The annual contest to find the best northern hemisphere national side in the rugby world is back for its thirteenth renewal with the Azzurri involved, and this year there’s an added incentive for individuals to stand out. Warren Gatland has taken time away from his Wales duties to focus on the Lions tour to Australia in June/July, and whilst he would probably have a core of ten to fifteen players he is sure to take, the other twenty or so places are very much up for grabs. Add this incentive to a group of nations lacking an obvious favourite, and we could be in for a 6 Nations of shocks and surprises.
The bookmakers make England favourites, a combination of three home games and a stunning victory over New Zealand in the autumn internationals creating a sense of expectancy that has been missing in England fans for a number of years. The backing of a loud, partisan Twickenham crowd has an undoubted effect and England will be confident of turning over Scotland, Italy and even France in their home games. The challenge for Stuart Lancaster’s men is to build on the New Zealand win and go to the Millennium Stadium and the Aviva Stadium and pick up results, something they have failed to do consistently in past tournaments.
A lot of credit must go to Lancaster for the calm and efficient way he has restored pride and dignity to the England side after the disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign, and his decision to award the captaincy to Chris Robshaw is indicative of his management so far. Robshaw is not the most naturally gifted of rugby players, but his work-rate, belief and desire have helped install a steely mentality to the side, topped off by a sublime individual performance against the All Blacks. A good 6 Nations and the Lions captaincy is a distinct possibility. Defeats in the autumn versus Australia and South Africa underline that this is still a team in transition, but the emergence of players like Joe Launchbury and Alex Goode show that this is a side moving in the right direction. A lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Owen Farrell to see England through the tight games, but if he fires with the boot there is no reason why we won’t see Stuart Lancaster’s side holding the trophy on March 16th.
That is, of course, unless France can fulfil their immense potential. Les Bleus were the form team of the autumn internationals, thrashing Australia, and it seems like Philippe Saint-André has started to get the best out of his infamously inconsistent side. Their back line has genuine superstars in Wesley Fofana and Vincent Clerc, their scrum is solid, and their back-row is packed with pace and power boosted by the return of ex-captain Thierry Dusautoir at openside. But, as has been the case for several years, a lack of consistency in selection at half-back could cost France dear. Neither Michalak nor Trinh-Duc seem wholly trusted at 10 and a lack of authority in this pivotal position could see France struggle in tight, tense games when the pressure is on.
Ireland are very much a team in transition, shown best by the captaincy being given to Jamie Heaslip – the first time in ten years that the Irish side has not been led into a 6 Nations campaign by either Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell. We could also see a brand new combination in the back three, with pacy youngsters Zebo and Gilroy pushing for selection alongside older heads Kearney and Trimble. Much depends on the Irish front five, who were brutally exploited last year by the English pack in the game at Twickenham. If they can provide a stable platform for the Irish backs, they can beat anybody. Jonathan Sexton is the Lions fly-half elect and with good distribution the outside-backs will thrive. If they are bullied in the scrum there is no way they can win the tournament, despite an outstanding back-row of Heaslip, Ferris and Sean O’Brien.
In the last five 6 Nations, Wales have either won or finished fourth – this year it’s likely to be the latter. They have lost their last seven games in a row, and the lack of a Welsh team in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals is a worrying sign for Welsh rugby. That said, this is a side that always seems to raise its game for this tournament and the Millennium Stadium is an intimidating place to go. Rob Howley has faced much criticism for the autumn results and must prove that he can be more than just a good specialist coach if he wants the Head Coach role when Gatland retires. The return to form of Jamie Roberts is huge for Wales and he can help get the Welsh back line firing again, especially in the absence of Rhys Priestland through injury. Indeed, an injury mountain currently faces Howley, with no less than four first-choice locks out and several other first-team players. As a result, the opening game at home to Ireland on Saturday is crucial – win, and a confident side, with injured players returning, can look forward to a visit to France. Lose, and damage limitation might be the order of the day.
Scotland’s interim coach Scott Johnson has filled his recent interviews with soundbites about “development” and “underdog status”, which firstly lowers expectation levels amongst the Scottish support and secondly underlines the state in which Scottish rugby finds itself. Five wins in the last six 6 Nations campaigns is a terrible return for such a proud rugby nation, and a victory at home to Italy is a must for Johnson and his team. A second victory would be a bonus, but given star player Richie Gray’s downturn in form this season, even that seems like a long shot.
It is a cliché worth repeating that Italy get stronger every year they compete in the 6 Nations, and there is a lingering feeling that there will come a year when they manage to beat one of the big boys. Only a Charlie Hodgson charge-down try last year saved England’s blushes in Rome and the enduring brilliance of Sergio Parisse continues to inspire the Azzurri. Despite an injury to experienced winger Mirco Bergamasco, Jacque Brunel’s side will look forward to a trip to Murrayfield and three home games where they might just turn over France, Ireland or Wales.
England – 2/1 (General)
France – 9/4 (SportingBet, BetVictor)
Ireland – 9/2 (BetFred, Stan James)
Wales – 9/2 (General)
Scotland – 33/1 (General)
Italy – 500/1 (Stan James)
Frankly it’s a difficult contest to call. England are probably worthy favourites on the back of the New Zealand performance and having three games at Twickenham, although two of those are against Italy and Scotland who they would expect to beat anyway. A victory away at Ireland would set them up nicely for a Grand Slam but that is by no means an easy task. France have the ability to make a mockery of their odds but are historically unreliable away from home, and they travel to England and Ireland this year. If Ireland are strong in the scrum they are more than good enough to win, but it’s a big if. Nevertheless they are probably the value bet at 9/2 with try-scoring potential all over the pitch. Despite being reigning champions, Wales have no appeal at the odds quoted and 16/1 to finish bottom is not the worst bet you could make. Likewise, 10/3 for Scotland to finish bottom looks very inviting indeed. Italy are a poor side, granted, but then so are Scotland.