The 2014 6 Nations has the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory. There is no clear favourite and realistically, any one of Ireland, Wales, England or France could take the crown (depending on which version of Les Bleus turn up). Having not endured a gruelling Lions tour, expect Les Tricolores to feature strongly. Ignore the fact they have only won two of their last eleven Test Matches, and the fact that they finished bottom last year. In the year after Lions tours, the French have won the 6 Nations title every time since 1998 so they have history on their side. Italy managed an impressive two victories last year and are no longer the rollover they used to be. Scotland have made significant improvements since Scott Johnson replaced Andy Robinson. Wales are possibly favourites given that they are the reigning champions and are going for an unprecedented third championship in a row. However they don’t have the player depth of England who have some exciting talent coming through the ranks. Ireland too have always been strong in recent years and with their teams doing so well in Europe, their form may easily translate to the international stage. Here’s a lowdown of the teams:
The Welsh have a very settled line-up that are not only in their prime but also vastly experienced. The likes of George North, Toby Falateau, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all 25 or under but have been playing regularly for the past 3-4 seasons. The losses of Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies are big blows because they are real physical presences and in the case of Jones especially, his experience and versatility would have been a real asset. Wales have the advantage of playing at home for three of the five fixtures but still have not sorted out the pivotal position of fly-half. Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both started the Autumn Internationals without convincing totally. Expect Biggar to start and (hopefully) the world’s most underrated rugby player James Hook to come off the bench and pick off tiring defences.
Logic dictates that England should be miles better than the three other home nations given the vast resources available to them, both financially and player-wise. However they have been remarkably adept at evening out this so called advantage since lifting the World Cup in 2003. Stuart Lancaster has slowly but surely been building England up to be a world force in international Rugby Union once again. Lest we forget, they were only 80 minutes away (admittedly, probably the most naive 80 minutes of rugby I have ever seen) from a first Grand Slam since 2003 so the re-building process is well and truly in full swing. England have finally seen sense and jettisoned the king of missed tackles, Chris Ashton, and should be all the better for it. This leaves a rather inexperienced back three, albeit one brimming with potential. I am particularly excited by this whippersnapper Anthony Watson from Bath. This could be his international breakthrough season a la Stuart Hogg two years ago. Perhaps the two most significant decisions have been the restoration of Brad Barritt to midfield (he is to tackling what Ronnie O’Sullivan is to snooker/Chris Ashton to not tackling), and the discarding of Ben Youngs. I pray to God that Danny Care takes this chance to finally realise his enormous potential on the international stage.
Given that three of the four Irish provinces have progressed in the Heineken Cup, they should maybe be regarded as the favourites this year. A side boasting the talents of Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell will always be a formidable prospect, as shown by the Irish’s hearbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November, even if the latter two players are in the twilight of their careers. The loss of both Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris through injury though is a huge blow, given the pair’s immense ball-carrying ability. Sexton is key for me because at his best, he is the best fly-half in the northern-hemisphere (sorry James Hook), and also he offers a significant running option. If he can bring the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Kearney into play then Ireland have a big attacking threat. However, I think the absence of their two experienced flankers will count against them.
Ah the enigma that is French Rugby. One moment; astoundingly brilliant, the next; total merde. Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they have been doing a lot more of the latter in recent internationals, much to the chagrin of their coach, Philippe Saint-André. They have the strongest domestic league in Europe, yet, as the England football team knows all too well, a thriving league doesn’t always translate to success on the international stage. The steady stream of imports from abroad has unduly affected the national side who, with the resources they have, should be beating every other team in the 6 Nations out of sight. They still have world class players in captain Thierry Dusautoir, no. 8 Louis Picamoles, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana but as always with France, it’s a case of whether they can all perform together as a coherent unit. First of all they need to return to their audacious style of play from four or five years ago. In the last 6 Nations championship they were painfully one-dimensional, lacking in any invention or creativity. If they can re-capture the old French spirit and get the ball to Fofana in space, a lot can happen. Or they will implode spectacularly. Either way it will be fun to watch.
The Italian squad is vastly experienced, especially in the forwards. With the Azzuri, you more or less know what you are going to get: A lot of forward power, distinctly one-paced in the back-line, except for my new favourite player: the mercurial fly half, Luciano Orquera. Now the little number 10 has the ability to win a game in a flash as well as lose one, but isn’t it exciting to watch someone who is willing to take risks? Someone will throw the audacious pass because it might lead to a try? Modern day rugby has very few players of Orquera’s ilk and he should be applauded. To be honest, with a back row of Alessandro Zanni, Sergio Parisse (surely the greatet number 8 ever) and Mauro Bergamasco (pretty sure he played in the ’99 World Cup, he must be about 50 now), the Italians have the ability to triumph over anyone on their day. The problem is that they have sweet FA out wide so when Orquera does open the defence up like a can of beans, they don’t have the players to finish moves off. Could cause a surprise but also, could not.
The Tartan Army have recently played rather attractive rugby without attaining the results their play has deserved. Nevertheless, the schooling by South Africa in the Autumn was a stark reminder of their standing in World Rugby. In Stuart Hogg they have the best running full-back in the competition, and with Seans, Lamont and Maitland on the wings, they have speedsters who know where the whitewash is. Scotland’s problem has always been a dearth of creativity and tries. Since the mighty Gregor Townsend retired, they have lacked the subtlety and creativity required to open up defences. They also don’t have battering ram centres so they don’t force themselves over the gain-line either. The resultant combination means lots of huff and puff but precious little end product which is a shame because Greg Laidlaw is a talented scrum-half and deserves to show what he can do with a pack on the front foot. I can maybe see Scotland winning one match but no more. They simply don’t have the requisite quality over the field, save for Hogg.
As with all thealternativesportsblog’s predictions, they almost universally turn out to be incorrect. Do not under any circumstances run down to the bookies and put money on any of our predictions. You will end up disappointed, resentful and out of pocket. Do however revel in the joy of five weekends of uninterrupted, (possibly) world-class rugby on your doorstep. It might not be pretty but it will (probably) be exciting.