The 6 Nations 2014

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:

 

Wales:

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.

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

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.

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

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.

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

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.

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

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.

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

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.

Prediction: 6th

 

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.

Advertisements

Another Six Nations preview

Anyone remember the first weekend of this season’s Six Nations?  Way back in early February when optimism reigned high, France were many people’s favourites for the tournament, and England still had a representative in the European Champions’ League?  Well, on that first weekend, 16 tries were scored.  England looked clinical in attack, Scotland had a new and exhilarating back three, Ireland and Wales served up a try-laden classic, lit up by some startling skill by Simon Zebo and Brian O’Driscoll.  And Italy beat France.  Not be out-grunting them in the forwards, but by outplaying them all over the pitch.  My my, we thought to ourselves (probably), this season’s Six Nations looks like being a throwback to the early 2000s when scrums took mere seconds, tries were abundant, and Ronan O’Gara looked, well, exactly the same actually.  Roll on the rest of the tournament.

And what has ensued?  Turgid game after turgid game.  Watertight defences, torrential downpours, butchered overlaps, endless penalties and as much excitement as watching beige paint dry whilst listening to Geoff Boycott explain the history of the forward defensive.  16 tries in the first 3 games has led to 15 in the next 9.  The shrewd mathematicians amongst you will have noticed that makes 31 tries in total.  The lowest total number of tries in Six Nations history came last year when 46 were scored.  We’re on course for a record low by some margin.

I know what many of you will say (when I say many, I mean both.  This blog isn’t popular enough to warrant the use of the word ‘many.’  Yet).  Lack of tries doesn’t necessarily mean lack of excitement.  And you’d be correct.  Remember the Ireland v Australia game at the last World Cup?  No tries, but a gripping game nonetheless.  However, the games in this year’s tournament have been nothing like that absorbing contest – two excellent well-drilled defences snuffing out some inventive attacking play.  Instead we have seen excellent well-drilled defences finding it pretty simple to keep out predictable attacks, with said attacks pissing all over any chances they do get due to lack of basic skills and calmness under pressure (exhibit A England failing to score with a 6 on 2 overlap v Italy).

So what can we expect from this weekend’s games?

Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.30)

Let’s be honest – any game that isn’t England v Wales this weekend is right on the back-burner as far as the tournament is concerned.  Yes, there’s the scramble not to finish last, and both of these teams could yet finish in that ignominious position, which for Ireland would be a disaster and probably lead to some pretty strong questioning over Declan Kidney’s position as Head Coach.  The main subplot to this weekend’s games, however, will be of course The Lions.  Warren Gatland has said that he has yet to make his mind up on about a third of his 37-man squad, so a strong performance this weekend could force one’s way into Gatland’s thinking.  For Ireland, that means Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Craig Gilroy, Conor Murray and Rory Best (among others) will be looking to play their way onto that QANTAS flight.  Italy, on the other hand will be looking for their first Six Nations win over Ireland, and, following their strong performance at Twickenham, confidence will be high.  Given stakes are low, and the pressure is off, one might hope that both teams will go on the attack.  If Luciano Orquera plays well, then Italy could win, but I think Ireland, given the incentive of grabbing a Lions place, will win by 7 points.  Hopefully Brian O’Driscoll will remain fit, and play the whole 80 minutes, as it seems this will be his final Six Nations games, and it would be appropriate if such a truly outstanding player (he’s probably the best number 7 in the Ireland team as well as the best 13) could bow out in style.

France v Scotland (Saturday 8.00)

Who would have predicted such a dismal tournament for the French?  Yes, last season they were poor, but the 33-6 thrashing of Australia in November made many people sit up and take notice.  They also have some of the outstanding performers in world rugby – Wesley Fofana is a gem of a centre, with speed, gracefulness, and an eye for a pass, not dissimilar to Jeremy Guscott; Louis Picamoles is a true man mountain, who always makes yards and saps the life out of the defenders who have to tackle him; and Morgan Parra is, you would think, the perfect French scrum-half, able to run the game, quick of pass, accurate of boot and fearless in defence.  The decision not to start him in the early stages of the tournament appears ludicrous.  It seems as though that defeat in Italy dented their confidence, and subsequently they haven’t looked like a coherent attacking force.  Parra will start against Scotland, and given the huge amount of talent in the backs (Clerc, Medard and Huget is, on paper at least, a formidable back three), you suspect it’s only a matter of time before it all clicks.

After Scotland’s victory over Italy in Round 2, all the talk was of the Scottish back three, who, between them, had scored 4 tries in 2 games.  The clamour for all three of Hogg, Visser and Maitland to go to Australia has subsided a little following Scotland’s try-less last two outings, but with positions on the wing for the Lions definitely up for grabs, a good performance in Paris could be crucial.  The problem for Scotland this tournament has been the opposite of that in previous seasons.  Instead of having plenty of ball, but failing to do anything with it, they have been starved of ball, losing the breakdown battle, but have looked dangerous, with Greig Laidlaw forcing the pace from scrum-half.  I suspect that France, despite being under pressure to avoid their first wooden spoon in the Six Nations era, will finally come good and win with comfort, by at least 10 points.

Wales v England (Saturday 5.00)

And finally, the championship decider.  One of these two teams will win the tournament (it could even be shared if Wales win by exactly 7 points, but England score two more tries.  Just like I could own a Ferrari, date Jessica Biel and win several Oscars with a little more luck.  And talent).  But does either team deserve to?  England have been rampant against Scotland, diligent against Ireland, resilient against France, and lucky against Italy, while Wales, apart from the first 50 minutes against Ireland, have been efficient and impregnable.  Neither side has shown vintage form – Wales’ starting backline, unchanged during the tournament, always looks as though it will deliver something dazzling in attack, and never quite seems to, but the effort required to fell North, Cuthbert, Roberts et al, not to mention the forwards, takes its toll over the course of 80 minutes, and Wales’ fitness levels appear the best of all the teams.  England have picked up the knack of finding a way to win, without always playing particularly well, but importantly, their big-game players have been excellent.  Ben Youngs, despite always taking that fraction of a second longer than seems necessary to make a pass, has kept the tempo flowing, and made a couple of eye-catching breaks, Geoff Parling, unlikely-looking athlete that he may be, has ensured the lineout has remained steady, and Chris Robshaw has foraged constantly and led by example.

Warren Gatland has said this match is not a trial for selection for the Lions (he has also given hope to any Scottish and Irish hopefuls by stressing that they have big games too), but it is impossible not to see it as such in certain areas.  Robshaw v Warbuton, Tuilagi and Barritt v Roberts and Davies, Youngs v Phillips, Launchbury v Alun Wyn Jones – all of those battles will be interesting subplots, and whoever wins each individual battle will not only help their team towards victory, they will also edge ever closer towards selection for Australia.  Despite their stuttering performance against Italy, and Wales’ watertight defence, I’m going for the return of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell to make a difference, and for England to win by 5.