This season’s Six Nations Championship preparations will be ramped up next week as squads begin assembling before the opening games on February 1st.
James Price assesses the runners and riders as the countdown to European rugby’s blue ribboned tournament gathers pace.
Currently the northern hemisphere’s best team, a status underlined by two successive Six Nations titles and a 2011 World Cup semi-final appearance, Wales will create rugby history if they win for the third season in a row, and it is hard to bet against them.
Head coach Warren Gatland is back at the helm after missing last year’s Six Nations while he concentrated on British and Irish Lions business, and provided that injuries do not take a toll – and Welsh rugby’s prolonged political battles are kept at arm’s length – Wales can build another successful campaign from a base of home wins against Italy, France and Scotland.
Ireland in Dublin and England at Twickenham should prove their decisive fixtures, yet Wales triumphed at both venues on the way to winning Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012 and they have lost just two of the last 14 Six Nations fixtures. Favourites to edge a tight title race.
England’s Grand Slam hopes imploded spectacularly last season when they suffered a record defeat against Wales on the Six Nations’ final weekend. It will be fascinating to observe whether any mental scarring remains, but England, on paper at least, once again hold considerable title aspirations.
Injuries will deny them the services of game-breakers like Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Tom Croft for varying periods of time, but there is considerable excitement about various young players head coach Stuart Lancaster has at his disposal, individuals like Bath fly-half George Ford, Gloucester back Jonny May, Exeter wing Jack Nowell and another brilliant Bath talent in Anthony Watson.
The tournament schedule has not been kind – France and Scotland away are England’s opening two fixtures – but wins in Paris and Edinburgh could give them irresistible momentum. They would appear to be Wales’ biggest title threat.
Ireland’s big-game pain is much more recent than England’s, having let slip the opportunity of a rugby lifetime by failing to see off world champions New Zealand two months ago when in a winning position as the clock ticked down. If it had not hurt players, coaches and supporters so much, it could almost be described as careless.
The physical toll of top-flight professional rugby has not spared new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, with Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe and Donnacha Ryan among those on the casualty list, but the Brian O’Driscoll factor is highlighted like never before as he prepares for his final Six Nations campaign before retirement.
Ireland start off at home to Scotland and then host Wales, an occasion when O’Driscoll will line up against a team coached by Gatland, the man who controversially omitted him from last summer’s British and Irish Lions third Test team in Australia. Even if Ireland get past Wales, though, two of their last three games are away against England and France.
Along with Italy, Scotland are the only other competing country never to win a Six Nations title, and it is difficult to see that sequence ending this season in their final international campaign before Clermont Auvergne coach Vern Cotter takes over as national team boss.
They could make life difficult for England and France on a testing playing surface at Murrayfield, but trips to Dublin and Cardiff – plus what has become a regular banana-skin Rome appointment with Italy – suggest mid-table, at best, for the Scots.
A lack of consistent try-scoring firepower is likely to again find them out, especially with juggernaut wing Tim Visser being sidelined through injury, and the February 22 clash against Italy could ultimately decide which country finishes bottom of the table.
It still requires a second glance at last season’s final Six Nations table to take in the fact that star-studded France finished bottom after recording a solitary win and one draw from five starts.
A squad containing the likes of Maxime Medard, Wesley Fofana, Gael Fickou, Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles should be good enough to hold its own in any company, but can coach Philippe Saint-Andre avoid meddling in selection and consistently select players where they should be picked – notably, their correct positions?
As with Saint-Andre’s predecessor Marc Lievremont, such tinkering has been proven not to work, which suggests it might prove another campaign when Les Bleus do not click. Improved from last season? Probably. Title-winners? Probably not.
There are lies, damned lies and statistics, so the saying goes, but Italy’s Six Nations record does not breed confidence. Since they beat Scotland in the inaugural Six Nations Test match 15 years ago, the Azzurri have lost 58 of their 69 championship games. Optimism, it appears, surrounds them every year – then reality kicks in.
Captain marvel Sergio Parisse, who reached a century of caps during this season’s autumn series, will again be their talisman, although a worrying pre-tournament injury list currently contains established names like Gonzalo Canale, Andrea Masi, Simone Favaro and Tito Tebaldi, which will not help Italy‘s cause one bit.
An opening weekend trip to Cardiff is followed by an appointment with France in Paris eight days later. It is hard to envisage anything other than the so-called wooden spoon – once again – heading Italy’s way.Tweet