be treated as knock-out rugby every time they cross that white line in the next six weeks will make or break the career of Declan Kidney.
Every match will be littered with little battles to watch, as all sides will be looking at each other and trying to find weakness to exploit. As the quality of each side increases, controlling the smallest of margins glares larger and larger as being key to success. It is the team that can control that the best and can not so much win the most, but lose the least, that we shall see victorious.
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