February is upon us and that means one thing: the start of the Six Nations Championship is approaching. Let’s look forward to what should be a fascinating tournament.
Who will claim the outright six nations market and triumph over their local rivals to lay down a marker ahead of the World Cup?
Ireland are full of confidence after beating both Australia and South Africa in the autumn. The legendary Brian O’Driscoll, who retired after the 2014 Six Nations, has not been missed. In fact Joe Schmidt’s men have gone from strength to strength.
Irish eyes will be focusing on their showdown with England at the Aviva Stadium on 1st March. If Ireland can emerge victorious, and then beat Wales in Cardiff the following weekend, the Grand Slam will surely be theirs.
Led by Paul O’Connell, the Irish pack is formidable. With Jonathan Sexton pulling the strings at ten, and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo sniffing out try scoring opportunities, the Green Machine will be tough to beat.
England have become the Six Nation’s nearly men since Stuart Lancaster took charge. Whether they can take the step from runners up to champions will depend on whether they keep their nerve.
There is no doubting the talent at Lancaster’s disposal. England have a young, developing team with plenty of options. The flip side is that nobody knows what Lancaster’s best combinations are yet and their lengthy injury list doesn’t help.
As with Ireland, England’s pack should keep them competitive in every fixture. However, the backs must take the opportunities that come their way. England have been full of endeavour but less than clinical in recent times. The development of George Ford will be interesting to watch.
Wales are usually good to watch and have the talent to beat anyone on their day. They boast a wealth of superstars – any side in the world would love to have George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts. Unfortunately, as their long suffering fans know, the only consistent thing about Wales is their inconsistency. With home games against both England and Ireland, the fixture list has been kind to Warren Gatland’s troops. If they can sneak victories against the favourites, with a passionate home crowd cheering them on, the title could be theirs. Wales certainly have the talent, but do they have that winning mentality? Only time will tell.
The Loose Cannons
History tells us that anything is possible with France. Recent history, however, tells us not to expect much. The French have been disappointing on the whole in recent years, and defeat to Argentina in their last competitive fixture suggests that Philippe St-André still has a lot of work to do.
With all the foreigners in the French domestic league, France are not producing enough good young players of their own. Having said that their team still looks strong on paper: Mathieu Bastareaud, Thierry Dusautoir and Wesley Fofana are all top players, while their squad certainly doesn’t lack experience in European club rugby.
Wooden Spoon Candidates
Perhaps it’s harsh to put Scotland in the same bracket as Italy: the Scots have made progress under the canny Vern Cotter and could cause an upset or two. Alex Dunbar is a highly rated young centre, Richie Gray and Sean Maitland have their admirers, while Blair Cowan is an interesting wildcard who has impressed for London Irish in the English Premiership.
As for Italy they could be in for another uphill struggle. Last year’s wooden spoonists failed to win a single game, and recent defeats to Argentina and South Africa suggests difficult times ahead.