Another year introduces a new episode of Northern Hemisphere rugby’s elite competition.
Last year’s win over England will still be fresh in the minds of Welsh fans, along with the few English who have not been able to remove that lingering disaster from their heads. Over 320 days, 19 Autumn Internationals, many WRU ‘showdown talks’ and a British and Irish Lions series have occurred in International rugby since that March afternoon.
Wales; winners of the past two Six Nations tournaments, will no doubt be short with the bookmakers, despite a thoroughly mediocre Autumn International series and injuries to some of the more prominent role-players within the squad. Packed with Lions caps, the Welsh squad will hope that the experience will again complement the yet-to-peak youngsters such as George North, Toby Faletau and even captain Sam Warburton, a third title in a row is a big ask, but not impossible. Injuries will play a big part, as the summer tour of Japan exposed a possible lack of depth in the Welsh squad.
England, ever consistent in the Six Nations, will look to capitalise on last year’s near miss to grab their first title since 2011, or their first grand slam since, believe it or not, the World Cup winning year of 2003. A stellar Autumn International series will no-doubt give a boost to Stuart Lancaster’s men, but the fact that he is still yet to figure out his best team may work against them. Despite this, a huge pool of talented players is at the disposal of a coach who knows how to play to a team’s strengths, and with the advantage of fixtures against Ireland and Wales being played at Twickenham, I can see England as Six Nations champions this year (as much as it pains me to say as a Welshman).
2014 will be Josef Schmidt’s first Six Nations tournament in charge of Ireland, after Declan Kidney’s one Grand Slam and many ‘nearlys’, Ireland look to a fresh face to upgrade Ireland’s bridesmaid dresses into a veiled, bodiced attention grabber. Schmidt is a man who knows how to win, having experienced encompassment as head coach of Clermont Auvergne, and more recently Leinster. Ireland’s role in the winning British and Irish Lions tour, along with their recent agonising loss to the All Blacks will give the Irish reason to feel optimistic. Ireland host Scotland on the opening weekend, before hosting Wales a week later, with players and fans alike looking to gain revenge on Wales coach Warren Gatland after his omission of Brian O’Driscoll from the final Lions test team, it’s safe to say that the Kiwi’s reception will be interesting. If they can grab four points from these two games then the idea of a Grand Slam may not be a million miles away, even though they’ll have to travel to Twickenham and Paris first.
France are also in the mix, annoyingly they are always in the mix, their rugby ranging from an original Van Gogh to your 3 year old’s drawing that you’ve reluctantly stuck on the fridge, they seem to have ‘le knack’ of pulling a win from nowhere, no matter how badly they play. Despite hosting the biggest league in Europe, full of highly paid stars, France’s 2013 was largely disappointing, finishing last, behind the battling Scots and lovable losers, Italy, they will be hoping to avoid Déjà vu. They have just two wins in their last 11 matches, and coach Philippe Saint-Andre is under pressure, but France are at their best when their backs are against the wall.
Despite the recent emergence of Lions Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in the Scotland backline, they still struggle to score tries against the bigger teams, this was mostly evident after failing to score a point against the Springboks in the autumn. The Scots will no doubt be looking to emulate last year’s third place finish and establish themselves as a top tier team within the tournament, in the hope that their 15 year ‘dip’ in international rugby can be rectified with consistency.
The final team in the tournament is Italy; the Charlie Brown, the wooden cochlearists, the Michael Cera character in this quirky teenage rom-com known as the RBS Six Nations. As the ultimate underdog, you cannot help but wish them success in their quest for avoidance of Azzurri ambush. Italy’s record in the Six Nations is 11 matches won, 58 losses, and a draw against Wales, each of those 11 wins would have been celebrated as if it was a victorious tournament finale, with last year’s scalp of France still causing earthquakes among the Riviera. In Sergio Parisse, Italy have one of the best players in world rugby, now in his 30s, he’ll no doubt be looking to have a successful tournament as the Italians continue to improve in their competitiveness.